The Mukkulathor challenge: Why Alagiri mattered in Madurai, and why he doesn't anymore

Traditionally, Madurai has been an AIADMK stronghold owing to the strength of the Mukkulathor community. But Alagiri challenged AIADMK with sheer brute force.
The Mukkulathor challenge: Why Alagiri mattered in Madurai, and why he doesn't anymore
The Mukkulathor challenge: Why Alagiri mattered in Madurai, and why he doesn't anymore
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On January 30, there was a strong buzz in political circles in Chennai and Madurai that MK Alagiri, DMK chief Karunanidhi’s second son and the party’s erstwhile Madurai strongman, was going to walk back into the party. Not so coincidentally, the day was Alagiri’s 65th birthday, and was being speculated as the day of his return to the party for weeks.

In Chennai, journalists awaited his arrival from Bengaluru, where he had reportedly camped himself. Back home in Madurai, posters adorned the city wishing “boss” Alagiri a happy birthday. His loyalists, few and far between now, were holding their phones in their hands and watching television without a break, hoping good news would arrive soon. But Alagiri never came to Chennai, and neither did the good news for his loyalists. By noon it was clear that his expected return was not going to happen.

On February 2, speaking to reporters in Chennai, Alagiri’s archenemy within the party and DMK’s heir apparent MK Stalin said that no discussion was warranted over Alagiri's return. This further put to rest any lingering doubts about Alagiri’s return, which looks highly unlikely now.

Alagiri has always had a love-hate relationship with the DMK. He was sent to the south by his father in the 1980s, and since then, he has had several ups and downs within the party and electorally - until March 2014, when he was expelled from the party.

It isn’t easy being a DMK man in Madurai, an AIADMK citadel. Madurai and surrounding districts, like Virudhunagar, Pudukottai, Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli and to some extent even Thanjavur, are the power centres of the Mukkulathors, a caste confederacy consisting of three communities viz. Maravar, Kallar and Agamudayar. Some members of the caste like to go by the title Thevars, which means ‘the divine ones’.

The Mukkulathor’s politics have not always been entirely Dravidian. Till today, they remain fans of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose and members of the community were said to be a part of his Indian National Army. These cadres, led by Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar, later started the Forward Bloc, which was opposed to the federalism of the Dravidian movement and had strong ties with RSS. They are a sizable community, with their state-wide vote share pegged at about 10%. In the southern districts, their vote-share is considered to be between 30% and 35%, which makes them numerically superior. Their presence in politics and bureaucracy is also considered influential.

Muthuramalinga Thevar. Image:

“There has been considerable articulation of the community with the Thevar movement and Muthuramalinga Thevar’s party. They have a political history of mobilising themselves. They are well organised, which makes them politically strong,” says Ramu Manivannan, a professor at the political science department in University of Madras, pointing this out as the reason why even an actor like Karthik from the community has a political following.

With MGR breaking away from DMK, and later Sasikala - a Mukkulathor from Mannargudi in Thanjavur - becoming a power-centre, the Mukkulathor gained some sort of a political identity with the AIADMK. Being a majority community, they had members in all parties including the Congress and DMK, but the scales were always tipped in favour of the AIADMK. Their ascendency to power led a bureaucrat to reportedly state in 1995, “Today, the AIADMK means the Aiyars and Iyengars, and also the Aga-mudaiars, Devars, Maravars and Kallars. It is truly a Brahmin-Mukkulathoor parivar."

It was this that the DMK and Alagiri were up against in Madurai, and he dealt with it with brute force.

He went after his political opponents with money and muscle. “Alagiri was reigning over Madurai by controlling the town's financial interest. He controlled the mafia. He had the muscle power,” says Gnani Sankaran, a veteran political observer in Chennai.

“He was a great organiser,” says Esakimuthu, an Alagiri loyalist who has since been expelled from the party, “He did deep planning ahead of the elections, visited each constituency and worked in the field.” More importantly, Alagiri was feared, which got the cadre to work hard during polls. “He had that commanding power, and you cannot fool Alagiri. Not like Stalin,” says Esakimuthu. Although, Gnani disagrees with that, “He was employing thugs and goondas, not to be confused with grass-root level party work.”

Alagiri supporter Esakimuthu in Madurai

Further, Alagiri also cashed in on the reverse-polarisation resulting from the Mukkulathor consolidation. “When you have Sasikala and other factors contributing to the vote bank, then you need a countering powerful influence to consolidate the other groups. Then you can outweigh them, and that's what he did,” says Ramu Manivannan. Besides the Mukkulathors, the Saurashtra, Yadava and to some extent Pillaimar communities are important vote-banks in Madurai, which also has a sizable Muslim community. “Alagiri was also able to drive a wedge within the Mukkulathor vote-bank,” adds Ramu Manivannan.

However, Alagiri also had the benefit of various other factors which helped him remain strong. “Alagiri had undisputed leadership backing and momentum. He could simply go for it. He was backed by the party and had money,” points out Manivannan.

However influential and helpful he has really been for the DMK, there is a large consensus that his power and usefulness have since declined, and his return to the party could only cause more problems. “I don’t think he has the stamina and strength to drive into the AIADMK stronghold in Madurai now. His peak was momentary, and it’s decidedly on the decline now,” says Ramu Manivannan. Several of Alagiri’s strongmen have since deserted and joined Stalin’s camp in DMK over the past three years.

“Alagiri had a role in affecting the credibility of the DMK in that region. Even today, people of Madurai would not want DMK back again because of Alagiri,” says Gnani. “His tactics only affected DMK's traditional strengths there. In the Madurai belt, people were not affected by 2G in 2011 elections, but Alagiri's activities. DMK will suffer more if Alagiri comes back.”

Within the party too, many believe that his return will only add to their woes. “People are working in the present set-up now. If he comes back, he will try to install his men, and that will only further divide the party. We also fear he will seek revenge against those who deserted him,” says a DMK leader from the south who was earlier in the Alagiri camp.

But even as everyone sounds the death knell for Alagiri’s political career, back home in Madurai, his men are still hopeful. “He is not the type who will take revenge. Everyone will come back to his side if the party brings him back. He will win Madurai back for DMK,” says Esakimuthu, as he picks up a call for another media interview and blames Stalin for the downfall of Alagiri.

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