In the run-up to the Tamil Nadu parliament polls, smaller parties in the state seem to be enjoying mixed fortunes. Both the DMK and AIADMK have gone the extra mile to accommodate them, being generous with seats; but there is a catch.
Over the years, hedged in by the polarising politics of the DMK and the AIADMK, and a voter not sympathetic to Third Front politics, the smaller parties have lost their recognition in the election commission as state-level parties and are in various stages of being snuffed out.
Now with the DMK and AIADMK cajoling and coercing them to contest on the DMK or AIADMK symbol, there is a real threat to their identity.
Most of these smaller parties gain their sustenance from particular castes and some have become so localised and personalised that it is led by one person, and what it means is that if the leader gets the ticket, the party jumps into the alliance. Some have started off as bigger parties or splinter groups of the bigger parties, but in due course, have withered so much that only a single leader is left.
Some are led by moneybags, who seem to see the elections as a pastime, and since they have some philanthropic credentials, one assumes that their caste is firmly behind them. Some leaders just coast along from party to party and are in-between parties for now. (So they have their own party). It can’t get more bizarre than this.
For the 2019 parliament elections in Tamil Nadu, the smaller parties are spread out among the two fronts, the DMK and AIADMK. While the DMK has given away 10 tickets the AIADMK has been more generous with 14 seats.
The left parties, the CPI and CPI (M) and the Indian Union Muslim league are in a different league as they are the state wings of their parent parties, though they too face similar issues in the state.
Among the smaller parties in the DMK front are IJK; a single leader party run by Paarivendhar – who runs the SRM group of engineering colleges and has interests in media, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi – VCK ( a party led by Thirumavalavan, a Dalit leader with a base in the Parayar caste in northern Tamil Nadu ) the Kongunadu Makkal Desiya Katchi -KMDK (a party run by Eswaran with a voter base in the Gounder community – the same community that Chief Minister Palaniswami belongs to).
While caste appears to be the key to smaller parties, there are also parties driven by strong personalities. In this category are the MDMK led by Vaiko (now with DMK front), a very prominent face in Dravidian politics and is now restricted to one MP seat. Similarly, there is DMDK- Vijayakanth in the AIADMK front, who is a shadow of his former self, but with a respectable four seats.
The AIADMK too has its fair share of smaller parties; with Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) gaining its strength from the Vanniyars of northern Tamil Nadu, AC Shanmugham of New Justice Party (an educationist and a former AIADMK minister with a base in the Mudaliar community of northern Tamil Nadu), Puthiya Thamizhagam (led by Krishnaswamy and claiming to represent the Devendrakula Vellalar/Pallar, a Dalit sub-caste in southern Tamil Nadu) and the single person parties like the Tamil Maanila Congress of GK Vasan( Son of the late senior Congress leader Moopanar).
This kaleidoscope of small parties in Tamil Nadu, face some existential issues. In the Tamil Nadu assembly, the bigger parties rarely opt for coalition governments and though the smaller parties are given some seats to contest, they have not enjoyed the power and the perks that go with holding ministerial berths. This has put a dent in their finances and are hence dependent on the bigger parties for resources.
Bigger parties also poach on the leaders or emerging leaders of the smaller parties whenever the need arises. So much so that some of them have become single-leader parties.
Now bigger parties are putting pressure on the smaller parties to contest on the symbol of the bigger party. This could ring the death knell for these smaller parties, but looks like they do not have many options. If they agree to this, this could be the end of their identity, but the bigger party feels that since it gives the resources, manpower and the agenda for the elections, the smaller parties should agree.
The bigger party also feels that there is not much time for campaigning and it is an uphill task to familiarise the voter with a new symbol.
Some of the smaller parties are resisting this. Many, however, have agreed to contest on the election symbols of the bigger partner. Some are confused. The strange case is of VCK where the leader is planning to contest on an independent symbol, and in the neighbouring constituency, his party candidate is contesting on the DMK symbol. Can’t get worse.
This is no country for small parties.