R Sadayan, a farmer in Arapidithevanpatti, about 5 km from Andipatti town in Tamil Nadu’s Theni parliamentary constituency, got agitated at the mention of Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam. “Do you know why Amma clipped his wings during the 2016 Assembly election?” he asked, referring to the late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa.

A few months ahead of that election, Sadayan alleged, Panneerselvam, then finance minister, addressed a public meeting near Theni in a manner that mocked the Kallar community and praised his own, the Maravars. “Poduma poduma Maravar padai poduma?” Panneerselvam reportedly asked. Is this large Maravar army enough?

Panneerselvam’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has always relied for votes on the Mukkulathors, the dominant Other Backward Classes community in the south of Tamil Nadu. The Mukkulathor community comprises the Kallars, Maravars and Agamudayars. They share a common origin story of having descended from the Hindu god Indra and take pride in being warrior clans. They have been working to consolidate electorally by keeping aside their social differences, which stem largely from one clan seeing the others as being lower in the caste hierarchy, to reap political benefit. It is an effective strategy: whether it is the AIADMK or the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in power, the Mukkulathors, also known as the Thevars, end up cornering a share of Cabinet berths disproportionate to their population.

MG Ramachandran, AIADMK’s founder, and then Jayalalithaa were able to balance the competing interests of the three groups and claim all their support because they were from outside the Mukkulathor community. A few years ago, Jayalalithaa even donated a golden armour, bought from her personal and party funds, to the bust of Muthuramalinga Thevar, the icon of the Mukkulathors, at his memorial in Pasumpon near Madurai.

She also devotedly attended the annual guru poojai at the memorial, an event that generally adds to the caste tension between the Dalits and the Thevars in southern Tamil Nadu. By giving importance to the Thevars in her party, Jayalalithaa, who was a Brahmin, secured a substantial chunk of their vote. Her longtime aide VK Sasikala is a Thevar as well.

But the turmoil in the AIADMK sparked by Jayalalithaa’s death in late 2016 seems to have opened old wounds among the Mukkulathors. Panneerselvam is a Maravar. TTV Dinakaran and his aunt Sasikala, who split from the AIADMK in 2017 to float the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, are Kallars from the Thanjavur region. The Maravar political dominance has upset the Kallars, who are considered the most populous of the three groups. Dinakaran has shrewdly fielded Thanga Tamilselvan, a Kallar, in Theni. The AIADMK, on the other hand, has nominated Panneerselvam’s son OP Ravindranath.

Though the Kallars of central and southern Tamil Nadu see each other as separate sects within the larger Kallar caste group, these differences matter little when the opponent is from a different community.

The Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam has fielded a Kallar in neighbouring Sivaganga as well, where the AIADMK is canvassing for H Raja, nominee of its alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party. Raja is a Brahmin.

This means the Thevar vote is likely to split. That would benefit the Opposition alliance led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhgam, which has left both Theni and Sivaganga for the Congress to contest. The ally, in turn, has fielded former Union minister EVKS Elangovan, a Naicker, in Theni and Karti Chidambaram, whose father and former Union Finance Minister P Chindambaram is a Chettiar, in Sivaganga.

Tamil Nadu votes on April 18.

Many Kallars in Theni are backing the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam. Photo credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan

Split in Theni

In Arapidithevanpatti, the Kallars blamed Panneerselvam for the split in the Thevar community. “This is a Kallar majority constituency,” explained C Devadas, a villager. “Why field his son here?”

He claimed that while the Maravars talk about Thevar consolidation, they look down upon the Kallars. “Hardly 1% of the Maravars agree to marrying into a Kallar family,” he said.

In Veerapandi, Theni, Krishnan Arasuthiyar, said since Jayalalithaa’s death, AIADMK has leaned more towards the Maravars. “Access to officials and politicians is better if you are a Maravar,” the farmer alleged. He predicted that the Kallar vote would split mainly between the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhgam.

S Krishnamoorthi, a Dalit farm labourer, claimed the AIADMK regime has become a subsidiary of the BJP since Jayalalithaa’s death. “It is disgusting to see Tamil leaders behave like this,” he said, adding that it is only now that Jayalalithaa and DMK leader M Karunanidhi are gone that the people realise their worth. “Would they have ever allowed such a situation?”

Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam's election office near Cumbum. Photo credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan

Adding to the ruling party’s problems is anti-incumbency against both the state and central governments.

In Thottapanayakanur village of Usilampatti, K Periyakaruppan, a farm labourer from the Yadava community, described Narendra Modi’s government as a disaster. “Demonetisation killed all daily work in this area,” he said.

And even as two years of drought have rendered farming nearly impossible, he added, work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has become inconsistent. “After demonetisation we also lost construction work for at least six months,” Periyakaruppan claimed.

In Cumbum, grape farmers spoke angrily about the delay in the release of subsidies for shade sheets they desperately need to arrest falling yields. A manager of a grape orchard said climate change has adversely affected the farms as yields have dropped from 5,000 kg an acre to 3,500 kg. “Higher temperature is deadly for grapes,” he said.

Shortage of water in the area, despite being very close to the Mullaperiyar dam, has worsened the situation.

A grape orchard in Cumbum. Photo credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan

Theni has substantial Muslim population, mainly in the Uthamapalayam area. Given the AIADMK has allied with the BJP, several Muslims said the party should not expect their vote. “We are waiting for the Modi regime to end,” said Akbar Ali, who runs a roadside eatery near the town’s mosque. Ali recalled Jayalalithaa’s guarantee in the last general election that the AIADMK would not align with any national party.

But it is not just the BJP’s anti-Muslim agenda that has informed their voting choice, Ali added. Rising prices of essential commodities and fuel is also a key factor. “Even the raw material I use for the porridge has become costlier by Rs 15 per kg in the last two years,” he said.

When the Congress nominated Elangovan, political observers questioned whether an outsider to Theni would be able to challenge the AIADMK in what is considered the party’s stronghold. Elangovan hails from Erode and is a grandnephew of the social reformer EV Ramasamy Periyar.

The calculation behind fielding Elangovan in Theni is the sizable population of the Naickers, a backward class community which he belongs to. Given the likely split in the Thevar vote and the Muslim consolidation, Elangovan may well have calculated correctly.

There is, however, another factor that could wreck any electoral calculation: across Theni, people said money will play a big role in the election. Already, there is chatter in the region about politicians willing to pay as much as Rs 5,000 per vote.

Akbar Ali says essential commodities have become costlier under the Narendra Modi government. Photo credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan

Dejection in Sivaganga

“Did you see that viral meme on Facebook after parties announced their candidates?” asked Karupasamy, a college student in Padamathur outside Sivaganga town. “All the candidates in this constituency are useless.”

Karupasamy, 19, said his first vote ever will go to NOTA, the none of the above option on the voting machine, in protest against political parties which think Sivaganga does not deserve a good candidate. “Even Kamal Haasan has fielded an outsider,” he added, referring to the Makkal Needhi Maiyam’s nomination of lyricist Snegan.

Across the constituency, several voters claimed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s alliance is in front “by default” as the BJP’s H Raja is unpopular due to his fanatical Hindutva rhetoric and the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam likely splitting the Thevar vote.

Karupasamy will opt for NOTA in this election. Photo credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan

In Kollangudi near Kalayar Kovil, the historic region ruled in the 19th century by the Marudu brothers, icons of the Thevar community who fought the British and inflicted heavy damage on them, Kannaiah said there has been no farming in the area in the last five years because of acute water scarcity. The piped water supply is erratic as well and the groundwater level has fallen so low that they mostly get salty water from their borewells.

“P Chidambaram was our MP seven times but he did nothing for the people,” the tea shop owner rued. Instead, he noted, the Congress leader’s family is facing corruption charges. “Now, his son wants to become the MP.”

Had the AIADMK not allied with the BJP and fielded a “good candidate”, Kannaiah argued, it won have won Sivaganga. “Now it is difficult,” he added.

In Muthupatti, villagers said they will vote for Rahul Gandhi. They were happy with the Congress chief’s campaign promise of providing a yearly income of Rs 72,000 to the poorest 20% households in the country. “Since P Chidambaram will be the finance minister, we hope this area will get the money sooner,” said Kalazhagan, a waiter at a local eatery.

As in Theni, a section of the Kallars in Sivaganga said they will support Dinakaran’s party. It was a different story in the Maravar villages.

In Sundaranadappu, visitors are welcomed by a large poster of the Maravar icon Velu Nachiyar and the freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose. The community claims that when Bose called for people to join the Indian National Army in the 1940s, many of its youth responded with enthusiasm.

Some Maravar villagers claimed that Dinakaran is being propped up by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to weaken the AIADMK. “Who do you think will benefit when the AIADMK votes split?” asked Velammal.

The farmer said she believed the allegations that the Sasikala family had something to do with Jayalalithaa’s death. “Till it is proven they are not guilty,” she added, “but my conscience will not allow me to vote for them.”

The Maravars in Sivaganga support the AIADMK. Photo credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan

Another farmer, Karuppasamy, said he does not subscribe to the communal rhetoric that Raja is known for, but he is unhappy with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam for its “anti-Hindu” positions.

Since early April, a video of the Dravidar Kazhagam leader K Veeramani describing the god Krishna as an eve teaser has gone viral in the region. The Dravidar Kazhagam is the ideological parent of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and is backing the party in this election.

Karuppasamy complained the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief MK Stalin did not condemn Veeramani’s remarks when he was pointedly asked about them. “Will they justify abuse of other gods?” he questioned. “Why target Hindu gods alone?”

He further said there is a good chance of Raja becoming a central minister if the BJP returns to power which would be good for the region. “At least he comes and meets us now and then,” Karuppasamy said, alleging that Chidambaram only visits before elections.

The BJP has started a campaign in Sivaganga warning voters that Karti Chidambaram will be arrested soon for corruption, so their vote will be wasted if they elect him.

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