Tamil Nadu’s Dalit politics has reached a crossroads. While mainstream parties go the extra mile to accommodate Dalit icons, and are receptive to Dalit concerns, they also slowly whittle down the voter base of independent Dalit parties in the state. Mainstream parties in the state are wary of an independent Dalit political identity, and would prefer to subsume them using a mixture of co-option, corruption and at times coercion.
In Tamil Nadu, there are three major Dalit castes. Firstly, the Parayar caste is predominantly in the northern and central parts of the state, and is represented by the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, the VCK led by Thirumavalavan. Pallars and associated castes who are now termed as Devendra Kula Vellalar are in the south and in the coastal delta districts of the state and is partly represented by Puthiya Tamilagam (PT) led by Dr Krishnaswamy. The Arundhathiyars are much smaller in number compared to the other two and lack an established political outfit representing them. Both the VCK and PT have fairly established political party structures in their respective regions of influence and are active all through the year.
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Estimates put Tamil Nadu’s total Dalit population at around 20 per cent, while tribals form around one per cent of the population in the state.
Dalits in Tamil Nadu vote predominantly for established political parties like DMK, AIADMK, Congress and the Communists, but they also vote in smaller numbers for Dalit-led parties like the VCK and PT. There are also some single leader-led Dalit political parties with influence in only one or two Assembly constituencies. But they do not matter much electorally.
The Parayar in Northern and central Tamil Nadu are politically facing up to the Vanniyars (designated as Most Backward Caste), with a political party of their own, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), while the Devendra Kula Vellalar face up to the Thevar community in the south, who are well represented in both the AIADMK and DMK. The Arundhatiyars are less numerous, politically marginal and are not facing up to any major OBC community.
Mainstream political parties in Tamil Nadu are all OBC community-led and are well represented in the party structure. Dalits leaders within the mainstream parties have but a marginal presence, but due to a strong party structure in the DMK and AIADMK and charismatic leadership, Dalits in the state have voted mostly with the mainstream parties.
Dalit parties mostly fight in alliance with established and mainstream political parties as whenever they contest on their own, they fail to make an impact. This is partly because of a paucity of resources in fighting expensive elections and also because other communities have not accepted Dalit-led political alliances or formations. In the 2016 Assembly polls, the VCK was part of a third front, contested around 25 seats and could not win a seat. Puthiya Tamilagam too drew a blank despite being a part of the DMK alliance. Moreover, the two leading Dalit parties in the state, do not see eye to eye on many issues and also do not choose the same alliance partners. In the 2011 Assembly elections, while the VCK was in the losing DMK alliance and drew a blank, PT was in the winning AIADMK alliance and won two seats.
This time, VCK has got six seats in the DMK alliance, while Puthiya Tamilagam, seen in alliance with the AIADMK in the 2019 parliament polls, does not find a place in the alliance now and is contesting on its own.
In 2021, the Union Government has gone ahead with announcing that the Pallar and other associated castes would henceforth be named as Devendra Kula Vellalar. This was a festering aspirational identity issue with the community for long and they seem to be happy with both the AIADMK and BJP governments for taking it forward. However, it is not clear how it will affect their voting, given that Puthiya Tamilagam is contesting independently.
While VCK, apart from its Dalit politics, talks about Tamil pride, Dravidian issues and has an agitationist anti-centre approach, and is closer to the DMK politics, Puthiya Tamilagam talks of how being in the Scheduled Caste list has not helped the community politically, and would like to move to the OBC list. While VCK shuns the BJP, Puthiya Tamilagam is seen with the BJP and is thankful to the saffron party for being sympathetic to their cause.
Given that Dalit politics in the state is fractured, these parties also face a new threat that many small parties seem to face in the state. It is the insistence by the mainstream parties that the smaller parties including the Dalit parties, contest on the symbol of the mainstream parties. If there is one way to lose political identity, this is it. Mainstream parties like DMK and AIADMK argue that given the tight contests, smaller parties contesting on not-so-popular symbols run the risk of being overrun.
Even though VCK leader Thirumavalavan are well known across the state — VCK has tried its best to expand its footprint as a pan-Tamil party growing beyond its Dalit roots — it has not paid enough dividends. While VCK has been articulate on various issues affecting the state, and is seen as a fellow traveller by a mainstream political party like the DMK and the Communist parties, the fact remains that Thirumavalavan finds it difficult to win elections, and wins by very thin margins, if at all. In the 2019 parliament elections, he won from Chidambaram constituency in the DMK alliance with a margin of around 3200 votes, while neighbouring constituencies saw DMK candidates winning seats with margins of more than 2,00,000 votes.