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August 30, 1999

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The Rediff Election Specials/ N Sathiya Moorthy

From a sectarian leader, Ramadoss has come a long way

No one possibly took him seriously when he launched himself as a political messiah of sorts for the most backward (MBC) Vanniar community, which is concentrated mostly in northern Tamil Nadu, but spread out up to central and western fringes of the core area, as well.

Politicians dismissed him as a 'nuisance' at best, and to the ordinary man on the street, he headed a disorganised band of ruffians who would chop of roadside trees and block transport, or burn the buses -- all, to send out a political message.

But today, Dr S Ramadoss is a politician in his own right. The Pattali Makkal Katchi, which he founded, and which he controls with a strong hand, without officially being its president or any other office-bearer -- "I will not accept any elective office, the chief ministership of the state included" is the standard refrain -- has come a long way since. So much so, no one now talks of the past, which has not only been forgotten, but also forgiven. Or, so it seems.

"We are helping in the social justice for the downtrodden Dalits. And those who say that we are helping 'extremist forces', are the ones who are now with such forces from the past." This reference by Tamil Maanila Congress president G K Moopanar, in reply to the state BJP's charge against his forming a Third Front with Dalit-strong Puthiya Thamizhagam, is targetted at the PMK. As is known, the PMK is an ally of the BJP in the DMK-led National Democratic Alliance in the state.

"Why do you say, we are militant, or extremist?" asks a PT leader in the same vein. "It was only to assert our identity, to tell our detractors that we have arrived, and that their high-handed behaviour of the past, against our labour and women alike, would not go unpunished. It was the kind of loud message that PMK founder Ramadoss gave while launching the Vanniar Sangam first, and the political outfit, later.

"No one recalls the PMK's past now, and no one will have to recall our present, 10 years hence."

If, thus, Ramadoss has set the trend for caste-based groups in various parts of the state taking to militancy as the first step towards political consolidation, there are those like the Dalit Panthers, representing the Adi Dravidar segment of the community in the 'Vanniar belt', say they have taken to militancy "only to protect ourselves from Vanniar marauding with the political backing at their command".

Only that, today, the Dalit Panthers, sworn to 'non-political, social action' in the past years, has now joined the political mainstream, through the TMC-led Third Front.

For a medical doctor, Ramadoss has since come a long way. No one gave him any chance, least of all the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, when he got to amassing the Vanniars under one umbrella, in the late Seventies, and early Eighties. In fact, the PMK did not contest the 1989 polls for want of a 'more respectable and politically powerful ally', and Ramadoss's constant complaint was that the DMK and its chief M Karunanidhi, now chief minister, were taking him and his party for granted.

Today, it's the other way round. There is a murmur of protest within the monolith organisation like the DMK that Ramadoss and the PMK have been given too much of political space, too much of bargaining chips, not just for the present but for the future as well. If these murmurs are not heard louder and clearer outside, it's because the DMK doesn't have a Vanniar leader as strong and as powerful as Ramadoss, and those who are there are not larger than the party are, as the good doctor is compared to his own party.

In a way, it's the systematic downgrading of the Vanniar leaders in the DMK that has given place to the likes of Ramadoss. The community had been known to be anti-Congress since the first general elections, when local Vanniar outfits of two different hues won the elections from this belt. But a scheming Rajaji, as chief minister of the Composite Madras state, and the late K Kamaraj, who succeeded him to the post, sought to neutralise that by coopting the strong Vanniar leaders of that opposition to merge their sub-regional outfits in the Congress parent.

But when the first signs of an anti-Congress political move became visible, the Vanniars were in the vanguard. All 15 of the DMK legislators elected in the party's first poll outing in 1957, and 35 of the 50 party MLAs in 1962 were Vanniars. Why, even as late as 1989, when the PMK stayed away and the DMK won the post-MGR assembly elections, nearly two-thirds of the party legislators were returned from the 'Vanniar belt'.

If in 1989, first, and 1991 and '96 later, the DMK's predicament was to share seats with the PMK in their common stronghold, thereby weakening the party's legislative and parliamentary strength, today the PMK has grown strong enough to dictate terms even to a strong and tradition-bound political outfit of 50 years standing. Ramadoss saw to that.

Rather, he knew where the PMK fitted in, in the evolving political situation in the state and exploited it.

With the DMK playing hide and seek with him on seat-sharing, as was usual, and the AIADMK down in the dumps, desperately seeking out allies who could bolster its image and vote-share in the first major electoral outing after Jayalalitha's rout of 1996, Ramadoss played the 'Vanniar atma-gouravam card' against the DMK in last year Lok Sabha polls. The PMK won four of the five seats it contested, and contributed greatly to the AIADMK-BJP alliance, winning another dozen or so seats.

If that also restored the Election Commission recognition and symbol for the PMK, lost in the DMK-TMC clean sweep of 1996, it also showed up Ramadoss as the leader capable of saving the political future of other equally desperate leaders. His clout over the by-now-established 'PMK votebank' contributed greatly to the AIADMK recovery in last year's polls.

Today, Ramadoss is sitting pretty. By just displaying his 'Jaya card', he could make the DMK offer him eight Lok Sabha seats for the PMK, against the one he was offered hesitantly for last year's polls. What more, once that pact was signed and sealed, Karunanidhi became emboldened to take on the MDMK ally, and through it even the BJP leader of the NDA combine at the national level.

Against this, the AIADMK, it's said was willing to go up to 10 Lok Sabha seats for the PMK, in a total of 40, including Pondicherry Union Territory. For a political leader who has had the courage to headquarter his party in the district town of Tindivanam, in the Vanniar heartland, some three hours' drive from the State capital of Madras, Ramadoss has come a long way. So much so, he is ready to take on adversaries from within, real and imaginary.

If he started with party president Dheeran, who preferred the DMK to the AIADMK, and on the former's 'humiliating terms' for the last year's polls, today he is willing to subdue even Petroleum Minister and Tamizhaga Rajiv Congress Minister Vazhappadi K Ramamurthy, another Vanniar considered the political guru of Ramadoss in the murky settings of distant Delhi. He denied the TRC a second seat this time, and even threatened to field a nominee of his own against Ramamurthy if the latter did not fall in line.

If this may have helped the 'affable doctor' establish his political supremacy over the rest of them all from within the Vanniar community, only time will tell whether he faltered in sidelining PMK general secretary and party ideologue 'Dalit' Ezhilmalai, the only non-Vanniar holding any key post, including the only ministerial berth allotted to the party in the Vajpayee government. Ezhilmalai was denied a Lok Sabha ticket this time, and has since quit both the party and the government, to join the AIADMK.

Insiders say it made political sense as Ezhilmalai is identified with the AIADMK, whereas Ramadoss has decided to take the party the DMK way. The logic is simple and straight: together, the DMK and the PMK -- not necessarily in that order -- could try win the 2001 assembly elections on the basic strength of their alliance.

If any 'Dalit' consolidation occurred with Ezhilmalai's exit, either in favour of the AIADMK, or the TMC-led Third Front with its Dalit bias, so be it. For, Ramadoss's leadership seems to feel that every Dalit consolidation would strengthen a rival Vanniar consolidation in a belt where the two communities had been known to be at each other's throat, and literally so, until the PMK established its socio-political supremacy.

For a leader who sort of hijacked the Vanniar Sangam from its founders, Ramadoss is now considered a dependable ally. Through the BJP-AIADMK quips and quarrels of last year, everyone knew where the PMK stood: with the BJP during the currency of the Vajpayee government, with a review on hand, if and when elections were due.

So crucial had his role become that even after his voting for the confidence motion moved by the Vajpayee government that a never-say-forget AIADMK chief Jayalalitha was more than willing to strike an election alliance with the PMK, on its terms. Now, Ramadoss has declared that the PMK's alliance with the DMK will continue even for the assembly elections of 2001. If someone thought that he has been na´ve enough to close the AIADMK option, in fact, he is also sending a signal to the BJP, to count him out of any future designs for the Tamil Nadu gaddi. For, only the DMK, not the AIADMK or the BJP, can take the PMK there, and Ramadoss is clear about it all.

The Rediff Election Specials

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