Caste inequations: Is the AIADMK coming apart?

Illustration: Prathap Ravishankar

Two huge life size banners of Jayalalithaa overlook the AIADMK headquarters at Royapettah in Chennai. A woman in her 50s staring at the banners with folded hands mumbled: “Amma, en dheivame … ivanga aatatha ellam paakringala?” (Amma, My God… Are you watching them play the game?)

“Who are playing the game?” I asked.

“Who else, the two who are leading the party,” she said, referring to Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam (OPS).

The woman was among hundreds of others who had come from Tirupur district with a plea to reinstate Udumalai K Radhakrishnan as Tirupur suburban district secretary. Earlier in March, the AIADMK made a few organizational changes and shuffled many key functionaries. “With elections round the corner, such changes will create unnecessary friction within the party,” said S Sundarasamy, a panchayat union secretary from Tirupur district.

Such organizational level changes are not new to the AIADMK which has witnessed Jayalalithaa’s last minute decisions’ including changing candidates before elections. “But, that was Amma; her word was final. Now, everyone wants to have control over things,” added the AIADMK member from Tirupur.

The EPS-OPS leadership that has shared power for nearly two years now was supposed to reflect the caste coalition in the AIADMK. While EPS represents the gounder community, OPS represents the thevars, both clans being among the most numerous and politically powerful communities in Tamil Nadu.

Neither Jayalalithaa nor MGR, who led the AIADMK in the past, hailed from powerful OBCs. Jayalalithaa was a Karnataka-born brahmin and MGR a Malayalee nair. But the two charismatic leaders, who were worshipped by voters and partymen alike, managed to balance the caste dynamics within their party.

Though OPS putatively represents the thevars, gounders – a caste which EPS belongs to – have gained far more prominence, as well as political and financial muscle, in the party and the government. In the absence of a charismatic leader with mass appeal, the AIADMK caste coalition seems to be coming apart, putting a question mark over the future of the party itself.

A damaging split

Running into elections, the AIADMK will face numerous challenges; the major ones being Jayalalithaa’s absence and shift of cadre and voter base towards T T V Dhinakaran who will play a prime role in splitting the AIADMK votes. “The southern districts are definitely a nightmare for the current AIADMK. When Amma was there, she balanced the southern and the western pockets very well. Now, TTV would have taken away a major chunk of thevars (dominant in southern districts) from us,” said an AIADMK MLA. As if recognising the drift, the AIADMK has let go of all but three parliamentary seats in southern Tamil Nadu where thevars are dominant, leaving them to allies to slug it out with Dhinakaran and the DMK-Congress alliance.

Jayalalithaa’s last cabinet had five ministers from the gounder community and nine from the thevars. Her absence paved the way for new leadership after the initial factional feud by Panneerselvam followed by a merger and later the sidelining of Sasikala and Dhinakaran. Palaniswami as a chief minister has managed the show for two years by keeping together the top leaders in the party.

Unlike Jayalalithaa, Palaniswami and Panneerselvam are not the only decision makers, claim party members. The post Jayalalithaa era has led to the emergence of many leaders, especially from western Tamil Nadu, known as the Kongu region.

Minister for Electricity P Thangamani and Municipal Administration and Rural Development minister S P Velumani have gained greater importance compared to veterans like Lok Sabha deputy speaker M Thambidurai or Minister for School Education Sengottaiyan. All these leaders are from the gounder caste group in the western districts.

In January, AIADMK’s Rajya Sabha member V Maitreyan took to Facebook to express his disappointment for not including his name in any of the three pre-poll committees meant for manifesto preparation, alliance-related strategising and campaign coordination. Meanwhile, both Thangamani and Velumani have been behind the alliance talks with the BJP and other parties. Many senior AIADMK members that The Federal spoke to in Coimbatore and Tirupur districts attribute Velumani’s rise to his “ability to generate money”.

Chai pe charcha

Sitting across a big table at the AIADMK office in Coimbatore and with AIADMK mouthpiece ‘Nammadhu Amma’ spread across the table, a bunch of AIADMK members are busy discussing the alliances, just days before the pact was inked with other parties.
Sundar *, panchayat union secretary: “None of us want this DMDK (Vijayakant’s party) alliance; it is being forced upon us by the BJP.”

Balashanmugam*, former rural district secretary says “Forget DMDK. Who asked for an alliance with the BJP in the first place? It is just going to spoil our stakes.”
Balashanmugam adds that the Kongu region is the only region that the AIADMK can be a little sure about winning. “But with a BJP alliance, there is going to be much confusion.”

The AIADMK has retained 20 Lok Sabha seats, while allocating seven to the PMK, five to the BJP, four to the DMDK and one each to Tamil Maanila Congress, Puthiya Tamizhagam and Puthiya Neethi Katchi in the state. The lone Puducherry seat has been given to AINRC.

Peeves apart, there is a certain sense of achievement here in party circles. “We have never had a CM from the Kongu region. Over the years, though we (gounders) had strong influence in the AIADMK, we have never been at the helm of affairs. Despite, the fact that we are unhappy with the way the CM and his cabinet are handling certain affairs, this gounder consolidation will help us in the longer run to gain real political control,” said a former MLA from the gounder community.

Effect of prosperity

The political rise of gounders has been an after-effect of Coimbatore’s prosperity after Independence. Originally farmers, many gounders switched to investing in manufacturing and service-based industries (which all along had stakeholders from the naidu community), leading to the emergence of influential business groups. The major investment sectors of this community range from sugar, textiles, automobiles to finance and education. The move from a forward caste to a backward caste in 1975 helped the gounders gain representation in the government.

The economic mobility of gounders closely coincided with Tirupur knitwear industry’s significant growth and caste-based political mobilization in early 1990s. It found quick reflection in popular culture too, with mainstream Tamil cinema beginning to propagate the ‘caste pride of gounders.’

Over the years, as the gounder community rose to power, the Kongu region began to witness the rise of fringe outfits. These caste-based political outfits vowed to address the concerns of the gounder community in order to preserve its social prominence and counter the mobilisation of dalit groups, especially the arunthathiyars, who are the largest among the dalit caste groups in the Kongu region.

Hero worshippers no more

Among the paraiyars, pallars and arunthathiyars, the latter is the most oppressed in Tamil Nadu. Drawing inspiration from dalit parties like the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and the Puthiya Tamilagam (PT) that have significant support from the paraiyar and pallar respectively, attempts by the arunthathiyars to confront caste prejudice resulted in movements like the Aathi Thamizhar Peravai and Arunthathiyar Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam.

While gounders are known to support the AIADMK, a large number of arunthathiyars in the region has also favoured the AIADMK.

The 1956 movie ‘Madurai Veeran’ (Madurai Warrior) starring MGR in the role of an arunthathiyar is till date seen as a prime reason for the AIADMK party enjoying the support of the community. However, the community has come a long way since the MGR adulation. “It is true that the MGR factor has always played a crucial role in deciding Arunthathiyar votes. But, it is no longer fully valid,” said Athiyaman, founder of Athi Thamizhar Peravai, an outfit that represents the arunthathiyars.

“Today, a decade after Karunanidhi introduced 3% reservation to the community within the 18% reservation for scheduled castes, the arunthathiyars have begun to reap the benefits and are becoming aware of choosing their leader not merely in terms of adulation,” he added.

Meanwhile, a majority of the naidus who traditionally backed Congress and later switched support to Dravidian parties have over the years outgrown the need for a position politically. “The naidus own major businesses in the region and need the government’s support. Hence, they remain pro-government irrespective of whoever is in power. With gounders taking the call and being a majority in the AIADMK, the position of the naidus automatically takes a back seat,” said a senior AIADMK leader from the naidu community.

“At the end of the day, it all percolates down to the money-caste nexus,” the leader added.

Benefiting the few

While many see this as a chance for the gounders to use political means to enhance their social status and gain access to better economic resources, some said that it will just benefit the few who are at the helm of affairs. “This government may list out various schemes specific to the western region. But, people clearly know the actual beneficiaries of these projects and who make money out of these tenders,” said E R Eswaran of the Kongunadu Makkal Desiya Katchi (KMDK), a gounder party that has aligned with the DMK led alliance for the upcoming general elections and would be contesting one seat.

He added: “There is nothing that the current government has done to benefit the Kongu region or the gounder community; the so-called developmental project proposals in western districts are for the benefit of a few top leaders in the party.”

(* Names have been changed)