The Dravidian Movement’s great failing has been its inability to extend itself to Dalits. The movement started as one against the Brahmins and for Non-Brahmins who were largely landed gentry under the Justice Party. Soon, the Dravida Kazhagam and its later derivatives took that down from the upper crust of Non-Brahmins to the backward and most backward castes. Their focus or the movement’s antagonist through that course has been the Brahmin and Brahminism. However, the inability of the Dravidian parties to shift that narrative to include Dalits in the “us” category indicates their electoral compulsions of not being able to make antagonists out of backward castes.
As early as 1974, the late Dalit and woman pioneer Sathyavani Muthu quit the DMK. She cited the DMK’s absolute lack of interest in Dalits when she formed her new party — Thazhthapattor Munnetra Kazhagam — to redress that. MGR during his time as Chief Minister, if psephology is any indicator, held sway over poor Dalits. But as the 1990s showed us, the status of Dalits was very very perilous even in terms of basic security. Something as simple as naming a few buses with the name of the Pallar hero Veeran Sundaralingam resulted in caste clashes that claimed several lives. Both Dravidian parties did not spend even a tenth of the effort in wooing the Pallars — a Dalit caste — as they did in wooing the numerically larger Mukkulathor community, their immediate and direct oppressors. The Puthiya Thamizhagam — largely considered a Pallar party and one restricted to a few districts in southern Tamil Nadu — was born as a result of the caste violence of 90s has been unable to grow in the first past the post system.
The southern districts of Madurai, Theni, Sivaganga, Ramanathapuram, Thothukkudi and Tirunelveli have Dalit populations that are close to 20% — same as their presence statewide — according to Census 2011. While the Census Data is not available for caste Hindus, a common estimate is that the Mukkulathors form about 35% of the population in these districts. The chart below shows the 2011 Census data for presence of Scheduled Castes district wise as a percentage of population in Tamil Nadu,
In a first past the post system of elections, there are only five districts according to the chart above that the Dalits can play their identity. These are the Cauvery delta districts and those to their immediate north: Thiruvarur, Nagapattinam, Cuddalore, Perambalur and Viluppuram with each having close to 30% of the population comprising of Scheduled Castes. The Dalits here though, unlike those in the southern districts, are mostly Parayar by caste. Their political formation is the VCK and not the PT. And their direct oppressors are more likely to be Vanniyar/Padayachi and not Mukkulathor.
The Central and Western districts — Salem, Erode, Krishnagiri, Coimbatore, Dharmapuri and Tiruppur — seem to have lower than the state-wide average in terms of presence of Dalits. And, the Dalits here are more likely to be Arunthathiyar/ Chakkiliyar.
For whatever reason, the Pallars — or more specifically the Puthiya Thamizhagam — play the game of Brahminic Hindusim instead of rejecting it completely. They have adopted a name that they think offers them greater respectability: Devendra Kula Velalar. The Pariars — or more specifically the VCK — like to call themselves Dalit. These two are the most significant Dalit formations in the state and do not seem to get along with each other. But thankfully for them, their pockets of influence are geographically distinct and thus do not cannibalise each others’ electoral chances. Just that they hurt the possibility of a single loud voice for Dalits in Tamil Nadu.
Dalit parties in Tamil Nadu have often felt the need to use the Dravidian cleavage of language. This, one could argue, affects their political fortunes. After all, the purpose of Dalit parties is to exploit a fault line that’s over and beyond the generic Tamil nationalism and their antagonists are those who are on their side of Tamil line but not the caste line. Perhaps the reflexive nature of Tamil Nadu’s political parties resorting to language and ethnicity points to the success of Dravidian polity. The VCK for instance took the most strident Tamil nationalist positions vis-a-vis the DMK in terms of the Sri Lankan Tamils issue. That’s a cleavage the party is never going to exploit well enough to win elections. But if they go after one that is specific to Dalits, the demographic isn’t in their favour. So one understands why the VCK is doing what it is — but is there a better strategy?
The only place in India where Dalits have realised their political clout to some extent is Uttar Pradesh. That state has 21% of its population as Dalits; very close to that of Tamil Nadu and other large states like Maharashtra, that cradle of Dalit activism. It’s easy to attribute UP’s success to the dynamism of Mayawati alone — but that’s insulting to Dalit leaders and their ability in states like TN and MH. The real catalyst appears to be the demographic of the state itself that’s resulted multi cornered contests. Tamil Nadu has close to 70% OBC population and 5.5% Muslims — an absurdly high proportion of OBCs that makes Dalit political success difficult. UP on the other hand has reasonably large proportion of upper castes and Muslim population in the mix who cannot all go with any single OBC formation, making a Dalit cleavage not entirely impossible.
For the rest of India that does not have the quirk of demographic accident like UP, the only reasonable thing for Dalits to demand is what every non-dominant group should also demand in a Democracy: an end to first past the post system and adoption of Alternate Voting. As we saw earlier, the simple ideas is: a voter is allowed to simply rank his/her choices in the order of preference. Once votes are cast, they can be counted as the British proposed in a referendum that was defeated,
1. Count all first-preference votes not yet counted.
2. If some candidate has over 50% of first-preference votes, then HALT. (That candidate then wins.)
3. Take the candidate with the smallest number of first-preference votes and change each vote for that candidate by removing the first-preference votes and turning kth-preference votes into (k-1)th-preference votes for each k.
4. Remove that candidate from the list of preferences of all other voters.
5. GOTO 1
This way the truly oppressed communities like say Dalits and Muslims will never vote for anyone they perceive is a threat. The Dalit is unlikely to include an OBC Party just as the Muslim is unlikely to pick the BJP. The privileged castes will likely vote just like the Dalits but in the reverse order. While the middle castes have a choice of following their caste party with an upper caste party, given they are unlikely to choose a Dalit one. Or stop there. Each person’s second choice here is a tactical vote that really isn’t one. It also takes away the onus of second guessing winners for those voting for smaller parties — be it Dalit parties or nascent ones like AAP.
Simply, such a system makes possible the marginalised to be heard better and become viable. If the Dalits in India want to become serious players, a common shout for such a system seems like the easiest solution. It’s a wonder why the BSP isn’t organising all Dalit parties under the common clamour of Alternate Voting.