Tamil Nadu’s VCK Is Finally Coming Into Its Own as a Political Force

Sridhar Kannan
Sridhar Kannan 10 Min Read

Hugo Gorringe and Karthikeyan Damodaran

Despite remaining a minor party in terms of seats won, it would be remiss to overlook VCK’s impact in Tamil Nadu’s politics.

The recently concluded national elections witnessed the complete routing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Tamil Nadu. Numerous commentators have attributed the success of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led alliance to the ‘Dravidian model’ of social pluralism and the resurgence of the party under chief minister M.K. Stalin’s leadership. While both factors are important, the role played by stalwart, albeit minor, allies in this electoral outcome needs to be highlighted.

It would be right to echo Congress leader and Raebareli MP Rahul Gandhi in asserting that it was the farmers, poor and Dalits who have saved the Constitution by rejecting Modi. This is not, in other words, a victory of the Dravidian model alone. Indeed, for political observers who have been keenly following Tamil Nadu politics, the role of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi’s (VCK’s) charismatic leader, Thirumavalavan, is no less of a contribution in thwarting the efforts of BJP to gain a foothold in the state. 

Thirumavalavan emerged as the vanguard in the fight to quell Hindutva’s expansionist ideas in the state, not only in the Lok Sabha election but even in other elections in the past. In previous elections, when the DMK and its main leaders were soft-pedalling their stance, for fear of a purge through central agencies, it was Thirumavalavan and the VCK (formerly known as Dalit Panthers of India) that rhetorically and symbolically took on Hindutva politics and highlighted concerns about the BJP’s majoritarian politics.

He organised massive conferences prior to both the elections focusing on ‘saving democracy’ and anti-sanatan and anti-Manusmriti ideas, which laid the platform for a strong ideological campaign against sanatan dharma this time. While it is to DMK leader Udhayanidhi Stalin’s credit that he too raised his voice against it and drew ire at a national level, it is little surprise that Thirumavalavan has remained the primary target for the state level BJP functionaries.

Despite not getting the number of seats it desired in each poll, the VCK has emerged as the DMK’s most trusted ally. Party leaders rhetorically state that the ideological bonding and commitment to ideals of social justice shared by VCK and DMK bring them closer. However, like Udhayanidhi’s attack on sanatan dharma followed VCK campaigns, the onus to raise the flag for social justice falls on the smaller party. Despite the rhetoric, the current DMK regime has seen casteist atrocities continue, such as in Vengaivayal, where faecal material was dissolved in the drinking water tank meant for Dalits. Extrajudicial killings of Dalits have not abated, and they the community continues to face honour killings, custodial deaths and denial of entry in temples. In many such instances, VCK have been left to protest alone. 

This has led many critics to argue that the VCK has become a cog in the wheels of the DMK. There were widespread criticisms from Dalit writers and intellectuals against VCK on its inability to negotiate with DMK or put pressure on it to act against the atrocities committed against Dalits. The party was also criticised for being forced to compromise on seat sharing and accepting only two seats despite a decade of loyalty. The VCK ultimately had to compromise, for a larger cause of defeating the Hindu right, despite that fact that it has outperformed Congress in recent elections.

The one change from 2019 was that the VCK insisted on contesting with their own symbol. In 2019, while Thirumavalavan used the common ‘pot symbol’, D. Ravikumar contested with the DMK’s rising sun, indicating that the party was denied formal recognition. This is one of the difficulties facing smaller parties that lack the resources to field multiple candidates and bankroll major campaigns. Over the past two decades, the party has been allocated various electoral symbols and had to publicise them to the electorate in the weeks running up to each election. Now, by securing two MPs with their own symbol and securing 8.1% of the vote-share in the state, the VCK will add much needed strength to its politics by gaining recognition as a state party. This will afford them the chance to have a permanent symbol, which is crucial for leverage in electoral politics.

The VCK may remain a minor party, but they now have a solid platform on which to face the upcoming Assembly elections. If they are still part of the DMK alliance, it will be important to see how they negotiate the seat-sharing process. This is of importance as the failure to grow out of DMK’s shadows will result in VCK being dubbed as a party that cannot sustain itself without the political patronage of its Dravidian ally. However, influence cannot be measured in the number of seats alone. In spear-heading the strong ideological campaign against Hindutva, VCK has lived up to its claim of representing the interests of Dalits, minorities and other marginalised sections. 

Though VCK remains Dalit-led, compared to Puthiya Tamilagam or Tamizhaga Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, and its leaders, Dr. K. Krishnasamy and John Pandian, VCK represents a wider section of the marginalised in a way that harks back to social activist and politician E. Periyar. Whilst the VCK used to be described as a caste-based party, it has always described itself as anti-caste and its growth and development over the years reflects this.

However, caste politics in Tamil Nadu has not disappeared. In the recent elections, the BJP allied with the openly casteist Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), expecting the PMK to perform strongly against VCK. It was no surprise that the PMK was politically routed. The party’s divisive and caste-oriented political approach seems to have lost its steam even among the Vanniyars.

The PMK’s founder-leader, S. Ramadoss, sought to accuse an entire community of upwardly mobile Dalits of engaging in staged romantic and marriage relationships targeting upper and dominant castes. This exclusionary rhetoric created an anti-Dalit psyche in the state, fuelling large-scale anti-Dalit violence in Dharmapuri district where three villages were ransacked and burnt down. Despite the heinous nature of the attacks, no major condemnations came from either civil society groups or major political parties.

It was left to the Dalit parties, organisations and the Left to challenge it. It was here that Thirumavalavan showcased his maturity as a leader. Instead of resorting to violent measures and language in return, he believed in democratic methods and guided his party and cadres to politically nullify the PMK. While VCK has been able to grow politically and become a force to reckon with, the PMK has fallen flat. 

In sum, the Panthers are finally coming into their own as a political force. Despite remaining a minor party in terms of seats won, it would be remiss to overlook their impact in state politics. In standing by the DMK, despite having their demands for more seats denied time and again, they have shown the importance of strong-alliances. In consistently raising their voices and hosting rallies on federalism, democracy and language policies, they have highlighted how an ideologically coherent and combative campaign can challenge the BJP’s electoral juggernaut.

In doubling down on critiques of the Manusmriti, they have shown how one can remain steadfast in the face of social media outcries. By continually raising their voices against caste atrocities, they keep alive the dream of a caste-free future. Finally, as they approach 25 years of electoral competition, the Panthers have secured the state recognition they have long sought. As Thol Thirumavalavan put it to reporters following the election results: “From 1999, we have been working to get recognition. This is a South Indian party, a movement which speaks of Ambedkarite ideology. By getting the support of people and state recognition, we are being recognised as a party and a movement for everyone.”

Karthikeyan Damodaran teaches at the National Law School of India University.

Hugo Gorringe is the head of the sociology department at the University of Edinburgh.

Thanks : The Wire

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