In the Kongu belt or south Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is troubled. The party's leader and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ottakarathevar Panneerselvam – who is popularly called OPS – does not seem to enjoy the same backing he had been receiving from his community, the Thevar caste, for the past two decades.
The reason for this could be the growing popularity of Sasikala, another Thevar leader and former TN Chief Minister J Jayalaithaa's close confidant.
The Thevars are among the most dominant communities in Tamil Nadu.
As The Quint took a look at Sasikala's recent state tour, to understand the dynamics of caste consolidation behind the two Thevar leaders, it has become apparent that the Thevars are cozying up to Sasikala, who is now a leader of Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), at the cost of OPS from AIADMK. Here's how.
Mannargudi’s Thevar Queen Rises
On 27 October, Sasikala started out on a tour to several districts in Tamil Nadu. This came as a surprise move because she had announced earlier this year that she will retire from active politics.
The tour coincided with the celebration of 114th birth anniversary of Thevar leader and freedom fighter Muthuramalinga Thevar. Sasikala garlanding the Thevar icon's statue was appreciated within the community across southern Tamil Nadu, news reports suggest.
Sasikala has many influential ties in the Mannargudi region (Cauvery Delta), where the community is largely concentrated.
Meanwhile, AIADMK leaders, for the first time, refrained from attending the celebrations. EPS was unwell and OPS had to refrain from attending any auspicious events for at least a year, as his wife had passed away just a few months ago, AIADMK party sources said. However, a senior political expert explained that “this was a calculated cautionary move by the AIADMK. They didn’t want to create any ruckus with emotions already volatile with the Sasikala factor.”
Does this mean, OPS is fine with Sasikala making further inroads into the Thevar community?
Party sources told The Quint that OPS' silence is the result of his understanding that an aggressive stand against Sasikala could pit the Thevars against him.
According to sources, it is apparent that Thevar loyalty is shifting from OPS to Sasikala, because the community thinks the former is overshadowed by the other AIADMK leader, Edappadi K Palaniswami, who is a Gounder by caste.
“Thevars are judging him for being subservient to EPS’ diktats and letting AIADMK become a Gounder-heavy party. Sasikala is taking advantage of this."AIADMK Source
Palaniswami had allowed sub-caste reservation among Vanniyars. "This move has antagonised the Thevars,” said a source. Are the Thevars looking towards a stronger association with Sasikala?
Timing is Key
Meanwhile, it is widely perceived that Sasikala chose the perfect timing for restarting her political journey. The AIADMK leadership is worried that two former ministers of the Palaniswami cabinet – former Transport Minister Vijayabaskar and former Urban Minister S P Velimani – had to face raids by the Tamil Nadu Crime Branch.
Sources close to the Sasikala camp told The Quint that if the Tamil Nadu police questions Palaniswami in the case, Sasikala will, “use it as an opportunity to swoop in and try to capture AIADMK.”
‘Chinnamma’ (mother’s sister as she is popularly called after Jayalalithaa was hailed as ‘Amma’) has been speaking to AIADMK cadre and lower-level functionaries since her return from prison and is reportedly “playing the Thevar card to realign with OPS, hoping to unite with the parent party.”
C Lakshmanan, Associate Professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies said that Sasikala, "just needs to play her turn carefully."
Thevar-Gounder Conundrum in AIADMK
Senior political analyst Raveendran Duraisamy said that while political parties could call each other out for siding with one community or the other, all of them, in Tamil Nadu, “inevitably have to support the Thevars as they form a huge chunk of the vote share.”
Explaining the dynamics between the Thevars and Gounders within the Dravidian party, political analyst Raveendran Duraisamy explained that Jayalalithaa risked earning the wrath of the Gounders when she chose OPS, a Thevar to fill in her place in AIADMK temporarily.
“Jayalalitha won in the 1990s because of the overwhelming support from Gounders in the Kongu belt. When Sasikala got associated with AIADMK, Jayalalithaa benefitted, as all Thevars swung to her side. Many feel Jayalalithaa was ungrateful to the Gounders who actually elevated her as she handed over the leadership to O Panneerselvam and not someone from the Gounder community. But she knew that if she picked a Gounder like Ponniyin, he would figure out a way to retain power. That's why she chose an unassuming Thevar like OPS,” he said.
In fact, after Jayalalithaa's demise in 2016, there were reports that the Gounder community, led by Thambidurai, had lobbied for more power in the party. But despite the presence of 28 Gounder MLAs, the top two posts – of the chief minister and the party chief – went to two Thevars, Panneerselvam and Sasikala.
And now, “EPS is trying to change this caste equation to assert more power of the Gounder community,” a source close to the party said.
Others to Benefit from the Thevar Split?
Experts told The Quint that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has finally made inroads into the Dravidian state by contesting polls in an alliance with AIADMK, is watching the split in Thevar support, from a distance.
“Since AIADMK is not in power, the BJP's grip over the party has loosened. BJP doesn't mind the disintegration of AIADMK as they will only benefit from this,” said Lakshmanan.
A senior journalist based in Chennai said that BJP is focused on increasing the party’s visibility in the grassroots and “doesn’t want to meddle in this Sasikala-OPS petty tussle.”
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