PMK in search of relevance

In southern Tamil Nadu, caste-based violence erupted once again in early November. This time, it was particularly virulent: 268 houses, 50 two-wheelers and four vans were set on fire in Natham, a village in the Dharmapuri district. The suicide of Nagaraj, a resident of Natham, provoked the violence. Nagaraj allegedly took this extreme step because he believed his daughter had brought dishonour to the family and, more importantly, the Vanniyar community by marrying a Dalit youth. On November 9, the Vanniyars went on a rampage in the colonies of the Scheduled Castes in Natham. The next day the Dalits retaliated, setting fire to a few Vanniyar houses.

S. Ramadoss, the founder of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Vanniyar party, now demands the dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, which aims to curb violence against Dalits. He wants to prevent its misuse against non-Dalits. The PMK does not accept that the Vanniyars have committed atrocities. The party claims that the violence was the consequence of Dalit boys falling in love with Vanniyar girls. It reportedly accuses Dalits of rousing social tension by filing false legal complaints and ensnaring girls from other castes with bogus professions of love. Anbumani Ramadoss, the founder's son and former Union health minister, is even reported to have said that Dalit boys wore jeans, T-shirts and "fancy sunglasses" to lure girls from other communities.

Tamil Nadu is dominated by three intermediate caste communities, the Vanniyars in the north, the Thevars in the south and the Gounders in the west. The PMK, founded in 1980, commanded a 50 per cent share of votes in northern Tamil Nadu in its heyday. Ramadoss has a reputation for being a weathervane, aligning himself with the party that is likely to win elections. In the past, he has allied with both the DMK and the AIADMK. As a result, the PMK has been able to obtain a significant share of power in Tamil Nadu's regional government and in the Central government.

However, the 2009 Lok Sabha polls were a total disaster for the PMK, which lost all the six seats it contested. In five seats, its rivals won by a margin of more than one lakh votes. It even lost in its stronghold, Dharmapuri. In the assembly elections last year, it aligned itself with J. Jayalalithaa's AIADMK and was given 30 seats. It was able to scrape through in three constituencies only, and did not make any mark in Tamil Nadu's Vanniyar belt.

At the moment, the PMK is a party desperately seeking relevance. It has tried to build ties with Dalit leader Thol Thirumavalavan's party, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK). This bizarre alliance was the PMK's attempt at social engineering a la Mayawati, because the Vanniyars have never hidden their dislike for the Dalits. With the recent verbal and violent attacks against the Dalits, the attempted alliance appears to have failed. Thirumavalavan has reportedly demanded a CBI inquiry into the recent violence, arguing that it was a premeditated attack that the PMK was responsible for. He has said that the Vanniyar Sangam, an arm of the PMK, brought together other castes against the Dalits and went on a rampage to prevent the party's decline.

There have always been simmering caste wars in Tamil Nadu, which occasionally escalate into violence. The state's shameful secret is that in spite of its high growth rate, high literacy levels and positive social indicators, it has not been able to eradicate untouchability. Outside urban areas, the "two tumbler" system (different glasses for Dalits in restaurants and tea shops) still exists. The Dalits have made considerable progress in the last few decades, and no longer tolerate indignities. They are also better off than some of the intermediary castes because of Tamil Nadu's reservation policy. The MBCs have not been able to use the reservation policy to their advantage as the Dalits have.

The PMK is trying hard to reclaim its vote bank. Whether harping on banning love marriages will have any impact on an urban Vanniyar college student is doubtful. If the last two elections are anything to go by, it is obvious the Vanniyars have moved away from the party. The Thevars have always supported the AIADMK, and the Gounders are split. Will Ramadoss be able to bring them all together?

As things stand, he is persona non grata with the DMK and the AIADMK. He has had bitter fall-outs with both M. Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. But nothing lasts forever in politics. There are murmurs that to take on the AIADMK, the DMK, the Congress, the VCK and Captain Vijayakanth's Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam may come together. In that case, will Jayalalithaa help resurrect the PMK for her own ends? If such an alliance emerges, it would be a worrying and dangerous development.

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