Hype Powered

The questionable importance of Vijayakanth

Vijayakanth launched his party, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, or DMDK, with the intention of fighting the corruption of the other two major political outfits in Tamil Nadu. bccl
25 March, 2016

There was the usual slur to his speech. But a massive crowd of his followers, assembled in Kanchipuram on 20 February, clearly understood what the actor turned politician Vijayakanth, popularly known as Captain, said. “Do you want me to be the king or the kingmaker?” he thundered. “The king!” the crowd roared back. He commanded them to repeat the words, and they did, again and again. “So be it,” Vijayakanth said, before thanking them and leaving the podium.

That was all the indication he gave of his course of action in the upcoming assembly election—which had been a matter of frenzied speculation in political circles and the media. For nearly five decades, political control of Tamil Nadu has oscillated between two major outfits—the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK, now led by M Karunanidhi, and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or AIADMK, now led by Jayalalithaa. Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, or DMDK, which emerged as the second-largest outfit in the 2011 assembly election, is too new and unsteady to be seen as a long-term rival to these parties. But if it is able to command the kind of vote share it has drawn in some past elections, it will play a vital role in influencing the outcome of the assembly election this May.

For a more precise statement on Vijayakanth’s plan, his followers had to wait till 10 March, when the party organised a women’s rally in Chennai to celebrate International Women’s Day. Vijayakanth’s wife, Premalatha, spoke first. Premalatha, who co-founded the party, has been a constant presence through Vijayakanth’s political career, often speaking at his rallies and representing him in the media. During the speech, she attacked both the DMK and the AIADMK, calling the former a “thillumullu katchi,” or fraud party, and the latter an “anaiththilum thillumullu katchi,” or a fraud-in-everything party. After her, Vijayakanth took the stage, and assured his audience that he did not need any advice on what alliance to strike. Then, he declared that the DMDK would contest the next elections alone.

With this, Vijayakanth doused the hopes of many political formations that had been hoping to ally with the DMDK. The party had been wooed by multiple groups: the DMK, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the People’s Welfare Front, or PWF, coalition. The union minister Prakash Javadekar had conducted talks with him, and said at the end of February that an alliance between the BJP and the DMDK was likely, and that the BJP would support Vijayakanth as a chief ministerial candidate. The DMK, too, had courted the party through February, before announcing that the two were close to arriving at a pact. Karunanidhi had told reporters in early March that he was confident of an alliance taking shape. All the speculation had lent the DMDK and its leader an aura of great importance.

To the AIADMK, Vijayakanth’s announcement that his party would contest alone was welcome news. The DMK’s vote share has fallen significantly behind the AIADMK in recent years, but the state’s history of alternating between the two would not have allowed the latter to be entirely at ease. The DMK’s chances of victory would improve significantly were it to contest in a partnership with the DMDK. At the news that the talks had fallen through, the AIADMK cadre fired crackers in jubilation at the party’s headquarters.

The reaction from the DMK high command was measured. “It is true that we invited him to join us,” said MK Stalin, Karunanidhi’s son and second-in-command of the party. “But to accept it or reject it is entirely his decision. His decision will in no way affect DMK’s prospects.” But others in the party were less controlled. M Appavu, a spokesperson for the DMK, blurted out in anger on television that Vijayakanth’s decision was part of Jayalalithaa’s plan, in collaboration with the centre, to prevent an alliance between the DMK and the DMDK.

But Vijayakanth’s declaration was, in fact, not free of ambiguity. At the 10 March meeting, though he insisted four times during his speech that he would contest alone, Premalatha spoke after him and declared, “with Captain’s permission,” that “like-minded parties” could still approach him for talks. It was generally assumed that Premalatha’s comments were intended to keep the doors open for the PWF and the BJP. Vijayakanth and Premalatha’s speeches have long been characterised by this dynamic—with the former making rambling statements, and his wife following, clarifying points and filling in the blanks.

The vagueness of the DMDK’s announcement was of a piece with the general uncertainty among analysts about its political clout. Though it has delivered impressive electoral results since its inception in 2005, the party and its leader have no clear political identity. Both the DMK and the AIADMK had acquired reputations for corruption, and Vijayakanth launched his party with the appealing, if simplistic, idea of combatting that corruption. But he did not offer the state a precise social vision.

In the absence of such a vision, Vijayakanth’s rise to prominence can be directly attributed to the power of cinema in the state. His followers draw comparisons between their leader and the late MG Ramachandran, the film star who founded the AIADMK. A popular nickname for Vijayakanth among his party members is “karuppu MGR,” or dark MGR, referring to his complexion.

But MGR had been deeply involved in Dravidian politics before he became a political force himself. He began as a member of the Indian National Congress, before going on to build his reputation as a Dravidian nationalist in the DMK. In 1972, he split from the party to form the AIADMK, and went on to serve as the state’s chief minister for ten years, till his death in 1987.

Vijayakanth does not have the cinematic charisma of MGR, or even, for that matter, of his own contemporary Rajinikanth, who has flirted with politics over the years, without ever joining a particular party. Nevertheless, the DMDK debuted in the 2006 assembly election with an impressive vote share of around 8 percent, and followed it up with a 10-percent share in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. Both results made observers sit up and take notice.

In the 2011 assembly election, the DMDK allied with the AIADMK, according to Vijayakanth, “to defeat the ruling DMK.” In this, the alliance succeeded—the AIADMK won 150 seats, and the DMDK won 29 of the 41 seats it contested, becoming the second-largest party in the assembly. (The parties split after the results, with the DMDK taking up the mantle of the main opposition party.) In the 2014 general election, its most recent electoral contest, the DMDK joined forces with the National Democratic Alliance, but won none of the 14 Lok Sabha seats it was allotted, as the AIADMK swept most of the state.

The chemistry of the alliances in these later elections offers some clues to how much of an electoral draw the DMDK has at the moment. One analysis, on the blog Puram Politics, determined that in both these elections, the DMDK won a lower share of the votes in the constituencies it contested than most of its allies did. Another, on the news website News Minute, concluded, using rough calculations, that Vijayakanth was “neither king nor kingmaker.” Basing its estimate on self-admittedly sweeping assumptions about how much of the DMDK’s votes in the 2011 state election were owed to a pro-AIADMK wave, it concluded that the vote share that the DMDK alone would have commanded was likely to be only around 3 percent. As the Puram Politics post noted, such conclusions raised the question of why parties were wooing Vijayakanth so enthusiastically.

Meanwhile, Vijayakanth’s public conduct, widely covered by the media, has not left him with a very flattering image. Suggestions that he has a drinking problem have surfaced repeatedly. But Premalatha has defended him against such claims, maintaining that he leads a “healthy and disciplined life.” He has also gotten into squabbles and brawls with his own party members and the media, many of which have been caught on video and circulated widely online. Apart from this, he has been irregular in his attendance of assembly proceedings in the decade or so that he has been in politics. Increasingly, over the years, he has come to be seen as a comic figure rather than a serious political player.

Frustrations have grown among his party members as Premalatha and her brother Sudheesh have increased their control of the party. By many accounts, the selection of candidates for the coming election is being decided by Sudheesh. In what might be an ominous portent, towards the end of February eight DMDK MLAs resigned from the assembly, reducing the party’s strength to less than that of the DMK, and robbing Vijayakanth of the position of opposition leader ahead of the polls. But the various overtures from other parties finally bore fruit on 25 March, when it was announced that the DMDK would lead the PWF coalition. “You will be king,” Vaiko, a prominent PWF leader, told Vijayakanth at a joint press conference. But as the man who would be king leads this group into battle, he must prove himself worthy of the throne.