At around 2.30 pm on February 26, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami held an urgent press conference in Chennai while the Assembly was in session.

The decision to hold the event was dramatic because that very morning, the Election Commission of India had said that it would announce the dates for Assembly elections in the state at 4.30 pm. This meant that the Tamil Nadu government would be barred from taking major decisions after that time, as the model code of conduct would go into force, barring the ruling party from announcing policies that could sway voters.

At the press conference, Chief Minister Palaniswami said that the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government would pass a law to give members of the Vanniyar group just over half of the 20% quota in educational institutions and government jobs already reserved for the Most Backward Classes.

The Vanniyars, a powerful populous caste group in the 12 northern districts of Tamil Nadu, will get 10.5% of the total number of seats and positions.

The Most Backward Classes category includes members of 115 caste groups. The amended law said that 22 other castes in the bracket would be allotted 2.5% of the total quota, while 68 caste groups listed as Denotified Communities and 25 remaining Most Backward Class groups would together get 7%.

In other words, while the Vanniyars got just over half of the total 20%, all other caste groups in the category had to share 9.5% of the total quota.

The announcement came a few weeks after the Pattali Makkal Katchi led by S Ramadoss, an ally of the AIADMK that has a substantial following among the Vanniyars, held protests to demand that the community be given 20% of the total quota.

As elections approach, the AIADMK, which has ruled Tamil Nadu for 10 years since 2011, is bracing for an anti-incumbency effect. With its opponent, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, putting together a large alliance, the electoral arithmetic requires the AIADMK to retain the support of the Pattali Makkal Katchi.

Complex situation

Contesting alone in the 2016 Assembly elections, the PMK had polled 5.4% of the vote, even though it did not win any seats. Given the concentration of PMK supporters among the Vanniyars in northern Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK’s chances in at least 40 seats in the region could be hurt if it contested without the PMK.

In the bargain for the quota, the PMK agreed to contest fewer seats in the alliance. Though it had originally planned to demand over 40 seats, it will contest in only 23 constituencies. The state has 234 constituencies.

A bill to create the 10.5% internal reservation was passed on February 26 just minutes before the Election Commission announced that Tamil Nadu will to go to the polls on April 6.

With the 10.5% reservation, there is a perception in Tamil Nadu that Vanniyars will consolidate behind the AIADMK alliance, putting the DMK in a spot.

However, the ground situation is complex. travelled to three north Tamil Nadu districts of Kallakurichi, Villupuram and Cuddalore last week. While a sizeable number of Vanniyars interviewed were euphoric about the quota, there were also several who questioned the timing of the decision, coming just before the polls. They also wondered about the possible benefits.

On the other hand, there was perceptible anger among other communities, who claimed that the Vanniyars, already socially dominant in the region, were being given special treatment by the AIADMK to the detriment of other groups.

To assuage their fears, the AIADMK in its election manifesto on Sunday said all communities in Tamil Nadu will get quotas proportional to their population once a caste census is conducted. In December, the AIADMK government formed a commission to look into the modalities of collecting caste data.

But will this be enough to pacify other communities?

Quota and votes

With the imposing tower of the Ulagalantha Perumal Temple in the background in Thirukoilur in Kallakurichi district, S Palani and R Senthilkumaran, both farmers from nearby villages, praised Ramadoss for getting the Vanniyar community a special quota after 40 years of agitations. Both of them belong to the Agnikula Kshatriya sub-caste of the Vanniyar group, which has seven sub-castes in total.

R Panneerselvam of Cuddalore feels the 10.5% quota for Vanniyars will change the tide for the AIADMK alliance in the North Tamil Nadu in the upcoming Assembly elections.

“You tell us: is there a leader of another community who had done so much for his people?” Palani asked this reporter. He made frequent assertions that he and his friend were not members of any political party. “Last time [Lok Sabha elections] we voted for the DMK,” he said. “This time, we will close our eyes and press the button for the AIADMK alliance.”

In Cuddalore, R Panneerselvam, a 50-year-old water tank operator, said the quota will indeed work in favour of the AIADMK in the northern districts. “Till February last week, people here were talking about being desperate for a change from the AIADMK rule,” he added. “But now, the wind is changing direction.”

Why is the quota important?

Panneerselvam said despite being the most populous community in Tamil Nadu, there was a feeling that Vanniyars are not given the respect they deserve because their presence in the government machinery is much lower than that of other groups.

“Most here still depend on tilling these dry lands,” he said. “With this quota, we hope at least the next generation will occupy important positions in the government.”

A BJP poster in Cuddalore hailing Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and PMK founder S Ramadoss for the 10.5% quota for the Vanniyars.

While announcing the quota, Chief Minister Palaniswami maintained that it was a temporary measure and that the percentage of reservations for specific communities would be reassessed after a caste census is conducted.

Asked if he believed the quota would continue after the elections or if he thought it was a poll gimmick, Panneerselvam said once reservations are allotted, they could not be taken back. “The whole of north Tamil Nadu will see protests if any party tries to revoke the quota,” he declared. “We have a chance to get more but they cannot reduce this.”

But not everyone was convinced about the intentions of the AIADMK government.

In Chidambaram in Cuddalore district, V Elavarasi, a 37-year-old home maker from the Padayachi sub-caste of the Vanniyars, said while she believed the quota would help the next generation, she will not cast her vote based on a single issue. “Gas cylinder prices have gone up by over Rs 100,” she said. “Onions are selling at Rs 70 a kilogram. Will quotas alone help us stay alive?”

Elavarasi, who emphasised that she had completed Class 12 and was fairly conversant with political developments, wondered why the AIADMK waited till the last moment to announce the quotas. “I am fed up with all these political parties who think we are so gullible,” she said.

S Kannappan, who runs a catering business just outside Chidambaram town, said it was a myth that all Vanniyars are happy with the PMK and would rally behind the AIADMK alliance merely because Ramadoss’s party is a member.

“There are many Vanniyars in the DMK as well,” Kannappan said. “So many factors like candidate selection will matter in how the votes are polled.”

S Kannapan runs a catering business near Chidambaram in Cuddalore.

While the PMK and other allies of the AIADMK such as the Bharatiya Janata Party have put the 10.5% quota prominently on their posters and other election campaign material, media reports suggest the AIADMK is being cautious in showcasing the quota as a major achievement. The disappointed response of other communities to the Vanniyar reservation seems to be playing a role in this strategy.

Counter polarisation

In Tamil Nadu’s complex caste mosaic, in addition to members of the 109 caste groups spread out across the state that comprise the Most Backward Classes, there are also 132 caste groups in the Backward Classes category.

Some of these castes such as the Udayars and Mudaliars have significant presence in north Tamil Nadu districts. The most populous non-Vanniyar community, however, is the Dalits, especially the Adi Dravidar sub-caste among them.

“If everything is allotted to the Vanniyars, what should our children do?” asked M Paramasivam, a 47-year-old farmer in Kallakurichi from the Parkavakulam community, whose members use the title Udayar. The group, listed under the Backward Classes, consists of five sub-castes.

M Murugan, a former panchayat president in Villupuram.

According to Paramasivam, the AIADMK’s move to give the Vanniyars 10.5% “at the last minute” came as shock to members of other communities in the northern districts, both from the Backward Classes or the Most Backward Classes. “We did not even have the time to organise protests as election dates were announced immediately,” he said. “If this had been done a year ago, all other communities would have taken to the streets.”

Asked how it would affect the Parkavakulam community given that the Vanniyars are listed under a different category for quotas, the farmer said social equations are not just about percentages on paper. “Vanniyars are already politically dominant here,” he said. “If the government wants to meddle with quotas, it should first do a caste census and then give each community their share. Why allot for Vanniyars alone like this?”

The farmer added that the Parkavakulam community has been demanding that they be shifted to the Most Backward Classes category for decades. “But now, what is the use of getting that status?” he said. “We will get a mere 2.5%. We would rather stay in the Backward Classes category.”

At the Thanikelampattu village in Villupuram, M Murugan, a Dalit and a former panchayat board president, said Vanniyars and Dalits have a tense equation, given the history of caste violence in the region.

Even though Vanniyars are not part of the Scheduled Castes, a measure such as special quota would have serious repercussions on the ground, altering fragile social equations, he added. “More than anything else, such measures tell you that the support of one community is seen as more important than that of others,” Murugan said. “That in itself is wrong.”