The Pattali Makkal Katchi, a party predominantly of Vanniyars, a most backward class community of the northern districts, is now in a back-to-basics mode, opting for a limited, casteist agenda at the expense of an overly ambitious Tamil nationalist project
When identity-based political parties find their core constituency under threat, they take recourse to the coarsest forms of exclusivist, sectarian politics. In Tamil Nadu, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, a party predominantly of Vanniyars, a most backward class community of the northern districts, is now in a back-to-basics mode, opting for a limited, casteist agenda at the expense of an overly ambitious Tamil nationalist project. After finding itself on the losing side in two successive elections, the 2009 Lok Sabha election and the 2011 Assembly election, the PMK has been struggling to retain its original support base among rural Vanniyars. To win back some of this lost base, party founder S. Ramadoss has now hit upon the strategy of invoking familiar caste demons, pointing to the Dalit community as the natural enemy of the Vanniyars in a long-drawn social conflict. Although the immediate provocation for the revival of the PMK’s casteist agenda appears to be the recent caste-clash in Dharmapuri district following the marriage of a Vanniyar woman with a Dalit man, the real reasons run deeper. As a party too closely identified with Vanniyars, the PMK was unable to rally together large sections of other castes under the banner of Tamil nationalism. Actually, the party made sincere efforts to involve the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, a Dalit party with influence in the same northern parts of the State, in the Tamil nationalist project, using issues such as the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and the Cauvery dispute. But a quantum jump in electoral fortunes eluded both parties. Indeed, for many Vanniyar youth who joined the party fired up on caste pride, the PMK began to lose its charm. It was then only a matter of time before the PMK again resorted to the Vanniyar card to keep the flock together.
However, in trying to win back Vanniyars, Dr. Ramadoss is stoking the embers of a caste conflict. Quite provocatively, the PMK founder is calling for amendments to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, to prevent what he describes as its “misuse” by Dalit youth. If anything, the law needs tightening to ensure better conviction rates. But, for Dr. Ramadoss, this is part of a strategy to draw in all those who want to counter Dalit assertion in northern Tamil Nadu. For a party like the PMK, which is trying to protect a shrinking voter base, caste conflict is the easiest way to polarise votes and mobilise support. But such cynical, manipulative politics offers limited purchase, and is doomed to fail over the long term. The sooner Dr. Ramadoss learns his lessons, the better it would be for the future of the PMK.