Twenty per cent of the State's population, too many parties and too little unity. The Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu emerged as an alternative in the early and mid-1990s opposing the Dravidian politics in the State.

Close to two decades down the lane many Dalit intellectuals and social scientists feel that it has lost track.

In fact, the history of Dalit movement actually precedes the Dravidian movement to the colonial era in which Dalit intellectuals and leaders Ayothidas Pandithar and Rettaimalai Srinivasan made interventions at various levels espousing the cause of the depressed classes with the Britishers.

Victim of Dravidian hegemony

Dalit electorate, an important decisive factor in any elections in the State, has over the years been with the Congress, the Left, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. It was during the early 1990s, following Dr. Ambedkar centenary and high-level of caste atrocities at the hands of intermediate castes, Puthiya Tamilagam and Vidhuthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi emerged originally as social organisations and later entered electoral politics.

Dalit intellectuals in the State feel that the Dalit movements have not only lost momentum but also fallen prey to the hegemonising control tactics of the Dravidian parties. Ten seats allocated for the VCK in the DMK alliance and the fact that the PT could not get more than two seats indicated the sorry state of affairs of Dalit politics in the State.

Dalit intellectual and writer Stalin Rajangam says, “If Pattali Makkal Katchi, which drew a blank in the Lok Sabha elections could get a maximum of 31 seats and a Rajya Sabha seat despite the fact of being a troublesome partner in alliance, the VCK which has a clout in the northern districts and also a reasonable presence across the State has failed completely in the art of lobbying and politicking.”

The Dalit discourse which emerged as a counter-hegemonic discourse questioning the Dravidian ideology as being non-inclusive and one which failed to mainstream the subalterns has become diluted and fallen easy prey to the compulsions of electoral politics. Dalit parties in the State lack a particular agenda or framework. Rather than tackling and lobbying with a concrete strategy they only wish to play second fiddle to the Dravidian parties.

The VCK's emergence in the political scenario is an interesting one. The party, which was against the idea of electoral politics and later decided to contest elections, was offered eight seats in 2001, along with 10 for the PT by the DMK. In 2006, they were offered nine seats by the AIADMK and in 2011 they are given 10. The growth rate is abysmally low and during the last ten years they were able to get just two seats more.

Mr. Stalin Rajangam further said that the compromises that the VCK had made during the last five years anticipating the electoral gains as a passive partner not voicing the major issues that affected the Dalits to appease the DMK showed the intricate workings of political hegemony.

Case of PT

The case of PT is much more disturbing as the party, which grew as a militant organisation following the caste conflicts that rocked the southern districts in the early and mid-1990s, has completely lost ground and has reached a level of accepting a couple of seats from the AIADMK. Feeling betrayed by the Dravidian parties and also Dalit parties who have failed to give adequate representation for Arunthathiyar Dalits, Adi Tamizhar Peravai has fielded candidates in 21 constituencies.

In the 2006 Assembly elections, the VCK contesting in nine constituencies won in Kattumannarkoil and Mangalore and despite losing did well in Sirkazhi, Chengam and Harur. K. Krishnasamy of Puthiya Tamilagam, contesting on BSP symbol, lost at Ottapidaram by a margin of 10,000 votes. The VCK has attracted members of the minority community and various castes into its fold in the recent years. But the party's poor bargaining and lobbying efforts in the alliance could be a big setback, feel experts. Thol. Thirumavalavan was expecting to field a rainbow of candidates cutting across various castes but now has settled with one Muslim and one Vanniyar candidate, says a close aide of the former.

C. Lakshmanan of Madras Institute of Development Studies feels that the overarching domain of identity politics is its emancipatory potential. However, over a course of time, it loses that potential and enters a vicious circle. Dalit politics has entered that phase here. “They started highlighting the significant differences in the Dalit struggles to that of non-Dalits, but once they got consolidated they are compromising themselves and their community for narrow individual interests.”

“The DMK's offer of 10 seats to the VCK does not indicate growth, as 8 out of the 10 are reserved seats. So, it has actually got only two seats from the DMK.”

Most of them also feel that the coming together of the VCK and the PMK is just part of an electoral strategy and not a result of any real effort to bring together the two communities.

To expect that this coming together would go beyond electoral politics and have a significant impact on the functioning of caste dynamics is just an illusion, feel Dalit intellectuals.