Two Thevar faces, O Panneerselvam and TTV Dhinakaran, who started his own party, the Amma Makkal Munetra Kazhagam, against each other.

Karunas speech and the scramble for the Thevar vote ahead of 2019 polls
news Politics Monday, September 24, 2018 - 18:49

On Sunday, actor-turned-politician Karunas was arrested for a controversial speech he made in Chennai recently, instigating violence. attacking the ruling AIADMK dispensation in Tamil Nadu, a top cop in the city and the media.

However, with the 2019 Lok Sabha elections less than a year away, perhaps what stood out most significantly in the speech for poll watchers is the Thiruvadanai MLA’s constant harping on Thevar caste pride. Karunas who entered politics in 2009 as founder of the Mukkulathor Pulipadai, which translates to ‘tiger army of Mukkulathors’. His is one of many such outfits that arose out of the Thevars’ need to counter the rising Dalit assertion over the past few decades in the state.

Mukkulathors, meaning ‘of three clans’ comprise three sub-castes, namely the Agamudaiyars, Kallars and Maravars. They are commonly known as the Thevars and are an influential caste in central and southern Tamil Nadu, categorised as OBC or Other Backward Classes.

The a large part of the traditional Thevar vote bank has, for long, been with the AIADMK for former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s close aide and confidant for over three decades, Sasikala Natarajan, was from the community and was able to mobilise local Thevar leaders in favour of the party.

Loyalty to the Sasikala clan was also largely seen as being responsible for O Panneerselvam, a Thevar, occupying the Chief Minister’s chair thrice, twice when he stood in for Jayalalithaa.

All equations were thrown to the wind, however, when Jayalalithaa died in December 2016. With a faction war breaking out on several fronts within the AIADMK, Edappadi Palaniswami, a Sasikala loyalist from the Gounder community was made Chief Minister. Panneerselvam later ‘unified’ with the AIADMK, taking on the role of Deputy Chief Minister.  This pitted two Thevar faces, O Panneerselvam and TTV Dhinakaran, who started his own party, the Amma Makkal Munetra Kazhagam, against each other.

However, with the Lok Sabha elections looming closer how have loyalties shifted within the community?

Speaking to TNM, Allur Sreenivasan, editor of the Trichy-based magazine ‘Avataram’ and a man who has been close to the Sasikala family for over a decade says that Karunas’ provocative speech and the aftermath will have the unintended effect of bringing together some Thevar groups ahead of the elections.

Admitting that the divisions within the caste are important, he says, “The Thevar vote has always been split amongst several outfits. So they were never unified for one party during the elections. When Sasikala became General Secretary of the AIADMK (following Jayalalithaa’s death), she was mainly targeted by the Brahmins. Jayalalithaa (a Brahmim) was Accused No 1 in the Disproportionate Assets case, but Accused No 2 Sasikala and others were projected as the main culprits. This became a pattern of attack on the caste. Now, there is some unity. Even though some of Karunas’ comments are unacceptable, his speech can consolidate a few Thevar groups. After all, he is only saying all Thevars should unite.”

Sreenivasan also points out that the mobilisation of youngsters in the Thevar community through viral speeches like in the case of Karunas ultimately benefits TTV Dhinakaran and Sasikala.

Speaking to TNM, Professor Ramu Manivannan, head of Department of Politics and Public Administration of the University of Madras points out that no one figurehead in the party was responsible for the Thevar vote. 

He says, “There could well be a split of votes between Panneerselvam and TTV Dhinakaran. If you check who has been controlling the Thevar vote bank, it is not any individual per se. It is key people inside the AIADMK, like Sasikala, Dhinakaran and few others who have been maneuvering the key constituencies by distribution of seats, of favours and party positions. They remain the key managers of this vote.”

With TTV Dhinakaran pulling large crowds at his public rallies over the past year, it remains to be seen just how much damage his new party will inflict. And for both the AIADMK and TTV Dhinakaran, winning over the Thevar vote is crucial.

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