A slew of little known men in white shirts and white veshtis (dhotis) have been trooping in and out of Poes Garden, Anna Arivalayam and Kamalalayam in Chennai since Sunday March 13. The first is the residence of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, leader of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or AIADMK and the second, the party headquarters of the rival Dravidian behemoth, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or DMK, led by M Karunanidhi. Kamalalayam is the party headquarters of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Tamil Nadu unit.

These little known men are leaders in their own right, laying claim to commanding allegiance over a lakh of voters. Most of these men are new entrants in the political landscape of Tamil Nadu, hoping to survive by dint of the caste group they were born into.

Among them is GK Nagaraj, a young enterprising politician belonging to the Gounder caste, whose fledgling Kongunadu Jananayaga Katchi is hoping to land a few seats in alliance with the BJP for his very first election in 2016. “We are discussing with party cadre and we may go with the BJP,” said Nagaraj. “We are confident of getting 10% vote share,” he said. Although a mathematical improbability, alliance talks are all about confidence and bluster, and Nagaraj certainly has his share.

The DMK, AIADMK and the BJP are quickly lapping up tiny parties like Nagaraj’s in an effort to bolster themselves in what is being termed as an "issue-less" election – one that is likely to go right down to the bone. Party leaders say, "strictly off the record", that winning margins could be as tight as 1% to 2% of votes. And in such a duel, the smaller parties, formed on the basis of caste affiliations, which are picking up a sprinkling of votes in specific regions, are much in demand.

These parties – a bewildering profusion of abbreviations, PMK, KMK, KMDK, VCK – are based primarily on caste.

In the western belt of the state, also called the Kongu region, the Kongunadu Munnetra Kazhagam, or KMK, is led by prominent textile manufacturer "Best" Ramasamy, a self-proclaimed representative of the Gounder caste. In the last assembly election held in 2011, the part won 1% vote share in the state but no seats.

Another Gounder party, U Thaniyarasu’s Tamil Nadu Kongu Ilaignar Peravai, won one seat by allying with the AIADMK. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, a breakaway faction from the KMK, called the Kongunadu Makkal Desiya Katchi, or KMDK, led by ER Eswaran, came second to the AIADMK in Pollachi.

Dalit parties in the state have maintained a constant 1% to 1.5% vote share individually in previous elections, always contesting in alliance with either of the two Dravidian parties. In 2014, Thol Thirumavalavan’s Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi or VCK contested two seats as part of the DMK alliance and lost both, polling 1.49% of total votes in the state. Another Dalit party, Dr Krishnasamy’s Puthiya Tamilagam (PT) contested and lost one seat, polling 0.65% of the total votes in the state.

The most successful caste-based party though is S Ramadoss’ Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). It won a seat in the 2014 parliamentary elections, taking Ramadoss’ son Anbumani Ramadoss to Delhi. The PMK, which fought 2014 under the BJP-led NDA, polled 4.45% of the total votes.

What explains the rise of caste-based parties in Tamil Nadu, 80 years after social reformer Periyar attacked Brahminism and laid the foundation of a 'casteless society'?

Why has caste resurfaced in the state's politics? Or did it never quite go away?

The anti-Brahmin movement

“In a land of freedom, can the citizens be Shudras?” This clarion call by a man called Periyar, rationalist, social reformer and change agent in Tamil Nadu for almost five decades from the 1920s to the 1970s, irrevocably reshaped the history of the southern state. “Can there be religions, epics and laws that consider citizens untouchables, slaves, sinners and menials? Think and act!” he exhorted multitudes of Tamils in his lifetime.

Periyar (Tamil for ‘elderly one’ or ‘respected one’) is a household name in Tamil Nadu. Born Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy Naicker, he launched the Self Respect Movement, attacking Brahminism, and introduced the concept of atheism, rationalism and eradication of caste, to the superstitious and god-fearing millions in the southern state.

So powerful was Periyar’s message that the ruling Congress party was forced to act – removing the Brahmin Rajaji and projecting a powerful “lower caste” Nadar leader, Kamaraj, as the Chief Minister.

The Self Respect movement that began in the mid-1920s would sweep across the state, turning the caste system on its head and forcing an end to Brahmin hegemony. In 1949, a political force would be born out of this – the DMK, a powerful but reluctant legacy of the ideological leader Periyar. The DMK would split down the middle in 1972, catalysed by the exit of the charismatic MG Ramachandran, popular cine actor and a shrewd, ambitious politician. The AIADMK would be formed and from there on, power would rest with either of the two Dravidian parties.

“The Dravidian parties made the Brahmin the enemy and created an unnatural category called non-Brahmins which included all other castes,” explains Dalit researcher and author Stalin Rajangam in Madurai. “For 30-40 years they established that the evils of the caste system were solely due to the Brahmins.”

The Dalit counter

But the Self Respect movement, also called the Dravidian movement, came under severe criticism from Dalit intellectuals for excluding the Dalit community.

The beneficiaries of this movement of social reform, says Rajangam, were only the top 10-15 castes who had large populations, like the Thevars, Gounders and Nadars, among others. Smaller castes in the state, minority castes in any given village and Dalits were left out of the victory feast.

Rajangam says that the electoral process meant that political parties could simply target the majority community in any given area for votes and gain. “This helped a Parliamentary system of democracy but the Dravidian parties also justified this with the help of ideology – the transfer of power from Brahmins to non Brahmins,” he said.

Today the backward classes and most backward classes form around 70% of the state’s population, with the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes together comprising over 25% of the population. Brahmins constitute a meagre 2% of the populace with other smaller castes making up the rest.

Rise of caste-based parties

In the late 1980s began restlessness amongst the Vanniyars, a caste of poor agricultural labourers in the northern districts of the state. Leader of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, S Ramadoss, had tapped into this unrest and begun agitations demanding reservations for this caste under the most backward classes category. Violent clashes erupted, with protesters dying in police firing, trees being cut down to block highways and huts being burnt at will.

The mayhem subsided in 1989 when the DMK, under M Karunanidhi, approved 18% reservations for the Vanniyars. This was to set the stage for the emergence of parties and groups affiliated to specific castes. In 1988, Thol Thirumavalavan formed the VCK, a Dalit party, catering to the Parayars among Scheduled Castes in the states.

Since the natural enemy of the dominant castes at the village level was the Dalit, alarm bells began to go off amongst the “upper castes”, according to experts. “People found that the PMK could entrench itself in the north with the support of the Vanniyar caste,” explained Gnani Sankaran, author and political analyst. “Parties like VCK and Puthiya Tamilagam (another Dalit party) had come in, so the intermediate caste groups felt they needed to counter the Dalit uprising. They then began to come together,” he said.

In the early-2000s, a host of other intermediary castes organised themselves into parties in the western belt of the state, on the plank of Gounder pride.

“When political parties become corrupt and self serving, you cannot stop regional parties from springing up,” said ER Easwaran, General Secretary of the KMDK. “Leaders in power favour their own areas, so people from other regions will definitely think that they need to come together and find their own voice.” The party is currently trying to rebrand itself as a representative of all peoples of the Kongu region rather than as a Gounder party.

In 2007, a party for the Nadar caste was formed by cine actor turned politician Sarath Kumar. This party, called the All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi, has been an ally of the AIADMK, winning two MLA seats in 2011 in the south, where the Nadar population is high. Kumar broke away from the AIADMK and formed an alliance with the BJP for 2016, only to return to the AIADMK recently.

In 2001, the Tamil Nadu Kongu Ilaignar Peravai was launched and still has, as its slogan, “Goundergal Peravai, Vellalargal Peravai” (A front for Gounders, a front for Vellalars, both names of dominant castes in the western belt). Its leader U Thaniyarasu, who is a sitting MLA in alliance with the ruling AIADMK says caste is a reality that cannot be ignored in the state. “Caste is important across the country, whether it is in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar,” he said. “We cannot ignore caste in India. In Tamil Nadu there are an increasing number of caste-based parties. They have a small votebank and they prefer to go in for alliances. There is nothing wrong with that,” he said.

The Thevar community which is dominant in the central and southern districts of the state too has similar such groups like the Moovendar Munnetra Kazhagam, forming alliances with either of the two big Dravidian parties in the state.

Caste as a factor

It is in this backdrop that caste becomes the single most crucial factor in any election in Tamil Nadu. With the assertion of individual intermediary castes, the two major Dravidian parties in the state too realised that they would need to appease the dominant community in any area in order to win votes. Thus began the process of appointing district secretaries and candidates of the dominant caste in each district. For instance, the district secretary of Villupuram for the DMK is former minister Ponmudy, a Vanniyar. The AIADMK has appointed Lakshmanan, again, a Vanniyar as district secretary of Villupuram North.

Candidates too are predominantly from the majority caste in most areas except in reserved constituencies. For instance in 2011, the Madurai East constituency saw a battle between K Tamilarasan of the AIADMK and P Moorthy of the DMK, both belonging to the Thevar community. This trend is visible across the state, cutting across party lines.

The entry of the BJP

What appears to have cemented the fortunes of the caste-based parties is the entry of the BJP.

KMDK allied with the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and riding on the Modi wave, came second to the AIADMK in the places where it contested as part of the NDA.

The BJP is now working towards forming an umbrella other backward classes alliance in the state for 2016 – much like PMK chief Ramadoss attempted in 2010.

“The BJP which has been trying for a presence in Tamil Nadu is not able to consolidate Tamils in the name of religion,” stated political analyst Gnani Sankaran. “It was not possible to unite Hindus against Muslims like they did in Uttar Pradesh. So the BJP thought it could consolidate all intermediate caste organisations in the state. We will know whether this strategy works only in 2016,” he said.

The Future?

As caste wormed its way into the politic of the state, divides inevitably deepened, according to experts. “It is a river that cannot flow backwards,” said Stalin Rajangam, Dalit studies expert and author. “Dravidian parties can never be inclusive and break the caste system. Only power matters to them now. They used to speak of social justice at one time but they never delivered,” he said.

Political analyst Gnani Sankaran though feels that this mushrooming of caste identities and parties is a passing phase. “This is definitely not a good trend but there is a positive too,” he said. “Largely most castes don’t vote as a caste, en masse. They still vote on some political issue or the other. You have a lot of Vanniyar leaders in DMK and not just in PMK. There are Thevars are in other parties, not just in the AIADMK. Though caste leaders are trying to consolidate a caste votebank, I don’t see it happening. This is a passing phenomenon,” he said.