Electoral politics involves a steep learning curve: first learn the rules, then learn to bend them and ‘work around’ them. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), or Liberation Panthers Party, Tamil Nadu’s largest Dalit (formerly Untouchable) political party provides a case study for how straining and, at times, embarrassing this process can be. Upon entering the electoral field in 1999, the party has relied foremost on coalitions with Tamil Nadu’s dominant parties, the DMK and AIADMK, to contest elections. These electoral arrangements provide access to financial means and extensive party infrastructure required to manage a competitive campaign. Yet, ahead of the 2016 Legislative Assembly Election, the VCK consolidated six smaller parties [CPI, CPI-M, MDMK, TMC, and DMDK] to take on the dominant parties as a third front, referring to themselves as the Makkal Nala Kuuttani, or the People’s Welfare Front (PWF). Although the PWF drew a blank, it influenced electoral outcomes in many constituencies and is presumed to be partially responsible for the defeat of the DMK. Aside from electoral returns, the PWF experiment provides a case in point about forms of subtle subterfuge used to deceive gullible voters as well as a paradigmatic example of electioneering techniques gone awry.
Despite contesting in a third-front without direct electoral support from a major political party, most pollsters still pegged VCK Chairman Thol. Thirumaavalavan to win his legislative assembly contest in Kattumanarkoil constituency. In the end, he lost his bid by a razor thin margin of 87 votes. Thirumaavalavan secured 48,363 votes, just shy of the 48,450 polled by his AIADMK rival. While multiple factors contributed to his defeat, some have received greater press coverage than others and, curiously, the VCK’s ‘own goal’ has elided media mention.
In a now commonplace ploy, one of Thirumaavalavan’s competitors fielded what is colloquially referred to as a ‘dummy candidate,’ that is a candidate with a similar name intended to confuse unsuspecting voters on the ballot. In this case, one party induced (and likely paid) an independent candidate named “T. Thirumavalavan” to contest in Kattumanarkoil against VCK Chairman Thol. Thirumaavalavan. To further amplify confusion, the independent candidate contested under a similar election symbol. The Election Commission of India uses election symbols to assist voters in identifying their candidate on the ballot. As many voters are illiterate (or under-literate) they identify their candidate by the symbol adjacent to his or her name on the ballot slip. For the past two elections, VCK party candidates have contested under the “ring” symbol. In Kattumanarkoil, the independent candidate “T. Thirumavalavan” contested under the bangle (bracelet) symbol, which bears a striking similarity to a ring when mass-printed on black and white forms. Once the votes had been counted, “T. Thirumavalavan” secured just under 289 votes, more than sufficient to swing the election.
Although the VCK likely anticipated this ploy, party workers also confess their own blunders during the campaign. For instance, party workers did not properly understand the procedures for postal ballots, many of which were declared void on technical grounds. For example, 102 ballots were nullified due to misplaced signatures on the declaration form – again, a sufficient number to turn the tide of the election. “We have no one to blame but ourselves,” proclaimed one VCK organizer, adding, “we did not properly understand the technical aspects of the rules.”
But, perhaps the most bitter pill was administered by the VCK itself. The polling agent, a candidate’s representative who works from within the polling station on election day, is among the most critical players in an election campaign. Having contested alongside major parties for the past fifteen years, the VCK adopted a maneuver from the playbook of their erstwhile allies to gain an edge. VCK workers informed me that political parties routinely field independent candidates in order to gain an additional polling agent across the constituency – hence the independent candidate’s polling agents act as a proxy from within the booth. Following suit, the VCK allegedly fielded their own sympathizer as an independent candidate in Kattumanarkoil in order to secure this advantage. Much to their chagrin, this individual tallied more than 1,000 votes without campaigning or soliciting the people’s support. In fact, the ECI allocated the “belt” symbol to the candidate, which, much like the bangle, closely resembled the ring symbol – leaving party workers to surmise that their own stratagem spoiled their prospects in Kattumanarkoil!