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Has Vijayakanth's influence in Tamil Nadu politics started to wane?

ET Magazine sets out to explore where the two parties and their maverick kingpins stand as election fever heats up.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jan 31, 2016, 03.39 PM IST
ET Magazine sets out to explore where the two parties and their maverick kingpins stand as election fever heats up.
ET Magazine sets out to explore where the two parties and their maverick kingpins stand as election fever heats up.
Of the four major states going to the polls in a couple of months — West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Kerala — the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) chances are brightest in Assam and bleakest in Tamil Nadu. There is a party each in these two states which BJP is closely watching. The party in Assam, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), is as much competition to BJP as the ruling Congress. On the other hand, without the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) in Tamil Nadu, the BJP’s prospects are a non-starter.

Both AIUDF and DMDK were founded in 2005, fought their first elections in 2006, and are now the largest opposition parties in their respective states. But that is where the similarities end. AIUDF founder Badruddin Ajmal is a cleric and businessman, and DMDK chief Vijayakanth is a movie star. AIUDF, whose core vote bank is Bengali-speaking Muslims, has fought every election on its own and its influence has clearly grown over time, while DMDK’s good showing in 2011 was attributed to its alliance with J Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), and its fortunes have since been on a decline.

ET Magazine sets out to explore where the two parties and their maverick kingpins stand as election fever heats up.

Thyagarajan has no love lost for politics, particularly the two parties that have ruled Tamil Nadu for nearly half a century, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Consequently, he believed the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), founded by action film star Vijayakanth, would be a breath of fresh air. “He started off well. He had a lot of support. But he has failed to capitalise on it,” says Thyagrajan, a cab driver in Chennai.

Has Vijayakanth's influence in Tamil Nadu politics started to wane?
When asked how Vijayakanth, whose given name is Vijayaraj, managed to make an impact on the state politics despite the dominance of DMK and AIADMK, he immediately says, “It is not all that surprising. After all this is a state that built a temple for Khushboo,” referring to the actress politician, and to the space cinema occupies in the public discourse of Tamil Nadu.

Man of the Hour There are few political stories bigger in the southern state these days than speculations about which alliance Vijayakanth, addressed by his fans with the prefix ‘Captain’, after his 1991 film Captain Prabhakaran, will join for the assembly election in 234 constituencies in April-May. DMK is wooing him, as are BJP and the People’s Welfare Alliance (PWA). Vijayakanth, however, is keeping his cards close to his chest, giving all his suitors hope.

The one party he is certain to not partner with is the ruling AIADMK, with which his party fought the polls in 2011. He has not missed an opportunity to lash out at chief minister and AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa, and her party members have reciprocated unfailingly.

With the formation of DMDK in 2005, Vijayakanth hoped to emerge as an alternative to both DMK and AIADMK. The Congress, since losing power in 1967, was a shadow of its former self (it has now split into two in the state), and the BJP was even more insignificant. The Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), headed by V Gopalsamy or Vaiko as he is better known, was a spent force, and parties like the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and Viduthalai Chiruthalaigal Katchi (VCK) catered largely to particular caste groups, the former to Vanniyar, and VCK to a section of Dalits called Adi Dravidar.

Maalan Narayanan, consultant editor with Puthiya Thalaimurai, a respected Tamil weekly, says around 40 leaders, some of them former MLAs, joined DMDK from other parties in its initial period. While Vijayakanth was the face of the party, many credit S Ramu Vasanthan with building the party’s cadre base. The driving force behind the actor’s fans’ association, Vasanthan became the party’s first general secretary. In its debut election, the 2006 assembly polls,

DMDK, whose name means the National Progressive Dravidian Federation, forfeited its deposit in 201 of the 232 constituencies it fielded candidates in; Vijayakanth was the sole winner, from Vridhachalam in eastern Tamil Nadu. But the party earned a respectable vote share of 8.4%.

DMDK fought the 2009 Lok Sabha election, again on its own, contested in all 39 seats in Tamil Nadu and lost all. However, the party’s vote share rose to 10.1%. That year also saw the death of Vasanthan, after which Vijayakanth’s wife Premalatha and her brother LK Sudhish took the reins of the party, leading to much disenchantment among senior leaders and the cadres.

Seeing that DMDK had sizeable support among the electorate and not wanting the anti-DMK vote to be divided, Jayalalithaa invited Vijayakanth to fight the 2011 assembly election together. AIADMK got a simple majority and DMDK, which won 29 seats compared to DMK’s 23, became the second largest party in the assembly and Vijayakanth the leader of the opposition, a humiliation worse than the poll defeat for DMK chief M Karunanidhi.

Has Vijayakanth's influence in Tamil Nadu politics started to wane?

Growing Dissensions
That was the beginning of the souring of relations between Jayalalithaa and Vijayakanth, with the latter repeatedly attacking the chief minister, and Jayalalithaa saying that she had made a mistake by forming an alliance with Vijayakanth. “Jayalalithaa was annoyed by Vijayakanth saying AIADMK won because of DMDK so she fought the 2011 local body polls alone,” says Narayanan.

Between 2012 and 2013, one DMDK MLA resigned and eight others rebelled against the party and praised Jayalalithaa’s work. One of them, Panruti Ramachandran, resigned as a member of legislative assembly (MLA), and quit DMDK to go back to AIADMK. AIADMK won his constituency in a by-election. Jayalalithaa has not taken the other eight MLAs into her party as that would result in DMDK losing its main opposition party status to DMK, which has 23 MLAs. The eight MLAs are expected to formally join AIADMK this month. One of the rebel MLAs, requesting anonymity, says Vijayakanth realised he had to attack the government to be able to grow. “He became more and more insecure and he and his family did not let anyone grow in the party,” he adds.

Has Vijayakanth's influence in Tamil Nadu politics started to wane?
In addition to the defections, Vijayakanth’s reputation has periodically taken knocks thanks to his abrasive behaviour in public and his beef with the media. While campaigning for the 2011 polls, he was caught on camera slapping a party candidate when his microphone failed. More recently, in December 2015, the 63-year-old MLA from Rishivandiyam, 240 km south of Chennai, accused a reporter of being biased toward Jayalalithaa and spat to express his displeasure.

Among political leaders — Karunanidhi, Vaiko, Jayalalithaa — known for their oratorical theatrics, Vijayakanth is an anomaly. Forget resorting to lecternthumping rhetoric in chaste Tamil, he often fumbles while talking in colloquial Tamil. As a result, he is often mocked on social media, and memes on him are dime a dozen. A YouTube video of his hilarious attempts at yoga has been viewed a million times.

Narayanan says Vijayakanth is temperamental and impulsive and does not hold back when faced with difficult questions from journalists. An upshot of this is the party is completely shut off to the media. Attempts to reach Vijayakanth, his brother-in-law Sudhish and other senior functionaries of the party did not yield results.

DMDK was part of the National Democratic Alliance in 2014 general election and got more seats to contest — 14 — than any other party in the alliance, but drew a blank and recorded its lowest ever vote share, at 5.2%. La Ganesan, member of the national executive committee of BJP, says Vijayakanth’s popularity cannot be gauged from the general election. When asked if the controversies surrounding Vijayakanth will make the BJP reconsider their decision to woo DMDK, he says it is to be seen whether those controversies will play on the minds of voters.

TKS Elangovan, DMK’s spokesperson, says DMDK cadres want the party to join the DMK alliance as DMDK has been insulted by AIADMK. But he adds: “If he wants to project himself as the next CM, DMK won’t be his choice (for an alliance).” DMK has announced that 92-year-old Karunanidhi will be its chief ministerial candidate, leading to some consternation among supporters of his son MK Stalin, who want Stalin to be chief minister.

There is speculation that in the event of Vijayakanth joining the alliance, he might be promised the deputy CM post which would otherwise go to Stalin who, incidentally, has ruled out a coalition government and is confident of DMK forming the government on its own. The state has never had a coalition government.

Spoilt for Choice Complicating matters for the DMK alliance is whether MK Alagiri, another son of Karunanidhi, will be welcomed back into the party after his suspension last year. Alagiri’s return will not go down well with Vijayakanth, who has been criticised by Alagiri in the past. Moreover, Madurai is home turf to both. DMK is also hoping to get the Congress into its alliance.

The People’s Welfare Alliance, which has MDMK, VCK, the Communist Party of India, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is also trying to rope Vijayakanth in. If he chooses to join this alliance, he is sure to be its chief ministerial candidate. Not since 1984 has a party in power won in Tamil Nadu. Till November it seemed like history would not repeat itself in 2016, but the floods in Chennai, Cuddalore and three other districts have given opposition parties some hope.

Though AIADMK got flak for its rescue efforts, it has managed to bounce back with its relief and rehabilitation efforts. AIADMK’s Avadi Kumar says the party is as opposed to DMDK as it is to DMK. “Vijayakanth belied our trust. He was not a good opposition leader. His behaviour in public will drive people away from DMDK.” Narayanan believes AIADMK would prefer a split opposition.

Sops and Raps While AIADMK’s schemes of handing out freebies like gold for mangalsutra, cattle, mixer-grinders and fans are likely to have a positive impact, the party will be closely watching the Supreme Court’s decision in Jayalalithaa’s disproportionate assets case. DMK, too, has a legal battle it is worried about. The Enforcement Directorate’s case on the 2G spectrum allocation scam-related financial transaction between DMK-run Kalaignar TV channel and DB Group firms is also in the apex court.

C Lakshmanan, an associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, says the people of Tamil Nadu have been so depoliticised by a culture of freebies that there is not much difference between the agenda of the major parties. Talking of DMDK, he says the party will be key in deciding the winner. “If DMK loses this election, their survival will be difficult.”

Experts believe the repercussions of the Supreme Court’s stay on a central government notification allowing jallikattu (a traditional bulltaming sport) will be marginal and that too, only in a few constituencies in southern Tamil Nadu. Another issue which seems to have lost steam in recent weeks is a call for prohibition from opposition parties.

A clearer picture of the alliances will emerge in the coming weeks and which group Vijayakanth chooses to go with is crucial to the poll outcome. Only a solid performance in the election would be able to give his battered public image a much-needed face-lift and arrest the exodus from the party, making this election clearly his biggest test to date.

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