No sophisticated van to campaign. No high-decibel audio systems. No entourage for the candidate. No cash distribution to the public. This is no ideal scenario of a political campaign but the electioneering style of the Baduga Desa party (BDP), which is testing the political waters for the first ever time. The party has been allotted ‘kokka thadi’ (walking stick) symbol by the Election Commission.
Founded, in 2017, by Manjai V Mohan of Manjacombai, a former employee of the state electricity board, BDP is a party that is dedicated to the uplift of Badagas- the thickly populated indigenous community in the Nilgiris district. According to the 2011 census, their population stands at 2.5 lakh, which is 19 per cent of the total population of the district. In comparison to other tribal groups in the district like Todas and Kotas, the population of Badaga, in general a tribe but not a Scheduled Tribe (ST), is high.
One of the main objectives of the BDP is to obtain ST status for Badagas-to avail reservation benefits. They were in the ST list during the British era and continued being in it post-Independence but got categorised as OBCs in the 1951 census. That was a time when the ‘son of the soil’ debate was nowhere in the picture. Therefore, people like Akkamma Devi, J Matha and M Mathan, who hailed from other communities, served as MPs of Nilgris. It was when Nilgris was made an SC constituency in 2009, that the Badaga tribe began sensing a feeling of alienation as they came to be represented by those un-related to their district. That was also the time when they became caste-conscious. Even among the Badagas, there are many sub-groups like Thoraya, Haruva and Odeyaru which are considered low castes by the Badagas themselves.
Though the sitting MP C Gopalakrishnan is from the hills, Badagas don’t accept him as their leader because he comes of the scheduled caste. But they have no choice. This time too, they have fielded one SC candidate Subramani, who hails from the Arunthathiyar community that is dominant in Mettupalayam, Avinashi and Bhavanisagar. Incidentally, Subramani is the son of freedom fighter Maran. Many in the Badaga ‘hattis’ (villages) are quite disturbed over the fact that they have to seek votes for an SC candidate.
Therefore, they floated a party, which has now hit the electoral arena. Though an underdog in this election, some of its promises made in the manifesto have garnered attention. Apart from promising to bring a government medical college and separate co-operative banks for SC/STs, it also has promised to create a chair for Badaga language and culture studies at the University of Madras and put an end to the human-animal conflict by conserving grasslands.
In the aftermath of its candidate’s application getting rejected, the Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) has extended its support to the BDP. But pollsters believe that it doesn’t have any chance at the hustings. Even in the long run, the possibility of the BDK emerging as a dominant force is doubtful-given its caste identity.