The world first heard of a caste called the Vanniyars in 1987. A big rally of the Vanniyar Sangham (established in 1980) in Chennai got out of hand and was fired upon: No one knew who ordered the firing or why was it necessary. Chief Minister M G Ramachandran, his third term as CM, was already ill, possibly in a coma after a kidney transplant operation, and this was Tamil Nadu's worst-kept secret.
The purpose of the rally was to demand reservation for Vanniyars, who form 15 per cent of the population, and are a classified as a Most Backward Class caste in the northern part of Tamil Nadu (though they also live in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh). The rally was the culmination of a call in the mid-1980s for the consolidation of a militant and numerically-strong caste.
The man with the Vanniyar mission was an MBBS from Tindivanam, S Ramadoss. It was efforts of Ramadoss, a medical doctor by profession, that got the Pattali Makkal Katchi where it is today -- a movement that turned into a caste-based political party and that has now been allocated seven Lok Sabha and one Rajya Sabha seat in Tamil Nadu. The PMK is part of the alliance led by Jayalalithaa's party, the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Never has a party with so little got so much.
The movement for self-respect of the Vanniyars was converted into a political party in 1989. There is a clear socio-economic reason for this. Vanniyars are still agricultural labourers in north Tamil Nadu, though in the past decades, they have become owners of the land they till because upper castes such as Reddiars, Naidus and Mudaliyars have rejected agriculture as a viable occupation and have moved to urban areas. Vanniyars now own houses in upper caste-streets in Tamil Nadu -- where caste continues to be the basic organising principle in the development of villages and small towns.
In north Tamil Nadu, the Vanniyars now own -- as opposed to tilling -- anything between 30 and 50 per cent of land which used to belong to the upper caste and which was either sold to them or transferred. Tamil Nadu has had a good record in enacting land reform legislation : Ceiling on land holdings, protection of tenants from eviction and fixation of fair rent. The state is ranked third, next to Kerala and West Bengal in terms of the small size of average holding. It is true that there is only a slight difference in the pattern of inequalities in the agrarian structure and social rigidities. But the beneficiaries have been the Vanniyar elite.
So while the Vanniyars have managed to pull themselves up, the Dalits, who are the main target of their oppression, have remained pretty much where they are. Ramadoss tried to forge a strategic alliance between the Vanniyars and the Dalits -- his party has tied-up with Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader Thol Thirumavalavan. In the past, this alliance has been rejected on the ground. How it will fare in this election still remains to be seen.
The first Lok Sabha elections contested by the PMK were in 1989. The party drew a blank. In 1991, when the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections were held together, the poll process was punctuated by Rajiv Gandhi's assassination and the PMK got only one Assembly seat.
In 1996, it got four Assembly seats but still no Lok Sabha seat. In 1998, the PMK entered the Lok Sabha for the first time: This was the first election that Jayalalithaa contested in alliance with the BJP and the PMK (and the V Gopalaswamy-led MDMK). The election had coincided with the serial bomb blasts that took place in Coimbatore. Thirty out of 39 seats in Tamil Nadu went to the ADMK, the PMK got four.
When Jayalalithaa pulled out from the BJP-led alliance, the PMK stayed on -- although the DMK stepped into the breach. The PMK got five seats in the Lok Sabha elections that resulted. In 2001, Assembly elections were held in Tamil Nadu. The PMK read the tea leaves correctly once again: It contested from 27 places and won 20 seats in alliance with the ADMK. It got around 5.5 per cent of the total votes.
However, it switched sides in the Lok Sabha elections in 2004 and contested with the DMK as its alliance partner: It won all the 5 allotted Lok Sabha seats. After 1980, this was the first time the DMK allied with the Congress. In the 2006 Assembly elections, the PMK continued its alliance with the DMK and was given 31 seats to contest but won just 18. Obviously, this coalition had run its course.
Ramadoss severed relations with the DMK and shifted to the ADMK, having first declared his party would contest the elections alone this time. He remained part of the United Progressive Alliance until the election dates were declared. Just last week, his son, Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss and another PMK MP, R Velu, quit the government. They are now no longer part of the UPA. In the 2009 general elections, he is part of the ADMK alliance and is also contesting the Pondicherry seat.
An aspect of PMK's politics which surfaces when elections are near is sympathy with the Sri Lankan Tamils. This time too, he has made this a campaign issue. Tactics is Ramadoss's political strategy. He's a fast-mover and this has worked remarkably well for his party so far.
So what's the calculation this time? When the results are out on May16, the Congress and the BJP-led NDA could be tied at the centre. With the PMK by its side and the Vijayakanth-led Desiya Morpokku Dravida Kazhagam as yet uncommitted, if Jayalalithaa is lucky she could get as many as 25 or 30 out of the 40 seats in Tamil Nadu-Pondicherry. This can be a decisive influence on the formation of government at the Centre. And Ramadoss will be right there with his PMK -- again.