The Dalit moment of truth

Only time will tell if the leading Dalit party’s bold proposal to form a new front will bear fruit in Tamil Nadu’s sharply bipolar politics.

Published - June 13, 2015 01:38 am IST

A THIRD OPTION: “The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi’s emergence brought an alternative to Dravidian politics in the 1990s.” Picture shows VCK leader Thol. Thirumavalavan in Madurai. Photo: G. Moorthy

A THIRD OPTION: “The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi’s emergence brought an alternative to Dravidian politics in the 1990s.” Picture shows VCK leader Thol. Thirumavalavan in Madurai. Photo: G. Moorthy

In May, the most popular Dalit political leader in Tamil Nadu, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) leader Thol. Thirumavalavan, took a decision that could herald a turning point for Dalit politics in the State.

At a public meeting organised to confer the ‘Ambedkar Sudar’ award on Arundhati Roy in Chennai, Mr. Thirumavalavan made it clear that his party was no longer willing to play second fiddle to the two Dravidian parties in the electoral arena.

Emerging from the bitter negotiations that took place in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, when his party was offered merely two seats despite the absence of any major player in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam camp, Mr. Thirumavalavan declared that the VCK now wants a share of power if others want to benefit from its support base. His backing for any formation will now be solely on the condition that after the 2016 Assembly elections, his party would be part of the government. In articulating this stance, he sought the support of all the smaller political parties in the State, saying that the majority governments of the past five decades have managed to sideline emerging political forces by taking advantage of electoral compulsions.

Revisiting the past

The VCK’s emergence brought an alternative discourse to Dravidian politics in the 1990s. For a long time, there had been simmering discontent among the Dalits of Tamil Nadu about their exclusion from existing power structures and the continued discrimination they faced in the social sphere — despite the prevalent anti-caste rhetoric in the State. This was largely due to the mechanics of the Dravidian movement itself, which many scholars have accused of being centred around other backward classes and exclusive of the Dalits in its functioning.

In the early 1990s, members of the VCK, a social organisation then, were bold enough to question even Dravidian icon E.V. Ramasamy’s method of social engineering. While no aspersions were thrown on Periyar’s intentions, writers such as D. Ravikumar raised apprehensions about the caste-majoritarian strain visible in the Dravidian movement. This form of politics essentially targeted the Brahmin caste’s dominance in the pre-independence era, when the community’s overwhelming influence on administration and society was contrasted to its relatively small population size. However, the narrative, in the process, also became detrimental to the Dalits, whose suffering now continued at the hands of the increasingly powerful intermediate castes. The other backward classes (OBC) became the biggest beneficiaries of Dravidian politics. In other words, despite the years of rhetoric, the fundamental hierarchical structure of the caste system continued to remain strong, with only the central players being replaced.

Even among the intermediate castes, there was dissatisfaction when specific groups gained immense political power through the Dravidian outfits. This led to the emergence of other caste-based organisations such as the Pattali Makkal Katchi, which espoused the cause of the numerically strong but economically backward Vanniyar community.

The Dalit movement, therefore, started as a counter-narrative that posed serious questions to the Dravidian parties. But it lost track of some of its original objectives when the Dalit parties decided to experiment with elections and, in the process, were sucked into the bipolar political game between the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the DMK. Given how elections are fought in Tamil Nadu, with economic clout as much a factor as political presence, the financially weaker Dalit parties have been forced to depend on the two principal players for electoral success.

These parties were also affected by internal divisions, escalated by strong personalities who lead them. They also faced severe criticism for focussing on larger issues of Tamil identity than on the travails of the community, even though the shift to larger issues could have originally been a tactic to transcend narrow, limited, caste-based mobilisation.

A non-Dravidian front

It is against this background that Mr. Thirumavalavan’s concept of power-sharing is significant. The VCK is hoping for a repeat in Tamil Nadu of what transpired at the national level in the late 1990s. The success of the National Democratic Alliance forced the Congress to adopt the same strategy and provide regional players with ministerial berths at the Centre, thus breaking the single-party domination. Even if one of the two Dravidian parties could be coerced to accept the power sharing formula, the idea is that the other would also come around eventually due to pressures of electoral arithmetic.

Participation in government would also mean access to power, which would enable Dalit parties to take populist welfare measures that are to their benefit, which would, in turn, improve their own visibility and base. But will the attempt to unite all the smaller parties for this project be successful?

For starters, the situation in Tamil Nadu, with the DMK at its weakest and the AIADMK facing legal uncertainties, seems to be conducive for the emergence of an alternative arrangement to single-party majority rule.

However, after the VCK mooted the concept of power sharing, no party it has reached out to has thus far provided any serious commitment to remaining loyal to the project, though representatives of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Tamil Manila Congress, the Left parties, and the Congress have participated in discussions.

Quite significantly, despite the mounting criticism on majority governments led by the two Dravidian parties, Mr. Thirumavalavan has not openly delinked himself from the DMK camp, which somewhat undermines the seriousness of his campaign. His arguments tilt more towards electoral strategies rather than articulating serious ideological questions from the platform and point of view of Dalit politics.

There are also contradictions between the parties the VCK is trying to unite. While the Left has already ruled out holding hands with the DMK or the AIADMK for the Assembly polls, others such as the MDMK seem to be gravitating towards the DMK. Also, what these smaller parties could achieve with a front of their own, given the limited vote share they command, is a question.

If the project fails, the VCK could be staring at a serious situation where it would be forced to go back to negotiating with the DMK or AIADMK for a few seats. In that happens, its credibility would take a massive beating and this could further harm Dalit politics.

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