All roads in Tamil Nadu led to the village of Pasumpon in Ramanathapuram district on Monday. Politicians cutting across party lines paid tribute to U Muthuramalingam Thevar on the occasion of the freedom fighter and politician’s 110th birth and 55th death anniversaries, celebrated as Thevar Jayanthi in the state.
While Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam paid floral tributes at the Thevar memorial on Monday morning, sidelined AIADMK Deputy General Secretary TTV Dhinakaran, DMK working President MK Stalin and BJP leaders like Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan also paid their respects.
But even as Thevar Jayanthi celebrations are underway, the question that looms large is whether the factional dispute in the ruling AIADMK will cost the party its traditional vote bank among the numerically strong caste group.
Comprised of three sub-castes – Maravars, Kallars and the Agamudaiyars – the Thevars are a dominant OBC community in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu who have played a significant role in voting the AIADMK to power.
The fight between the ruling faction led by OPS – a Thevar leader – and the camp led by Dhinakaran – also a Thevar – over the Thevar gold armour has exposed just how vital this community is.
The armour was donated by late CM Jayalalithaa in 2014, and it decorates the statue every year during the Thevar Jayanthi celebrations. The symbolism attached to receiving the gold armour, which is kept in a safe in the Madurai branch of the Bank of India for the rest of the year, was not lost on the two factions. After all, receiving the armour was not only a question of deciding who the ‘real’ AIADMK is, but also in many ways a signal to the Thevar community about who holds the reins of control.
Eventually, the Bank of India chose not to get caught in the internal dispute of the AIADMK, and handed it over to the District Collector.
And while the bank, like many others, may be looking to the Election Commission for a final answer on who the ‘real’ AIADMK is, the decision may not necessarily translate to votes from the Thevar community, which for years has backed this Dravidian party.
Explaining how the AIADMK came to be known as a ‘Thevar party’, Ramu Manivanan, professor at Madras University says, “The southern districts were a major draw for MGR. But it was not on caste lines. Jayalalithaa surrounded herself with people like Sasikala and M Natarajan, who identified themselves as Thevars. This gave her huge protection because consolidation of three sub-castes transforms into an influential, sizeable vote bank. Their influence cuts across the southern districts – from Madurai to Theni and Tirunelveli.”
Over time, under Jayalalithaa’s leadership, the community’s presence gradually increased in the legislature and in the government.
“Whenever Jayalalithaa was in power in the state, important civil and police posts were dominated by the Thevars. It was an unwritten rule. And this was because of the Sasikala factor,” points out R Mani, a senior journalist.
Although OPS is being projected as the Thevar face of the Palaniswami government, Ramu Manivanan says, “This is not a OPS vs Dhinakaran fight. The fact that the party has broken is more significant. This is a factional fight rather than a personality one. Panneerselvam has little standing in the community. The whole consolidation of the Thevar community was because of Sasikala.”
But just how much is the party’s split going to cost both factions?
While the feud could hurt the party’s traditional vote bank, Mani observes that changing caste equations within the ruling AIADMK may be the real reason for any gain or loss.
“After 25 years, we see Gounder assertion in the party and government. The Thevars won’t be relishing it,” he says. What Mani points to is the fact that the state government is being led by EPS, a Gounder while OPS, a Thevar leader, is his deputy. The journalist, however, says, “It is difficult to predict just how much damage this power struggle between one OBC community and another will cause.”
And while parties like the DMK may hope to gain from the split in the AIADMK, writer and political commentator Gnani Sankaran says, “I don’t think the Thevar vote bank will transfer to the DMK. Thevar vote is already entrenched in the AIADMK, as it is known as a Thevar party.”
Like Gnani, Ramu Manivanan also says that the infighting in the AIADMK will not translate into votes from the Thevar community for the DMK. “Controlling the Thevar vote rests with Sasikala and TTV Dhinakaran. TTV will try to consolidate the Thevar vote. But there are different identities within the community and money power too can play a role,” he says.
Whether, in fact, the Thevar community will continue to be loyal to Sasikala and family remains to be seen.