Tamil Nadu party NTK fields 50% women candidates for 3rd time: Ideology or strategy?

Although Seeman is known for controversial opinions and ideas that are sometimes outlandish, his electoral decisions offer lessons for established political parties, said sources who have been closely following his politics.
Naam Tamilar Katchi Seeman
Naam Tamilar Katchi Seeman
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While the Women’s Reservation Bill, which seeks to reserve one-third (33%) of the total seats in the Lok Sabha, state Assemblies, and Legislative Assembly of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, awaits implementation, a regional party from Tamil Nadu has not once or twice, but thrice allocated 50% seats for women in both Lok Sabha and state Assembly elections combined. 

Filmmaker-turned-politician Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) from Tamil Nadu, which is not part of any alliances for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, fielded an equal number of female and male contenders in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the 2021 state Assembly elections, and now in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections – a consistent move that no Election Commission of India (ECI) recognised party in the country is known to have attempted.  

The two national parties – the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) have only managed to accommodate 16.3% and 14% seats for women respectively. The Congress, which has consistently vouched for the Women’s Reservation Bill with additional demands to include sub-quotas based on caste, has only fielded women in less than half of the 33% reserved seats. Tamil Nadu’s ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which has also strongly advocated for the Bill, is more or less on par with the Congress with just 14% of seats allocated to women (3 out of 22 seats) for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

The NTK, meanwhile, has fielded women in 20 seats (out of 39 in Tamil Nadu and 1 in Puducherry) for the upcoming polls. In the previous Lok Sabha elections, NTK’s female candidates garnered more than 50% vote share compared to their male counterparts. Apart from marking a strong case for female presence in electoral politics, this result also dismisses the popular contention that women candidates are less popular among voters. But many consider this as a token strategy by Seeman, who is said to be adamant about holding the party’s control tight to himself.

Seeman formed the NTK in the year 2010, which marked the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka following the defeat of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the founding leader of the Tamil militant organisation Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Seeman, who actively lent his voice to the Sri Lankan Tamils and their rights, eulogises Prabhakaran and Adolf Hitler. He also idealises regional autonomy and Tamil Nationalism by focusing on the Tamil language, identity, and culture.

Notably, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, NTK’s female candidates who contested from 20 seats (out of 39 seats in Tamil Nadu and 1 in Puducherry) managed to garner more than 50% vote share when compared to their male counterparts. Out of the 16.67 lakh votes that the party recorded in their first parliamentary election, women candidates received 8.38 lakh votes with an average of 4.43% vote share while their male counterparts managed only a close 4.29% vote share. 

NTK contested in the 2016 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections without 50% reservation for women but emerged as the first party in the state to have fielded a transgender candidate. However, the party didn’t record a single win. 

In 2021, NTK fielded 50% female candidates (117 women and 117 men for the 234 seats in the state), and though they didn’t win any seat, they managed to record a 7% vote share (a 90% increase from 2016) and settled for the third or fourth spots in most of the constituencies.

As per the ECI’s data released on individual performances of women candidates in state elections, only two out of the 117 women from the NTK received less than 2% vote share from their respective constituencies. The other 115 women recorded an average of 6.36%. 

Interestingly, in several constituencies, the NTK opted to field women after male candidates garnered less than 1% of votes in 2016. In the Lalgudi constituency, the NTK fielded Sampath in 2016, who failed to get even 1% of the votes. However, in 2021, Malar Tamil Prabha from the same constituency won a 9.3% vote share. Similar results from 2016 and 2021 can be traced in Cumbum, Kallakurichi (reserved for SC), Nannilam, and Yercaud (reserved for ST) among other constituencies.

Commenting on this trend of women garnering more vote share, senior journalist Sivapriyan ETB told TNM that the women speakers of NTK don’t beat around the bush. “They are good orators who speak to the point. Their speeches are clear and strike a chord with people,” he observed.

When asked about this, Karthika Murugachiran, NTK’s Nagapattinam candidate for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls told TNM that female candidates have more agency in the party. “At NTK, female candidates are allowed to have a say and we are free to organise people and protest at the forefront,” she said.

Sivapriyan, however, strongly believes that the NTK’s candidates will not be voted for if it isn’t for Seeman. “To be honest, it is a single-man party and the NTK revolves around Seeman and his oratory skills. Without Seeman, NTK’s candidates would have no takers,” he added.

It is also interesting to note that Tamil Nadu’s women voters have outnumbered male voters by more than 10.5 lakhs as per the electoral rolls released in January 2023. So, the question that arises here is whether Seeman is following the 50% reservation for women simply to capitalise on the state’s female voters.

Ideology or strategy?

NTK’s Women's Wing state Secretary Vennila Thayumanavan dismisses the contention that Seeman has ulterior motives behind fielding women candidates. She told TNM that the NTK’s ideology itself is about equal rights. “The party took shape after the death of LTTE chief Prabhakaran. If you look at the LTTE outfit itself, there were an equal number of women to men who fought for Tamil rights. We have been wanting to replicate the same structure here at NTK,” Vennila said. 

Ramu Manivannan, a professor of politics at the University of Madras, however, finds the two points of discussion to be jarring. “The LTTE had an authoritative model and it was not democratic. Seeman, as a leader, is just as authoritarian, and the party seems to fall back heavily on him. This goes on to show how undemocratic the structure is,” he said. 

Historically, in Tamil Nadu, former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa managed to garner more female voters, but not one woman in the NTK has thus far been given the space to come up in the party the way Seeman has, Ramu added. “It's purely a strategy to gain attention,” he said.

When asked about this, Vennila argued that if it were a strategy, the NTK would have seen a drastic improvement in its vote share. “We have made sure that our Parliamentary candidates– both men and women– represent various professions, are educated, as well as represent minority religions and lowered castes,” she added. 

According to Vennila, the model couldn’t be applied in the Tamil Nadu 2016 elections because they didn’t have enough women who wished to join the party or contest in the elections. “Yet, we fielded more women than any other party. After seeing that, more women started joining the NTK and today, there are a good number of female cadres at the managerial and administrative levels of the party. So, women weigh in on all decisions,” she claimed.

Notably, the NTK has also fielded Dalit candidates in general constituencies. Sivapriyan underlined that this is a move the two Dravidian parties that stand for social justice– DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) – have not practiced. 

For the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the NTK has fielded two Dalit candidates in two unreserved constituencies – one being Dr Bakkiyalakshmi, a Dalit woman, from Arani, and the other, a Dalit man named Kayilai Rajan from Dindigul.

Although Seeman is known for controversial opinions and ideas that are sometimes outlandish, his electoral decision of fielding 50% female candidates offers lessons even for established and well-entrenched political parties, said sources who have been closely following his politics. “But for all this to be noticed and applauded, Seeman should tone down his rhetoric and talk about policies that are sustainable,” Sivapriyan said. 

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