Mariasusai (middle) inspects fishing nets with his coworkers at the Vavathurai coast in Kanniyakumari
Mariasusai (middle) inspects fishing nets with his coworkers at the Vavathurai coast in KanniyakumariLakshmi Priya

In Kanniyakumari, the fisherfolk’s support for Congress comes with a warning

Denied representation for long, the fisherfolk will support Congress this LS poll, but only because it fielded a candidate from the community in Vilavancode bye-poll. “If she doesn’t win, our interests too will take a turn,” they warn.

One of the largest votebases in the Kanniyakumari Lok Sabha constituency is the fisher community, second only to the dominant Nadar caste. Nearly 20% of all of Tamil Nadu’s fisherfolk reside in the region, a vast majority of whom are Catholic Christians from the Mukkuvar and Paravar castes. Their biggest demand from political parties has been to give them political representation, something the Congress — whom the community has consistently backed since the formation of Tamil Nadu — has repeatedly denied them.

“We are very angry with the Congress,” says Fr John Churchill, founder and general secretary of the South Asian Fishermen Fraternity (SAFF). “In more than 60 years, the Congress hasn’t given us political representation even once.”

Yet, for this Lok Sabha election, even as both the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) field candidates from the fisher community, many in the community are once again prepared to vote for Congress candidate Vijay Vasanth, even at the cost of voting against two of their own. 

Vijay is Kanniyakumari’s incumbent Member of Parliament, a Hindu Nadar, who defeated the BJP candidate Pon Radhakrishnan in the 2021 bye-election by a margin of more than 1,37,000 votes. Radhakrishnan — a former Union Minister who is now contesting for BJP for the 10th time in a row — is also a Hindu Nadar, and as writer and anti-nuclear activist SP Udhayakumar puts it, Kanniyakumari has rarely had it another way. “Almost every candidate any party has fielded in the Kanniyakumari constituency so far has been from the Nadar caste, whether they be Hindu or Christian,” he says.

Categorised as OBC in Tamil Nadu, the Nadars are a numerically and financially dominant caste group in several southern districts in addition to Kanniyakumari. Ever since the BJP found its footing in Kanniyakumari district, the Nadar community has remained its largest vote base.

“To vote for Congress this time is a strategic move, one that we made only after striking a bargain of our own,” Fr Churchill tells TNM at the SAFF office in Colachel. “We haven’t taken the decision to vote against one of our own lightly,” he adds.

Fr John Churchill at the SAFF office in Colachel
Fr John Churchill at the SAFF office in ColachelLakshmi Priya

As Udhayakumar points out, the BJP is hoping that AIADMK candidate Nazerath Pasilian and NTK’s Maria Jennifer would end up splitting fisher votes, which are typically anti-BJP, thus helping the party candidate and former Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan win. “But the fisherfolk are also well aware of how this dynamic would affect them. They are a highly politically aware group,” says Udhayakumar, talking to TNM on the premises of the Suchindram temple in Nagercoil.

Suchindram temple in Nagercoil
Suchindram temple in NagercoilLakshmi Priya

The fisherfolk fear that BJP’s reelection could spell doom for them due to their Christian identity (“look at Manipur,” they say). They are also averse to the party because of its tendency to embrace the corporates, and cite as an example the Union government’s SagarMala project, aimed at building a string of ports across the country’s 7,500-km coastline. 

“The government has a plan to build a harbour here in Kovalam, the talks of which have simmered down after we took to the streets to protest. But if Pon Radhakrishnan comes back to power, he will definitely go ahead with the plan. It will destroy our livelihood and our ease of movement. It will displace us,” says Manohari, a Paravar woman from Kovalam.

A strategic bargain with Congress

Fr Churchill says the community understands the importance of ensuring their votes don’t get divided. “But we can’t just make a sacrifice and expect nothing in return,” he says. 

So the community leaders told the Congress that they would vote for Vijay Vasanth and not AIADMK’s Nazerath Pasilian, but only if they fielded a candidate from the fisher community in the Vilavancode Assembly bye-election. The bye-poll — scheduled to take place on the same day as the Lok Sabha election (April 19) — had been necessitated by the resignation of Congress’ three-time MLA S Vijayadharani, who recently joined the BJP.

After much deliberation, the Congress eventually heeded the warning and fielded a candidate from the fisher community, Tharahai Cuthbert, for the Vilavancode bye-poll. “It is for the first time in more than 60 years that the Congress is fielding a candidate from the fisher community. This is only because we told the Congress in no uncertain terms that we would vote for the AIADMK candidate if they don’t do so,” says Fr Churchill. He adds, in what seems like a veiled threat, that if the Congress had not given a chance to Tharahai Cuthbert, the party would have found it difficult to win the Lok Sabha election in Kanniyakumari.

Udhayakumar points out that even if Vilavancode does not have a large fisher population, it is typically a winning seat for the Congress. “This has dissipated some of the anger.”

Fr Churchill, however, says this is also a test for the Congress, “because if Tharahai doesn’t win the election, we have to assume that their supporters only vote based on caste.” He says that when Vilavancode’s former MLA Vijayadharani was elected in the 2021 Assembly election with an increased margin of votes, the constituency was essentially voting against the BJP. “She was not from the Nadar community, nor did she have roots in Vilavancode, yet she was elected thrice. That same attitude has to apply for this election with Tharahai, who is also an outsider there. If that does not happen, the fisher community’s interests will take a turn in the coming elections,” he says.

Fisherfolk set off to the sea at Vavathurai
Fisherfolk set off to the sea at VavathuraiLakshmi Priya

What the political parties have to realise is that even if the fisher community cannot decide who wins, they can definitely decide whom to defeat, he says. “We can defeat the Congress too if we want. But now that we have got a candidate of our own, even if it is only for Vilavancode, the community is ready to meet the Congress halfway and vote for them.”

A long-sought demand for representation

In 1957, the Congress had given an electoral chance to one of our fisherwomen, Lourdammal Simon, says Fr Churchill. “She won the election from Colachel and served as the Minister for Fisheries and Local Administration in Kamaraj’s cabinet. The second time, however, she was defeated by a candidate from the Congress itself. The party got one of its men from the Nadar community to contest independently, which led to a division of votes,” he explains.

Lourdammal Simon
Lourdammal Simon

Fr Churchill says the fisherfolk have already reached a point where they no longer want to be taken for granted, and had even decided that whichever party fields a candidate from their community, they would vote for them. “The idea was that if we elect a fisher community candidate irrespective of the party, the other parties will also realise the need to give us representation and in turn start fielding people from the community. But given the scenario, this bargain for the Vilavancode seat was what he had to settle with for now,” he says.

Votes that sway the election

Explaining why the fisher community’s votes often become the deciding factor in Kanniyakumari, Fr Churchill says, “There are about 15 lakh voters in total in the Kanniyakumari Lok Sabha constituency. Typically, only about 9-10 lakh votes are polled and of this, up to 2.5 lakh votes come from the fishing community.”

The priest says that the votes of other religious and caste groups usually tend to get divided between political parties in accordance with their respective political leanings. “We vote for the party that allows us to exist as ourselves and doesn’t stand against our religion,” he says.

Only twice has an alliance that does not involve the Congress won in Kanniyakumari, Fr Churchill says. “The first time was in 1999, when the BJP had a brief alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu. At the time, we had little awareness about BJP or what the party represents. The second time was in 2014, when all other political parties contested the election separately and the BJP was able to consolidate the remaining votes. Both times, Pon Radhakrishnan emerged the victor,” he says.

Fr Churchill observes that whenever there is an alliance between Congress and any other major party in Kanniyakumari, the BJP typically does not win, because the Catholic Christians here do not vote for the BJP.

Mariasusai (middle) inspects fishing nets with his coworkers at the Vavathurai coast in Kanniyakumari
Ground report: In Cong-BJP fight in Kanniyakumari, religion trumps other issues

A rising political consciousness

According to writer-activist Vareethiah Konstantine, the electoral bargain by the fisherfolk is reflective of a rising political consciousness in the community. “Historically, political parties in the region have rarely put much thought towards taking care of the needs of the fisherfolk. They usually just approach them with promises during election time, don’t bother to follow through, and go to them for the next election with new assurances. They often try to buy them with money and liquor too,” he says.

Vareethiah says that as long as a community is unaware of exactly what they need to demand from their political leaders, their voice won’t be heard in electoral politics. “So even when the district and state level leaderships choose the candidates and announce schemes, they rarely take the fisherfolks’ needs seriously. Rather, they just assume that the community would remain ‘loyal’ to them. They believe that they can capitalise on the Christian fisherfolks’ fear of religious fundamentalists and make them feel that they have no other option.”

But the thought leaders within the fisher communities are now realising how they are being taken for granted, says Vareethiah, who is also an associate professor and Head of the Department of Zoology in St Jude’s College in Kanniyakumari’s Thoothoor.

Udhayakumar observes that this change in thought process could be due to the rise in the educational level of the younger generation of fisherfolk as well as the political movements that the community has undertaken in recent times.

The community had been especially affected by the SagarMala project, as part of which the Union government in 2016 had proposed building a container terminal at Enayam, a fishing village near Colachel. Following vociferous protests, the port was moved to an area between Keelamanakudi and Kovalam villages. In Kovalam too, the project was met with resistance. The fisherfolk in these areas are still concerned about the effects the port would have on their livelihood and movement, in addition to the probability that it could destroy the marine biodiversity in the area.

Praba KK, a local DMK leader who was among those who led the protest in Kovalam, tells us that the talks of the port have died down now, but if the BJP comes back to power, it would be sure to go ahead with the project. “Even while campaigning, Pon Radhakrishnan had announced that he would definitely bring the harbour here if he is elected. But the fisherfolk here are very strong and we will stand united. If we don’t want someone here, we simply won’t let them inside,” he says.

Inputs from Sindhu Nepolean

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