On a bright sunny day, Munusamy G, a young man in Konanginaickanahalli Village, Dharmapuri District, works in a field along the Salem-Bangalore Highway. Munusamy completed Master of Arts and Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) six years ago. He has been looking for a job ever since, but to no avail. He now looks after his ancestral farmland, spread over three acres.
Munusamy belongs to the Vanniyar community and Dharmapuri is a stronghold of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a Vanniyar support-based party. The PMK is allied to the ruling AIADMK. Munusamy believes the AIADMK’s last-minute announcement of 10.5 per cent internal reservation to Vanniyars (Most Backward Classes) in educational institutions and government jobs will help him. Labourers in his farm, all Vanniyars, hail the decision and say it will help their children.
Munusamy has no faith in the AIADMK, but expresses support for the ruling dispensation. He approves Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy’s handling of the COVID crisis. “In any regime, there will be flaws,” he says. “We have to look beyond that. They are PMK’s allies, we will vote for them. We believe in [PMK leader] Anbumani Ramadoss. He helped the community when the Natham Colony caste violence took place in 2012.”
Munusamy is referring to a young couple who got married against the wishes of the woman’s family, and the resulting caste violence that rocked the region. E Ilavarasan was a Dalit (OBC). Divya Nagaraj, a Vanniyar. After the couple eloped and Divya refused to return to her parents, her father committed suicide.
Soon after, the Vanniyars burnt down 268 homes in Natham Colony (Nattam Kottai), where Ilavarasan hailed from. Dalit homes in Kondampatti and Anna Nagar were looted and torched. PMK leaders defended the actions of the Vanniyars and made inflammatory speeches against Dalits.
Munusamy also has an economic rationale for supporting the AIADMK regime: In 2004, when the DMK was in power, his family was forced to turn over half an acre to the government for the Salem-Bangalore Highway project. Munusamy says the family never received proper compensation from the state.
Kombur Village comes under Pappireddipatti Tehsil, in Dharmapuri. The mood here is markedly different. The Vanniyars here are worried about rising prices, unemployment and lack of social welfare schemes, and say they will vote for the DMK. The Centre’s contentious farm bills, as well as the AIADMK’s continued alliance with the BJP, have generated a lot of anger.
A ‘Model Village’
Siluvampalayam, the birthplace of EPS, lies on the banks of Cauvery River. Developed as a ‘model village’, it has clean and wide roads, streetlights; the homes have been constructed under state and central schemes meant for poor people; sugarcane, paddy and banana plantations flourish. Around 2.5km away from EPS’s ancestral home is the Koneripatti Reservoir, 16km downstream from Bhavani Dam, which generates electricity. People in Siluvampalayam are happy with their CM and his achievements.
But despite the development, there is resentment among some voters. Poongudi is a Vanniyar farmer in Valruli Village, in Edappadi constituency. One of her sons completed a civil engineering degree two years ago, but he’s yet to get a job. However, Poongudi says she will vote for the AIADMK, on account of the reservation, and expects EPS to return.
The PMK and AIADMK fought the 2016 election separately and their combined vote share was about 70 per cent – 24 per cent less than in 2011. This time the alliance is likely to benefit the CM. The DMK candidate is Sampath Kumar, a political novice, of whom not much is known.
Can the DMK Break Through?
Western Tamil Nadu, known as Kongu Nadu, comprises Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri, Erode, Karur, Salem, Coimbatore, the Nilgiris, Namakkal and Tiruppur. There are 57 assembly seats spread across the region. The AIADMK holds 45, a third of its tally in the assembly. EPS and five other AIADMK ministers come from Kongu Nadu.
A Puthiya Thalaimurai-APT pre-poll survey shows the AIADMK ahead of the DMK in only the western part of the state. Still, the DMK hopes to capture at least half the seats (28, 29) in the region.
The DMK, out of power for 10 years, is banking on the anti-incumbency factor, opposition to the upcoming Salem-Chennai Expressway, inflation, and anger with the BJP over the farm bills to see it through.
The party swept the 2019 parliamentary election, winning 38 of the 39 seats. But the AIADMK won back the electorate in the subsequent civic body polls. At a Secular Progressive Alliance (SPA) rally in Salem, the DMK’s chief ministerial candidate, MK Stalin, urged Congress leader Rahul Gandhi to lead the grand alliance against the BJP in 2024. In January Deputy CM O Panneerselvam claimed that western TN was an impenetrable fortress. Stalin replied: “In the assembly election, that claim that Kongu Belt is their fortress, we will bury it.”