In the run up to the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, whenever there was talk of an alternative to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the focus – at least in the English media in the state – was on actor-turned politician Kamal Haasan and Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam chief TTV Dhinakaran.

On Sunday, when the results of the polls came out, both Haasan’s Makkal Neethi Maiam and Dhinakaran’s AMMK performed abysmally. An analysis of provisional results in The Hindu revealed both MNM and AMMK had each secured a mere 2.4% of the votes.

The one party that posed itself as an alternative and improved its vote share was film director-turned-politician Seeman’s Naam Tamizhar Katchi. From polling about 1% of the vote in 2016, the party has increased its numbers to 6.7% in the 2021 Assembly elections. However, the party did not win any seats.

Political observers in Tamil Nadu say that Seeman’s decision to consistently contest alone has helped him electorally. Anecdotally, his support base largely consists of youngsters, something that could help him build popularity for the future.

At the same time, writers and commentators also point out that Seeman’s electoral performance relies on an extreme form of ethno-nationalism with alienating language, something that has made even some who embrace Tamil nationalism uncomfortable.

‘Spillover voters’

Seeman’s political career took off during the final stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2008-’09, when thousands of Tamils were killed by the Sri Lankan army, leading to charges of genocide and war crimes against Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lankan President at the time.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Seeman campaigned against the United Progressive Alliance, accusing the Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of betraying the interests of Sri Lankan Tamils. A year later, he launched a political party called Naam Tamizhar Katchi.

Seeman quickly came to represent a particularly aggressive form of Tamil nationalism.

As reported in 2019, the party has not shied away from employing hateful language, pitching Tamils against other linguistic groups in Tamil Nadu. The party dismisses the Dravidian movement as a bogus ideology perpetrated by non-Tamil South Indians to strengthen their hold over Tamils.

While the party was for many years considered a fringe element in Tamil politics, it has slowly increased its vote base in successive elections. From about 4% in 2019 parliamentary elections, its vote share has gone up to 6.7% in the 2021 Assembly elections, in which it has taken the third position after the DMK and AIADMK in a number of constituencies across the state.

How did this happen?

Ramu Manivannan, former professor of politics at the University of Madras, said Seeman primarily attracts the spillover voters who do not want to back either of the two major Dravidian parties. “You must remember that there have been those like [Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam head] Vijayakant in the past who were even more successful in gathering these spillover votes,” he said.

While a vote share of close to 7% could be termed numerically significant, Manivannan maintained that Seeman’s performance was not politically significant.

The former professor said Seeman was not someone who works with the people on the ground. Rather, he has a highly centralised system that is fueled by rhetoric. “This sort of a structure has its limitations,” he added. “You cannot point to one instance where Seeman has done truly emancipatory work on the ground unlike the Dravidian parties or the Left.”

A journalist in Tamil Nadu who has tracked the party since its inception in 2010 said that Seeman’s strength was the emotional nature of his speeches. “Often, you see youngsters saying that Seeman speaks in simple language that they could easily understand,” the journalist said, requesting anonymity. “His oratorical prowess is such that even fantastical claims, such as some aspects of his association with the LTTE, are consumed as facts by a section.”

The journalist added that Naam Tamizhar Katchi was perhaps the party that understood the power of the social media very early. “It is on social media that much of their outreach happens,” he said.

Aggresive Tamil nationalism

Writer Meena Kandasamy has spoken of how, for many years in Tamil Nadu, anything related to Tamil nationalism and the Eelam struggle in Sri Lanka was dismissed by those in the English media as a fringe issue.

While parties such as the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi of Thol Thirumavalavan and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of Vaiko were active on the Tamil nationalist stage, this space came to be captured by Seeman since 2009 and the end of the Sri Lankan civil war.

In doing so, Seeman created an artificial divide between Dravidian ideology and Tamil nationalism and drove a wedge between Tamil nationalist groups. “To do this, he projected the electoral alliances that some of these parties had with the DMK and the AIADMK as a form of compromise on their Tamil nationalist position,” she observed.

However, the Naam Tamizhar Katchi, she said, represents a Tamil majoritarian position with emphasis on ethnic purity. “This is much more in line with Sinhalese majoritarianism than with anything the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam represented,” she said.

Kandasamy said to understand Seeman, one could compare the Naam Tamizhar Katchi with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and how the latter constructs hate categories by othering Muslims. “Everyone gets reduced to some category in opposition to the majority,” she said.

She added that one cannot escape pointing to Seeman’s own caste background that bestows a lot of clout. Seeman belongs to the Nadar community, a powerful Other Backward Class group in southern Tamil Nadu.

Despite the party’s claims that it was no match to the financial might of the Dravidian parties, Mannivanan pointed out that the Naam Tamizhar Katchi, in its attempts to monopolise the Tamil nationalist space, has managed to gather significant financial resources from the Tamil diaspora abroad. “This has contributed a lot in improving their visibility,” he said.

Counter arguments

Naam Tamizhar Katchi treasurer R Ravanan told that projecting the party as an organisation indulging in hate politics against other linguistic groups was wrong.

He said that of the 234 candidates the party selected for the Assembly polls, several were from from other linguistic groups. “Our position is that the right to rule Tamil Nadu should be in the hands of a Tamil. That is all,” he said.

Ravanan said if not for the money might of the Dravidian parties, the Naam Tamizhar Katchi’s vote-share would have crossed 10% and its leader Seeman would have won from his constituency. “We tried out best to stop money distribution but it still happened,” he claimed.

On the criticism that the party receives significant funds from the diaspora, he said that he would be glad if people could point out these sources so that the party could reach out to them for funds. “Party members are putting money out of their pockets to run this movement,” he asserted. “There is no truth to claims that we are getting money from the diaspora.”