A KMK agitation against government restriction on toddy tapping.
TN 2011: Beyond One Caste Politics
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

This post is part of CRI commentariat led effort to extensively analyse the series of  state elections scheduled for the year 2011.

For a society as much casteist as rest of India the state of Tamil Nadu only has two caste based parties worth a mention.  Both the parties are similar in their origins: they draw their support from a single community dominating the socio-economic landscape of 2-3 districts. Both the parties were conceived in the womb of their own caste/community associations:  Vanniyar Sangam and Kongu Vellala Goundergal Peravai respectively. The PMK has a much more violent agitational past than its Kongu counterpart – one would ascribe that to the relatively much better economic status of the Kongu Gounders of Coimbatore/Erode region.

If we are to look at the differences between these two parties we can safely say that the PMK has seen better days whilst the KMK is yet to see its star on the ascendant.  The PMK was once seen as the most significant vote-seat contributor to a coalition. But in the elections of 2006 the party lost nearly half the seats it contested despite doing so from within the ruling coalition, in a region that is supposedly the only strong-hold of the party. The defeat can be attributed to Vijaykanth’s new party taking away much of the lower middle class votes – a constituency where PMK draws its bulk support from. However there might be more than what meets the eye.

It is possible that by 2006 the PMK’s life cycle had reached its peak – yes, the party represented the interests of the Vanniyar community, it agitated once in a while to retain interest and had a few other things going well for it. However, it never had the chance to expand beyond its Vanniyar-Vaniyambadi constituency; the Vanniyars themselves were looking at more than reservations (PMK’s en-cashed cheque?). The party missed the development bandwagon – it never articulated a vision for a developed Vaniyambadi. The 2009 Lok Sabha elections proved to be a disaster for PMK – a defeat the party has not been able to full recover from.

The turbulent and troublesome past 5-6 years for PMK may be a valuable lesson for the newly rising Kongu party. Confining a party to a narrow regional-caste range spells defeat. Simply casteism can quickly run out of steam in terms of votes captured.  It is true that community organisations are a great stepping stone to political organisation and mobilisation. However, such organisations cannot be sustained on chauvinism alone. Thankfully, the KMK has always claimed to represent the economic interests of Coimbatore region and will apparently lobby hard for the regions development. This offers a chance for developing local leadership based on shared economic interests beyond the caste identities – the Naidu’s and Mudaliar’s would be happy to oblige. The textile industry and toddy tapping are some examples for economic interests cutting across caste lines.

The KMK may be able to mobilise beyond the obvious Gounder constituencies but it cannot carry out any meaningful expansion outside the Kongu region. On its own the KMK will go the PMK way, there is little scope for growth beyond the Coimbatore belt, the Gounders may move on and movement will eventually die in 10-15 years. For the Kongu movement to live up to its fullest potential it requires a staging ground, a platform so as to speak from where the economic and social interests of the region can be voiced on a higher plane – ideally, on a national level. This the KMK can only accomplish by being part of a larger national movement that seeks to smash the gates of the Byzantine Indian establishment to defend the interests of an entrepreneurial Coimbatore.

The movement and its leadership will both add and receive credibility by being part of the larger story. The choice is between obscurity and nation-building.