Tamil actor and leader of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), Vijayakanth, known as 'Captain' and 'Black MGR', died in Chennai on Thursday (December 28), after a prolonged illness. He was 71. Vijayakanth was undergoing treatment for pneumonia at a private hospital but what proved fatal was a Covid infection a few days ago which caused breathing difficulties. He had earlier undergone treatment abroad but remained a shadow of his former self, limiting his public appearances to the party general council or executive meeting. He attended a party meeting a few weeks ago where it was obvious that the end was near, and his wife, Premalatha formally took over the party leadership.
A question mark hangs over the future of the party that he founded as an alternative to the DMK and the AIADMK. In that sense, he positioned himself as a potential Chief Minister, a rival to both M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa. His 100th film, Captain Prabakaran, was a big hit and he too came to be called Captain. He was a staunch supporter of LTTE leader V Prabakaran whom he called Captain. His ill-health caused a slump in his film career. His attempts to launch his son as a popular actor too failed.
Vijayakanth was born as Vijayaraj in Madurai on 25 August 1952. His parents were K. N. Alagarswami and Aandal. He acted in over 150 Tamil films, maintaining his independent profile, and avoiding co-starring with Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. It was this same quality of independence that largely marked his political line, barring the 2011 alliance with the AIADMK.
His party made its electoral debut in the 2006 Assembly polls, and made a mark straightaway, though he won the lone seat for the party, registering over eight per cent of the State vote share. He could improve this further to over 10 per cent in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, though the party failed to win seats. Analysts pointed out that the DMDK made a material difference to the DMK and the AIADMK in over 70 Assembly constituencies.
The AIADMK, in its bid to oust the DMK from power, reached out to Vijayakanth for an alliance in the 2011 Assembly polls. Jayalalithaa herself was not in favour of roping in Vijayakanth into her party's alliance as she felt he was undependable. Though the DMDK won 29 seats and helped the AIADMK come to power, the alliance was fragile and fell apart soon, following verbal duels between Jayalalithaa and Vijayakanth in the State Assembly over State issues. Over 40 defamation cases were slapped by the AIADMK government against Vijayakanth for criticism of the AIADMK policies and leaders, all of which were crushed by the Supreme Court, which chastised the AIADMK government for its lack of tolerance.
She then began the destruction of the DMDK with eight of its MLAs quitting and meeting at the State Secretariat often. She even indirectly helped arch rival Kanimozhi, Karunanidhi's daughter, win a Rajya Sabha poll, to ensure the defeat of Vijayakanth's brother-in-law Sudheesh.
Just before the 2016 Assembly elections, the DMDK went through another crisis, as it was now the turn of the DMK to break his party ahead of the polls, upset over the DMDK spurning the offer of an alliance after having negotiated for it. Vijayakanth went back to his path of equidistance, and led a six-party front to counter both the AIADMK and the DMK.
However, Vijayakanth's health took its toll, and he was struggling to speak or even stand on his legs. His on-stage mannerisms became fodder for memes in the social media, and seemed to suggest he was always drunk while the reality was that he was quite sober but seriously ill. His party and the front too came a cropper, failing to win a single seat, and netting only six percent of the vote share. His allies like the Left, Vaiko's MDMK and the Viduthalai Sirithaigal Katchi of Thirumavalavan, deserted him and joined hands with the DMK.
The DMDK is now a mere passenger in the Tamil Nadu electoral scenario. The party which was part of the BJP-led alliance for the Lok Sabha polls in Tamil Nadu in 2014 and 2019 appears to be still with the BJP now but is at the cross-roads since the NDA alliance is in tatters in the State after the AIADMK announced parting of ways with the BJP.
The DMDK contested the recent Erode East Assembly bypoll mainly to register its opposition to former ally, the AIADMK, and fared poorly, losing its deposit.
With Vijayakanth's death, the prospects of a strong third front in TN have dimmed. It is now left to the BJP to occupy this space, and try to make a dent in the DMK and AIADMK fronts if it chooses to strike a separate path, and the DMDK may have to tag along as a minor player. At his last public appearance at the party’s general council and executive meetings, Vijayakanth knew that the end was near and ensured the appointment of his wife Premalatha as the party leader in his place. The DMDK now struggles for its very existence. It is a steep fall for a party that was once making a strong claim for chief ministership.