CHENNAI: It’s not news that caste arithmetic is one of the crucial factors that influence elections in the State. Vanniyars, classified as a Most Backward Community, have earned the distinction of being a politically consolidated group. With most of the community members supporting the PMK, they wield power to tip the scales in northern and north-western parts of Tamil Nadu.
The socio-economic conditions of Vanniyars is similar to most other intermediate castes, but their political influence in the State over the last 90 years is immense, thanks to early consolidation. The first attempt at political representation of Vanniyars began as early as 1950, with the formation of the Tamil Nadu Toilers Party by S S Ramasamy Padayachi in 1950.
The Congress failed to secure a majority in the 1952 elections to the Assembly of the Madras Presidency, and Padayachi’s support was crucial for the grand old party to form the government. Padayachi later merged his party with the Congress and stayed active till 1989.
Then came Dr. S Ramadoss, who launched the Pattali Makkal Katchi in July 1989, just couple of years after a massive week-long protest by Vanniyar Sangham forced the DMK government to carve out a special category in the reservations — the Most Backward Class. The same year PMK contested a few Lok Sabha seats, though it boycotted Assembly polls earlier that year.
The party initially wooed all communities. Interestingly, it even made Dalit’ Ezhilmalai a Union Minister, when it was part of the Grand Alliance in the Vajpayee government in 1998. It solidified its politics of caste identity much later.
PMK was also like a lucky charm for major alliance partners. For, the group in which it was present almost always won the elections, at least till 2006 Assembly polls. However, successive failures in 2009 Lok Sabha polls and 2011 Assembly polls forced it to again play the caste card to retain its the vote base, reducing itself to a party just for Vanniyars.
Now, Vanniyars as a community, accounting for 13-15 per cent of the State’s population, seem capable of influencing outcome of elections in 8-9 Lok Sabha seats and a good 70 to 75 Assembly constituencies.
“The poor economic status of Vanniyars may have compelled them to consolidate as strong political power. The advantage of identity politics is that it helped them get reservation. But on flip side, it has intensified the caste feelings and resulted in suppression of lower castes,” says political commentator A Marx.
“In early 2000, when a group of Vanniyars at Kudithangi village in Cuddalore district refused to allow the body of a Dalit man to be carried across their farm land, S Ramadoss visited the place and carried the body on his shoulder amid stiff protests by local Vanniyar women. The same day PMK party was dissolved in that village — the other side of identity politics,” says Marx.
Dravidian ideologue Subaguna Rajan says exclusive caste politics hurts the intended beneficiaries more than any other community. Though the PMK had secured 5.32 per cent votes in 2016 assembly polls, the party did not get four-digit votes in more than 100 Assembly seats. It’s presence was not beyond Tiruchy.
Ramadoss' son Anbumani acknowledged as much when he said that electoral defeats had forced the party to change its strategy and ally with the Dravidian parties again.
Rallying on the caste lines will turn out to be detrimental for Vanniyars only, says Dravidian ideologue Subaguna Rajan. “It is because other majority communities are likely to reject them. They have already lost their hold in Dravidian majors.”
Vanniyars political assertion in the history:
- In 1871 Vanniyar community leaders petitioned to the census authorities in then British government to classify them as Vanniakula Kshatriyas as against the caste name of Pallis
- In 1898 - Chennai Vanniyakula Kshatriya Mahasangam was formed.
- In 1931 the old caste name 'Pallis removed in the Census list
- S S Ramasamy Padayachi launched Tamil Nadu Toilers Party in 1951 with the demands for reservation for Vanniyars. Supported the Congress to form a government in 1952. After some years merged with Congress.
- N A Manickavelu Naicker backed by Vanniyars vote bank formed commonweal party and contested in 1952 elections with the support of DMK. Then he dissolved the party and joined in Congress in 1954.
- 1989 PMK made its political debut in 1989 lok sabha election
- Though there was no official data on caste population, Vanniyars believed to be single largest Community in the state