The little town of Tindivanam in Villupuram district of northern Tamil Nadu is congested, with the marketplace near the bus stand teeming with people. A line of auto-rickshaws, called share-autos, wait in a queue here. In the early 1970s, long lines of maattu vandis, or bullock carts, waited here too.

Near the marketplace is a landmark for the dusty and dry little town – the Dr Ramadoss Hospital, founded by S Ramadoss, the leader of the Pattali Makkal Katchi. The small party has had a disproportionate influence on Tamil Nadu’s politics. It has played a major role in making caste an organising principle of politics by consolidating the votes of the Vanniyar community, who officially have most backward class status, a sub-category of the broader Other Backward Classes group. Ramadoss spearheaded the agitation that succeeded in getting the Vanniyar community this status in the late 1980s.

For nearly two decades, the Pattali Makkal Katchi has contested elections in alliance with one of the two main Dravidian parties – All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. This time, as Tamil Nadu votes for a new government on May 16, the PMK plans to go it alone. This election, therefore, is a crucial test for the party.

Man of discipline

Ramadoss started out as a doctor in Tindivanam. In 1969, he quit his job in the town’s government hospital and set up a small clinic. Patients from rural areas around Tindivanam would arrive in droves in bullock carts to consult Maruthuvar Ayya (Doctor Sir), as Ramadoss is still called. His clinic was one of three private clinics in the area, but was more popular since he charged a nominal fee of Rs 2, while the others charged Rs 8 to Rs 10.

Ramadoss appears to have followed rigid personal discipline from a young age. Locals in Tindivanam said that they would know it was 8 am when they saw Ramadoss crossing the Gandhi statue near the government hospital every morning in a cycle rickshaw. “We could set the clock with Ayya’s arrival,” said M Thirunavukkarasu, 64, an employee at the clinic since it was opened.

Meeting patients from poor rural households was an eye-opener for the young doctor. He saw poverty and suffering up close and was horrified by the number of young widows owing to alcoholism. A teetotaler, Ramadoss began to strongly advocate abstinence from liquor. “Do you drink?” he would ask every male patient who came for a consultation. “If you drink, don’t come to me ever again,” he was known to say.

The years of struggle

Ramadoss was the firstborn son to a farmer couple, Sanjeevi Rayar Gounder and Navaneetham Ammal, who lived in a village called Keezhsiviri. His father had remarried twice – once after his first wife died and again after his second wife died, leaving him with two daughters. He fathered four boys with his third wife – the eldest was Ramadoss. All four brothers were sent to live with their eldest sister’s family in Chennai to pursue degrees at Anna University. It was a time of severe poverty for that family, as the eldest sister’s husband earned little working as a labourer at Chennai Harbour. Recalling those times, her son, J Parasuraman, who is also now Ramadoss’ son-in-law, said, “Mama (Ramadoss) would take tuitions in his spare time to make some money to take care of his living expenses and food.”

The Dravidian Self-Respect Movement was at its peak during Ramadoss’ college days. Like many of his peers, Ramadoss too fell under the spell of CN Annadurai, a former chief minister and leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, participating enthusiastically in anti-Hindi agitations called for by the DMK.

In the late 1970s, however, Ramadoss became convinced that the Dravidian movement had failed poor Vanniyars, the caste to which he belonged. His encounters with poor patients shaped his political understanding. “Ramadoss used to say that the Dravidian movement had helped only a few powerful castes in the state like the Thevars,” said the former aide. “He used to tell me – look at our people, they have no education, no money and no future. We need to help our community come up, he would say.”

Ramadoss began by consolidating the many sub-castes under the umbrella of the Vanniyar caste. As many as 104 smaller castes like the Padayachis, Ottars and some Gounder castes, were integrated with the Vanniyar community. In the 1970s, Ramadoss set up an organisation called Samuga Sevai Maiyam, or Social Service Centre. This organisation became the Vanniyar Sangam, or Federation of Vanniyars, in 1980.

Aides of Ramadoss who have been with him since his Vanniyar Sangam days recollect how he would finish his medical consultations by 9 pm and travel to two villages after 10 every night. “He would go to each village and call for a meeting of sorts, like a ‘thinnai’ (portico in old style houses) meeting,” said a former close aide of Ramadoss, who did not wish to be named. “He would tell the villagers that our Vanniyar community must study. He would speak with them like a teacher addressing a student.”

Caste agitations

Four years went by with small protests by the Vanniyar community – pattai naamam (protestors smeared their foreheads with strips of sacred ash) and kovanam kattum (protestors wore only a loin cloth). Vanniyars were demanding the most backward class status from the state government. The government did not budge. In 1986, Ramadoss launched a massive agitation across the northern districts of the state, where Vanniyars are in a majority. Trees were cut down and used to block highways, paralysing the state for a week. The police, who hunted for Ramadoss to arrest him, could not find him. Ramadoss arrived at the protest site in disguise – sporting a beard and a kulla (cap worn by Muslims) and led protesters from the front.

“The protests quickly turned violent,” said Ramadoss’s former aide. “Over 50,000 protesters were arrested and 11 died in police firing. Ayya adopted the children of the protesters who died, funded their studies and supported the families financially.”

Three years later, Chief Minister MG Ramachandran of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam died, and a new government was formed under Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. It granted 18% reservations to the Vanniyar community and categorised them under the most backward classes. For the Vanniyar community, Ramadoss was now a hero.

In 1989, riding the wave of success, Ramadoss formed the Pattali Makkal Katchi, literally the Toiling People’s Party. In 1991, the PMK fought its first electoral battle alone, winning one seat in the state Assembly. The PMK drew a blank in the subsequent Lok Sabha polls. “He realised that he would be politically relevant only if he formed alliances,” said the former Ramadoss aide.

Subsequent elections saw the PMK allying alternately with either the DMK or the AIADMK, while carving out a vote base that oscillated between 4% to 8% of the electorate. The PMK’s supporters predominantly comprised Vanniyars in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu. In the 2011 Assembly election, which the PMK contested in alliance with the DMK, it won just three seats, 15 less than the last election even though its vote share went up.

Ramadoss’ movement of the 1980s also ensured that Vanniyar representation in the two major Dravidian parties increased, as all parties began to field Vanniyar candidates and encouraged local Vanniyar leaders.

A dangerous new trend

But in 2010, Ramadoss conducted a dangerous experiment, which would change the political landscape of Tamil Nadu by pitting the powerful backward classes against Scheduled Caste Dalits. Calling for an umbrella alliance of caste-affiliated groups of backward classes like the Thevars and Gounders, Ramadoss organised what he called Anaithu Samudhaya Periyakkam, or the Federation of All Communities.

At the event, resolutions adopted included a demand to soften the provisions of the Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act of 1989, which they alleged was being used to target members of the backward classes unfairly. There was also a resolution stating that Dalit boys were wooing upper caste girls and making them fall in love only to extort money from the parents of the girls. “Dalit boys are wearing jeans, T-shirts and sunglasses and taking our girls away,” Ramadoss famously said at the event. “This needs to be stopped.”

Ramadoss’s PMK workers are also alleged to be behind violent caste clashes in Marakkanam, Cuddalore, Kallkurichi and Dharmapuri areas in the past five years. More than 20 Dalits died and close to 300 huts were burnt down in Dharmapuri alone. The PMK has consistently denied any role in these caste clashes and has accused the state government of foisting false cases on its party members. Ramadoss was arrested in May 2013 for holding a protest defying prohibitory orders and was jailed briefly. A number of key PMK leaders were arrested in 2013 too for inciting caste violence by giving inflammatory speeches at a function in Mahabalipuram near Chennai.

“The person who first pitted the Backward Classes against the Scheduled Castes politically was Ramadoss,” said Stalin Rajangam, a Dalit studies expert and political analyst. “Although the agitations in the late 1980s were primarily about the demand for a better life for Vanniyars, subsequently Ramadoss realised that if he exploited the existing tensions between Vanniyars and Dalits at the village level, it brought him more political gains. Over a period of time, Ramadoss converted his movement into an anti-Dalit campaign.”

Curiously though, in the early 1990s, it was Ramadoss who stormed to a little village called Kodithangi, near Kumbakonam, where he carried the corpse of a Dalit and conducted his funeral. The corpse had been lying in the village’s Dalit colony because Vanniyars had refused to allow it to be carried through their areas, which was the only access route to the cremation ground. Ramadoss received a lot of flak from Vanniyars for this move but he held talks in the village and negotiated access for Dalits through the Vanniyar-dominated areas. Dalit leader Thol Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi, or VCK, hailed Ramadoss as “Tamil Kodithangi” (flagbearer) for his role in this incident.

Despite being pitted against each other on the ground, political analysts say that when it comes to alliances, Ramadoss and Thirumavalavan manage to bury their differences. In 2011, the PMK and the VCK came together as part of the DMK-led alliance. The PMK managed to win three seats but the VCK drew a blank. “Political leaders form convenient alliances but the cadre on the ground simply cannot get along,” said political analyst Stalin Rajangam. “Ramadoss will whip up caste tensions every time his electoral fortunes are down. Once things look up, he will speak of peace and harmony.”

Difficult road ahead

Ramadoss’ current biggest political threat is the leader of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, Vijayakanth, who is eating into his traditional vote bank. If Ramadoss used caste to unite members of the northern districts, Vijayakanth’s linguistic identity has served him even better. Tamil Nadu’s northern districts bordering Andhra Pradesh have a large population of Telugu-speaking residents. Vijaykanth, a Telugu-speaking Naidu, has wrested a sizeable chunk of Ramadoss’ vote bank from him.

Ramadoss’ plan is to move away from the caste-affiliated image that he has cultivated over three decades to a more modern, inclusive and youth-oriented approach. Enter his son Anbumani Ramadoss, a former Union Health Minister and current Member of Parliament from Dharmapuri, who is now being projected as the PMK’s chief ministerial candidate.

A visit to Ramadoss’ colleges in Tindivanam also shows how the party is trying to shed the Vanniyar party tag. Keeping in line with his core theme of uplift of poor backward Vanniyars, Ramadoss decided to establish colleges which would provide free education to the poor residents of Tindivanam and places around it. Unlike other Tamil politicians who have set up colleges as businesses, including Ramadoss’s arch-rival Vijayakanth, these colleges are not a source of revenue for the PMK leader.

Ramadoss started two colleges named after his wife, Saraswathy, in Koneri Kuppam near Tindivanam in 2008. The Saraswathy Arts and Science College has 1,500 students on its rolls, while the engineering college by the same name has 560 students. A trust called the Vanniyar Education Trust started by Ramadoss in 2006 funds both. Tuition, hostel accommodation and food are free for these students, who hail predominantly from poor rural families.

The principal of the Saraswathy College of Engineering and Technology spoke of how Scheduled Caste students are admitted and provided free education alongside Vanniyar students hailing from poor backgrounds. “Of 2,060 students, we take 30 students from the SC and ST communities every year,” said P Madhavasarma, the principal of the engineering college. “Some students are so poor that they cannot even afford more than one set of clothes. We provide that too for them. Ayya [Ramadoss] sees this as a humanitarian project. This is apart from politics.”

As Ramadoss attempts to revamp the image of his party and hopes to secure a political future for his son, it is anybody’s guess how his core Vanniyar vote bank will respond. For Ramadoss and the PMK to survive, he is likely to have to stick to his caste affiliations or risk Vijayakanth’s DMDK eating into his base. “Vijayakanth has been eating into the PMK’s as well as the AIADMK’s vote bank,” said RK Radhakrishnan, a senior journalist. “It is more about hope than anything else. It is the search for an alternative from the people. First it was the PMK and then Vaiko’s MDMK [Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] which gained popularity after the two main Dravidian parties. Now it is Vijayakanth’s turn.”

For now, the PMK has not entered into any alliances. This election will show the direction in which the party is headed – and political observers hope it will be away from caste strife.