Late on a Saturday evening, over a thousand people are gathered at Attur town near Salem to listen to T T V Dhinakaran. Once dismissed as an AIADMK rebel and the Sasikala nephew who had persevered through the ups and downs of his aunt’s mercurial relationship with the late J Jayalalithaa, Dhinakaran is proving to be the man to watch out for in Tamil Nadu in the coming general election.
“If you press a single button, both the betrayers (the AIADMK and DMK) will perish,” the 55-year-old tells the Attur crowd. “Think about what happened to all those tall claims made by them in the past.”
He reminds the people of the “wrongs” the DMK and Congress “did to Tamils” during the war against the LTTE, of how the BJP had “dismantled” the AIADMK since Jayalalithaa’s death, and how it had “denied help” to Tamil Nadu during natural disasters.
It’s been almost a year since Dhinakaran launched his Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), after being sidelined within the AIADMK following Jayalalithaa’s death. The only successful politician from Sasikala’s family, Dhinakaran had first won a Lok Sabha election in 1999. In 2004, he lost and remained an invisible figure in the party till he was removed from the AIADMK along with Sasikala in 2011. While Sasikala was taken back, Dhinakaran stayed out.
After Jayalalithaa’s death, Sasikala appointed him deputy general secretary of the party. However, after Sasikala was jailed, Dhinakaran was sidelined and went on to contest as an Independent from Jayalalithaa’s R K Nagar Assembly constituency, winning by a huge margin. He also managed to get 21 AIADMK MLAs to his side, 18 of whom were disqualified by the Speaker.
Since bypolls to these 21 seats would be held along with the general elections, Dhinakaran could potentially also cause the collapse of the AIADMK government.
He has announced he would be contesting alone, in all the 39 Lok Sabha constituencies of the state, and is aiming for the votes of his Thevar caste, plus votes of those “neutral” to the AIADMK and DMK, the minorities, the youth, and the AIADMK followers unhappy with its alliance with the BJP and PMK.
DHINAKARAN ON THE ROAD
He hit the campaign trail several months ago, and has so far adeptly done the caste and religious balance, while appealing to people to rise above both. “Those who approach you in the name of religion or caste shouldn’t even come near you,” he says.
While he has been appealing to his own Thevars, a powerful OBC community known for their attacks on Dalits, he promised to make a memorial for Immaneul Sekaran, a Dalit leader, in Ramanathapuram, a backward region with a substantial Dalit population.
In a Gounder-majority area in Salem, to which Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and many senior AIADMK ministers belong, Dhinakaran told a village crowd: “I was born a Hindu, so I am a Hindu. But how can I claim that my religion and god is better?… Our youths should study and get jobs, that is our priority.”
Knowing that he could play no more than a spoiler this time, Dhinakaran is essentially aiming for a vote share in the double digits this time, which would help him emerge as the third largest party in the state and as a key player in the Assembly polls to follow in 2021.
“He chooses his battles and knows his enemy. He will go all out in eight constituencies,” says a senior leader close to him. Dhinakaran has built a support base over the past two years in these eight seats, dominated by Thevar, minority and Dalit votes.
According to him, Dhinakaran is also counting on getting votes of the youth who may have not heard of the Mannargudi Mafia (the name given to Sasikala’s coterie) or the allegations against Sasikala.
“Over 80 percent of youth in Tamil Nadu support the AMMK. Elders and mothers have hopes of us. We will not fail you. We will not align with caste groups…” Dhinakaran said at rally in Narasingapuram near Salem recently.
While he ridicules caste politics, Dhinakaran’s best case scenario is attracting Jayalalithaa’s minority and backward class votes. This is why the DMK and Congress believe that in almost all seats, it is the AIADMK he will render vulnerable. A senior AIADMK minister admits, “Unhappy AIADMK cadre won’t vote for the DMK but for Dhinakaran.”
Asked what would happen to Dhinakaran should Sasikala return from jail, he laughed, “Nobody can remove him, he is beyond that now. He is no more a mere nephew of Sasikala who awaits directions from Bengaluru prison (where Sasikala is lodged). Even if he does not become chief minister in the next polls, he would be in an official car as leader of the opposition.”