On February 20, three months before the assembly elections, actor turned politician Vijayakanth asked an adoring crowd at Kancheepuram on the outskirts of Chennai, “Do you want me to be the king or the kingmaker?” “King”, replied the crowd. He made the people repeat it a few times and said, “Then so be it.” For the first time in his decade-long political career, Vijayakanth was signalling his intent to play the role of a Tamil Kejriwal, in a state dominated by the two Dravidian parties, the DMK and the AIADMK. However, a day after the election results were announced, even as Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa was selecting her new ministers and the DMK was getting ready to install M.K. Stalin as the new leader of opposition, Vijayakanth was missing from the political picture. Instead, he was on the sets of Thamizhan Yendru Sol, a movie starring his son Shanmuga Pandian, getting ready to essay a character role.
Vijayakanth and his Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam suffered a whitewash in the elections. Vijayakanth himself finished third in Ulundurpet constituency. The DMDK polled a meagre 2.4 per cent votes, even behind the Pattali Makkal Katchi. “The DMDK has no political ideology or direction. It doesn't have any geographic or demographic representation to stand on. The leadership is highly secretive and more dynastic than the DMK or the AIADMK. It has no USP in the political market to sell. Vijayakanth failed to act as a responsible opposition leader,” said writer and journalist Aazhi Senthilnathan.
On September 14, 2005, when Vijayakanth launched the DMDK by converting his fans into party cadres and fan clubs into party offices, the move was seen as a threat to the DMK and the AIADMK. He was hoping to hijack the vote bank still loyal to former chief minister, the late M.G. Ramachandran. Vijayakanth loved to compare himself to MGR, who was known as Puratchi Thalaivar (revolutionary leader), and preferred to be addressed as Puratchi Kalaignar (revolutionary artiste), Karuppu (black) MGR or Captain. He used to claim that MGR’s wife, the late V.R. Janaki, treated him like a son and that she gifted him the campaign van used by MGR. But with the massive loss he suffered in the assembly elections, Vijayakanth's political relevance is being questioned and his chief ministerial ambition lies in tatters.
“Vijayakanth might lack the silver-tongued oratory of M. Karunanidhi or the political shrewdness of Jayalalithaa. But he throws himself into the crowds by his charisma like MGR. This elections were not fought on the strength of vote banks. Money and muscle power ruled everything. Our Captain would definitely come back,” said Muthukumar, a DMDK worker. Vijayakanth's fans and supporters are now hoping for a dramatic turnaround as it usually happens in his movies. In fact, most of his movie scripts, including the upcoming Thamizhan Yendru Sol, are carefully drafted to heighten his image as a macho destroyer of evil, who is compassionate towards the poor.
Born Vijayaraj Azhagarsamy, Vijayakanth was a big fan of MGR right from his school days. Growing up in a dusty street of Madurai, he was spotted by a local filmmaker, who took him to Chennai in 1976. But the Tamil film industry did not warm up initially to his dark, unsophisticated looks. He subsequently changed his name to Vijayakanth and got a break, landing the lead role in the 1979 movie Inikkum Ilamai. He cemented his presence in Tamil cinema with the movie Vaidehi Kaathirunthal (1984). Then came films like Pulan Visaranai, Shathriyan, Captain Prabhakaran, which boosted his image as a saviour of the masses.
When Vijayakanth entered politics in 2005 by floating his own party, it looked like a well-planned move to open up a new space in Tamil politics, which seemed stifled by the dominance of the DMK and the AIADMK. His charisma and repeated allusions to MGR worked in his favour and the DMDK registered a steady growth. He fought alone in the 2006 assembly elections, fielding candidates in 232 of 234 constituencies. The DMDK polled 8.33 per cent of votes and clearly ate into the AIADMK vote bank in southern Tamil Nadu. Vijayakanth himself won from Vridhachalam, a constituency which was the stronghold of the PMK. He continued his solo streak in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, too, garnering 10.3 per cent votes. But in the 2011 assembly elections, Jayalalithaa, who once compared Vijayakanth to the moss that sprang up after the rains, sought to ally with him, in a bid to recapture power. The strategy worked; Jayalalithaa won, the DMDK became the second largest party in the assembly and Vijayakanth became the leader of opposition. But after that high, the journey has been downhill for Vijayakanth and the DMDK.
The last five years have witnessed a steady disintegration of the DMDK. Vijayakanth's image as a macho leader suffered with the DMDK failing miserably as a political outfit and its MLAs defecting to the AIADMK camp. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Vijayakanth's strategy of allying with the BJP turned out to be disastrous and the party lost all 14 seats it contested. In the assembly elections held last month, Vijayakanth was part of a new alliance called the People's Welfare Front along with Vaiko's Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, CPI(M), CPI and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi. But the experiment turned out to be a major disappointment and the DMDK lost in all 104 constituencies it contested. With just 2.4 per cent votes, the party could soon lose its status of a regional party and the murasu (drum) symbol, which it got after a bitter battle with the election commission.
Many DMDK supporters said Vijayakanth's wife, Premalatha, also played a role in the party's downfall and that she was trying to play the double role of Jayalalithaa and her confidante Sasikala. Vijayakanth's antics on the campaign trail also turned out to be counterproductive, although it provided comic relief during the bitterly fought elections. With his strident criticism of the media, he has alienated large sections of the fourth estate as well.
With no room left for any meaningful manoeuvre, Vijayakanth's political future looks uncertain. Yet, it would be premature to write the Captain's political obituary. ”I won't write him off,” said Senthilnathan. “However, his revival seems extremely remote.”