Dalits, youth may tilt the scales in tight electoral race

Dalits, youth may tilt the scales in tight electoral race

Chennai/Coimbatore: Jayapriya, a young housewife in Avinashi constituency, is a fan of Tamil Nadu chief minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader Muthuvel Karunanidhi. She does not dispute the allegations of corruption against Karunanidhi and his family. “But he does things for people in Tamil Nadu."

The two points of view adequately capture the polarized opinion across the state, regardless of caste, village, region or community. Not surprisingly, this is probably the first time that there is no apparent wave favouring either the DMK or the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK); every indication that this election is too close to call.

The odds

There are several factors, including anti-incumbency and double-digit food inflation working against the ruling DMK and its allies, which includes the Congress. Unlike states such as Bihar, Tamil Nadu is far more urbanized and, hence, more susceptible to food inflation and less accepting of allegations of corruption; a discourse that is common in local tea shops. “The prices of tomato, garlic and pulses are so high that no common man can afford it. What’s the point in getting rice at 1," asked Selvaraj, a tailor in Sriperumbudur, where AIADMK candidate M. Perumal’s campaign focused on the DMK government’s failure to contain prices.

However, the welfare schemes introduced during the last five years, as well as the freebies that have been promised and delivered, seem to mitigate some of this damage.

On the other hand, for Jayalalithaa, it’s a do-or-die battle. In the wilderness till recently following the 2006 electoral debacle, the involvement of the DMK leaders in alleged acts of corruption has come as a shot in the arm for Jayalalithaa. At the same time, her former mentor, the late M.G. Ramachandran, continues to draw support from the Dalits, who account for a fifth of the population. However, her biggest achievement during the run-up to the election seems to be the electoral alliance with the actor Vijayakanth-led Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK). The fact that this advantage is not translating into a wave as yet should be disconcerting to the AIADMK.

The Dalit factor

A tight electoral race as well as the growing fragmentation of the vote means fringe players are becoming increasingly important. Not surprising, therefore, that there was a great urgency among both parties to tie up alliances to take advantage of the complex social arithmetic of the state involving Dalits.

While the DMK forged an alliance with the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) to hold on to its Dalit support, AIADMK managed to rope in the Puthiya Tamizhagam (PT) party. The ruling party also tied with the Pattali Makkal Katchi for Vanniyar community support, Kongunadu Munnetra Kazhagam (KMK) for Gounders and Moovendar Munnetra Kazhagam (MMK) for Thevars, Perunthalaivar Makkal Katchi for Nadars. But the AIADMK has the All India Moovendar Munnetra Kazhagam for Thevars and the All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi for the Nadars.

The splintering of the Dalit vote has made them politically less effective than say in Uttar Pradesh, where the community accounts for 16% of the population but votes cohesively for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Meena Kandasamy, a young writer who worked with Thirumavalavan, president of VCK, the largest Dalit party in Tamil Nadu, said the basic difference between the BSP and the VCK was the latter remained a social movement and boycotted elections for at least nine years since its inception in 1989, while the BSP was always a vote-based party.

“The VCK did not seek the partnership of the OBCs (other backward classes) or minorities for the sake of vote, but for the sake of caste annihilation," she said. “The VCK organizes religious and sexual minorities/LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), backward castes and other sections of the society purely on ideological basis. However, for the BSP, these are only for vote-bank politics and such relationship exists only at the time of elections."

Despite constituting a major part of the population, 80% of Dalits in the state do not own land and 50% of them are illiterate. They have been supporting the AIADMK and the DMK since the 1960s, prior to which they were aligned with the Congress, which continues to enjoy support among some sections of Dalits. After taking the plunge into electoral politics, VCK and PT had polled 41% of Dalit votes in 1999 in the state, but could not carve out a political space for themselves.

Voters are divided over the impact of caste-based parties on the election. While Jayapriya swears that everyone in Tamil Nadu votes for the candidate belonging to their caste, Munisami, a resident of Velampalayam, feels that people vote for the candidates who work for local development.

A.R. Natarajan, a Congress leader and the ruling front’s candidate in the Avinashi assembly constituency, admitted that the caste-based groups’ backing would definitely be a factor. “The KMK’s support will help me in getting the Gounder community votes in this constituency," he said.

The X factor

A factor that could additionally influence the final outcome can be the youth, who seem to be seeking change. Recognizing this, most political parties are fielding young candidates, which could influence the demographic profile of the next legislature.

In fact, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi was keen to play the youth card in the election. Gandhi, according to at least three Congress leaders, was keen to go it alone in Tamil Nadu in order to cash in on the youth’s yearning for change and to re-build the party from the grassroots. However, the senior leadership of the party did not favour breaking the alliance with the DMK, which could have repercussions for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre.

However, Gandhi managed to field around nine young candidates belonging to the youth wing of the party across the state among the 63 constituencies being contested by the party. “Youth has a different agenda and their priorities are different. So our campaign is positive, based on the governance record and the development agenda of the Democratic Progressive Alliance (Tamil Nadu’s ruling alliance) will strike a chord with the youngsters," said S. Jothimani, the Congress candidate in Karur, another industrial hub near Tirupur.

Jothimani, for whom Gandhi campaigned on Wednesday in Karur town, said she decided to focus on local issues. Karur is a centre for the textile industry and has the second largest bus body building industry after Punjab. “The AIADMK could not even play the role of an opposition party in the last five years. Their alliance is in disarray. When you look back, you will know that the Karunanidhi government has delivered 90% of its promises," Jothimani said.

Similarly, the ruling DMK has fielded 25 young candidates, while the AIADMK has offered 32 such candidates electoral tickets; the DMDK has 13 youngsters in its list of 41.

While the youth offer a potential vote bank, they may not be easy to target for any electoral combine. Especially given that allegations of taint haunt both sides.

“Youngsters are confused. In fact, they know that both sides are equally corrupt," said N. Ali Akbar, a resident of Sriperumbudur.