“My only entertainment is TV,” rued Abhirami, 24, a resident of Karupanampatti village in Omalur taluk of Salem, Tamil Nadu. “Now they have made that too impossible.”

A member of the Dalit Adi Dravidar community, Abhirami, a farm labourer, said the new rules for direct to home services that kicked in earlier this year made watching TV costlier by Rs 200 a month.

But this problem was not confined to the idiot box. “Prices of everything have gone up and we don’t have any income,” she said, blaming both the state government led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the central government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party for the lack of employment.

Salem, in northwest Tamil Nadu, is the home district of Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami. In the April 18 election to the state’s 39 Lok Sabha seats and bye-polls in 18 Assembly constituencies, he needs to ensure the AIADMK does well in this region, not only because the results in May could determine the fate of the state government, but also his position in the faction-ridden party.

It is a steep challenge. Voter disenchantment is high owing to anti-incumbency and also anger against the BJP government at the Centre. The AIADMK is contesting the elections in alliance with the BJP.

To counter anti-incumbency in the state’s northern and western districts, the AIADMK has stitched up another alliance, with the Pattali Makkal Katchi. Led by S Ramadoss, the party draws support predominantly from the Vanniyar community, a dominant social group in the region alongside the Vellala Gounders, the community to which Palaniswami belongs. Both communities are listed among the Other Backward Classes.

Though the Pattali Makkal Katchi was extremely critical of the Palaniswami government until as recently as early March – former Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss ridiculed the chief minister as someone who “licked the tyres” of J Jayalalaithaa’s vehicles while serving as a minister under her – the region’s caste calculus was compelling enough for the party to ally with the AIADMK.

In the 2016 Assembly election, Anbumani Ramadoss contested from Pennagaram and finished third. That this happened in an Assembly segment that falls in Dharmapuri constituency, which he represents in the Lok Sabha, shocked the Pattali Makkal Katchi. The party had contested the election alone, projecting the younger Ramadoss as its chief ministerial candidate.

This time, the Pattali Makkal Katchi and the AIADMK seem to have calculated that a combination of Vanniyar and Vellala Gounder votes would help them dominate the region.

However, the performances of the central and state governments appear to have pushed even hardcore supporters of the two parties to question their choices.

Then, there is a countermobilisation of other communities, including religious minorities, against the Vanniyars and the Vellala Gounders that could upset the fundamental premise of the alliance’s caste arithmetic. The minority religious groups are particularly miffed with the AIADMK for its alliance with the BJP.

This story has been reported from three constituencies.

Caste loyalties

Saravanan, 46, and four of his friends sat sipping lassi to beat the heat at a juice stall in Edappadi, Palaniswami’s home town. Since he became chief minister in early 2017, the area’s roads have visibly improved. “The chief minister visits often,” Saravanan said. “You can have a shave looking at the road, it is as smooth as a mirror.”

His friend Murali contended that it would be suicidal for them to vote against the chief minister since he was certain to ensure further development if he retained power. “It is a luxury to be in the chief minister’s area,” he said.

In this region, such conversations about development quickly move to the local social equations. Asked what he made of the Pattali Makkal Katchi allying with the AIADMK despite having been very critical of it, Murali said the alliance was for the larger good of his community, the Vanniyars.

“How do you expect us to vote for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam when they are in alliance with the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi?” asked Saravanan. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi is the predominant Dalit party in Salem as well as in northern Tamil Nadu.

In 2012, following a controversy over a relationship between a Dalit man named Ilavarasan and a Vanniyar woman called Divya in Dharmapuri, the Pattali Makkal Katchi launched a castiest campaign across Tamil Nadu, accusing Dalit men of deliberately wooing dominant caste women at the instigation of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi.

Ilavarasan was found dead near a railway track in 2013, not long after Divya’s family took the matter to the Madras High Court and turned it into a media spectacle.

In Salem, some voters favourable to the ruling alliance, countered that there were contradictions in the Opposition DMK alliance as well. “Vaiko even used caste slurs against M Karunanidhi in the last election,” said Vinayagam, a weaver, referring to Vaiyapuri Gopalsamy, leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which formed a “third front” in 2016 to take on both the DMK and the AIADMK. The front included the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, all of which are now in the DMK-led alliance.

During the 2016 campaign, Vaiko had accused the DMK of corruption and vowed never to let MK Stalin, now the Opposition party’s president, become chief minister.

N Muthusamy has been trying to get a government teaching job since 2002. Photo credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan

‘Our leader will be our MP’

In Palayamputhur in Dharmapuri, where Anbumani Ramadoss is contesting again as the ruling alliance’s nominee, N Muthusamy, 44, has almost given up on his dream of becoming a teacher.

He completed his teacher training in 2002 and applied for a government teaching job. “I am yet to get a job as I am not able to pay the bribe,” he alleged.

Muthusamy claimed the going rate for a high school teacher’s position was Rs 2 lakh. “The bribe is two years salary plus a premium as commission,” he alleged. “A ruling party member said give me the money and I will get you the job in a day.”

But with just an acre of land to his name, he could not afford to pay. He makes a living as a painter. The election means he is getting plenty of work painting party symbols on the walls of houses in nearby villages.

No matter his circumstances, Muthusamy, a Vanniyar, said he was certain to vote for the Pattali Makkal Katchi, in line with the village’s collective decision. “Whether it is DMK or AIADMK, nothing is going to be of help,” he added. “At least this way, our leader will be our MP.”

His fellow villagers claimed that whenever the AIADMK was in power, cases were rarely filed under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, which, they alleged, was being used by the Dalits to intimidate their community.

Moreover, they said, Anbumani Ramadoss helped bring water projects which eased the drinking water shortage in the drought-prone region.

‘Neglected by the government’

In Salem’s Karupanampatti, Rangasamy, 55, compared his colony’s “neglect by the government” to the discrimination his Dalit community faced because of the caste system. For over two years, he said, they had been asking the administration for street lights. The Dalits outnumbered other communities in the village, Rangasamy added, yet it was the dominant caste colony that got the streetlights. “They think we do not even deserve light,” he complained.

The agricultural labourer said there were no jobs in the area because of the ongoing drought. But even otherwise, finding work had become difficult since the 2012 caste tensions.

“For a few months after the Dharmapuri incident, the Vanniyars refused to give us work,” he recalled.

Then, he claimed, they reduced wages by Rs 100. “The caste tensions were used to deny us fair wages,” he said. The situation was slightly better now, he added, pointing out that there had not been any violent caste-related incident in the past two years.

Indrakumar, 26, claimed that the moment the AIADMK allied with the Pattali Makkal Katchi, it lost all Dalit votes in his village. “I voted for Amma last time but I won’t vote AIADMK this time,” the science graduate claimed, referring to Jayalalithaa.

In 2016, the AIADMK swept western Tamil Nadu, and that was crucial to delivering the closely fought election to the ruling party in spite of the DMK getting more votes in seats where the two parties were in a direct contest across the state.

Coupled with the caste equations that are weighing heavily on people’s minds is the economic situation. Shanthi, 50, a shopkeeper, lost her husband eight years ago. “I have been running from one office to another to get the widow pension,” she said. “I cannot understand why they are denying it to me.”

Some elderly villagers said their old-age pensions were abruptly stopped in the past two years, with officials citing the small pieces of land they owned as the reason.

Dalit villagers in Salem say they struggle to get the basic amenities that the dominant castes get easily. Photo credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan

It is not just the Dalits who are wary of the ruling alliance. Non-Vanniyar Other Backward Classes – Udaiyars, Chettiar, Mudaliars, Reddys – are not particularly happy either, claiming the Vanniyars have slowly started dominating the region despite being an economically weaker group. They are also worried about the Vanniyar-Dalit conflict disturbing peace in the region.

In Kalapambadi, Dharmapuri, a village with a mixed caste demography, the divide between the Vanniyars and other communities was apparent from conversations with around 20 villagers at the bus stand. “They used caste to win in 2014 but did nothing for others,” claimed a non-Vanniyar villager.

In the 2014 general election, the Pattali Makkal Katchi was in alliance with the BJP, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The election was held in the backdrop of the Dharmapuri caste tensions.

The villagers also complained about the absence of industrial development, and the resultant unemployment. “Until last month, Anbumani was blaming the AIADMK,” one of them said. “Now he is allied with them.”

It is not lost on anybody that the Pattali Makkal Katchi has allied with the AIADMK to counter the non-Vanniyar Other Backward Classes and the Dalits, who together form the majority of the voters in the region. Ramadoss’s party is banking on the AIADMK to deliver the non-Vanniyar vote. It does not expect to gain many Dalit votes, though, according to party members.

Not that the party’s Vanniyar vote is all tied up. In the 2014 parliamentary election, the AIADMK swept the northern Vanniyar belt, winning all seats save Dharmapuri. To compound the Pattali Makkal Katchi’s problem, the DMK has in its ranks several Vanniyar heavyweights from the region.

So, with the Dalits expected to vote for the DMK given its alliance with the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, the Pattali Makkal Katchi faced the prospect of a wipeout without joining hands with the AIADMK.

Another section of the electorate Ramadoss’s party is seeking to woo through its alliance with the ruling party are the Scheduled Tribes, who are usually divided between the DMK and the AIADMK. Dharmapuri has the largest Scheduled Tribe population of any district in Tamil Nadu.

Apart from the DMK, Anbumani Ramadoss also faces former state minister P Palaniappan, the candidate of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, led by TTV Dinakaran.

For all these calculations to work, however, the alliance, which includes the BJP, needs to overcome double anti-incumbency, against the AIADMK government in Chennai and the BJP dispensation in New Delhi. There is palpable resentment against the Narendra Modi government, with even a section of the Vanniyars and the Vellala Gounders that supports the alliance claiming the Centre has harmed Tamil Nadu’s interests.

‘A crookish regime’

In the Vellala Gounder area of Edappadi, several people said it was after almost 100 years that a person from their community had become chief minister. “Can we ever expect a Gounder in the DMK to be chief minister?” asked S Ramasamy, 51, a farmer.

Outside Salem, however, this sentiment is not quite as strong. In Maruthampatti, on the Tiruchy-Namakkal border, many Vellala Gounders said they were torn between caste loyalty and development.

Vellala Gounders in Tiruchy's Maruthampatti say not all in their community will vote for the AIADMK. Photo credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan

The villagers said not all Vellala Gounders would support Palaniswami just because he was from their community. “Why did he ally with the anti-Tamil BJP?” asked Karupaiah Gounder, pointing out that the DMK also has many Gounder leaders.

He accused both the BJP and the Congress of “playing a double game” on the Cauvery river dispute to protect their higher political stakes in neighbouring Karnataka.

The Cauvery flows close by, the villagers said, yet they were facing acute drinking water shortage. “If we do not get Cauvery water this year, the area will turn into a desert,” said Karupaiah Gounder.

They are also angry over the economic devastation caused by Modi’s demonetisation in 2016. “We were all on streets, trying to access our own money,” said Muthukumar, a farmer.

Another villager remarked, “Modi’s is a crookish regime.”

As they were talking about their problems sitting outside a temple at the entrance to the village, a Brahmin priest arrived in a Maruti Alto car and launched a discussion about caste and reservation. He said Modi had done well by introducing a quota for the economically weaker sections among the upper castes. But he himself would like all reservation to be stopped. Why?

Because even though the Dalits scored very low marks, they were able to get seats in good colleges, the priest complained. “Other communities score high but are denied,” he alleged.

Some of the villagers seemed to agree with him but others countered that reservation was necessary. “Not all are equal,” argued an elderly man.

Across northwest Tamil Nadu, voters said they missed Jayalalithaa, the former chief minister who died in December 2016. “When she was around, everyone in the party was kept under control,” said Palaniappan, a resident of Sankagiri in Namakkal Lok Sabha constituency. “She would never have aligned with the BJP.”

The farmer has been trying to get piped drinking water for his home since 2015 as groundwater in the area has dropped to a level below 1,000 feet and become salty. “I have paid all the charges,” Palaniappan said. “Yet they won’t lay the pipes.”

Also having a palpable impact is the proposed 8-lane expressway that the state government wants to build in the region. Farmers have protested against land acquisition for the project, which was quashed by the Madras High Court on Monday. The DMK has picked the project up as a big campaign point on the ground, alleging that the expressway was a ploy of the AIADMK leaders to earn commissions.

Mugilan, a farmer from Adimalaipudur in Salem, said the apprehensions about the project go beyond just the expressway. “We are told that they want to give away the hills to industrialists for mining,” he alleged, referring to a campaign launched by the All India Kisan Sabha in the area.

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