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Facing Jayalalithaa's wrath, will Vijayakanth survive his first test of realpolitik?

Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), the political party of Tamil film actor “captain” Vijayakanth seems to be in serious trouble with four MLAs meeting with the AIADMK leader and chief minister J Jayalalithaa in the last two days.

The first sign of trouble appeared on Friday when two MLAs met with Jayalalithaa, with whom Vijayakanth had angry exchanges in the assembly some time back. The event was repeated on Saturday, when two more MLAs, this time a film producer and an actor, met with her.

Interestingly, all the four MLAs said they went to her asking for support for development works in their constituencies. They also lavished praise on her amidst speculations that they are ready to defect.

The sudden change of hearts by the MLAs is a clear indication of trouble for Vijayakanth and his party, which incidentally is the second strongest in the Tamil Nadu assembly in terms of numbers. For the same reason, it is also the official opposition party, and Vijayakanth, the opposition leader.

If three more MLAs warm up to the AIADMK and all of them switch sides, the DMDK will lose its status of the opposition party to the DMK which has 23 seats in the assembly.

Vijaykanth at a political rally. Image courtesy ibnlive.com

That will be a huge loss for Vijayakanth, which might also signal some erosion of its leaders and cadre, although the party’s catchment is largely his personal fans and followers. Except for a handful, most of the 29 MLAs he has in the assembly entirely owe their existence to him and the party.

DMDK has been an interesting political party in Tamil Nadu for its steady and rapid rise, and considerable vote share even when it fought the 2006 assembly elections, barely a year after its formation. Although the party lost in all the seats contested, except that of Vijayakanth, it mopped up an impressive vote-share of more than 8%.

It was a revelation. In the parliament elections in 2009, it was a repeat performance of en masse failure, but a rising vote-share. This time, it climbed to 10% plus making it a formidable ally for the principal Dravidian parties, namely the AIADMK and the DMK.

Vijayakanth, once a DMK sympathiser, was bitterly anti-Karunanidhi and hence AIADMK had no difficulty in teaming up with him for the 2011 assembly elections. Although Jayalalithaa was quite condescending towards him after the elections, it was undeniable that the latter did play a role in her party routing the DMK.

A more reasonable observation will be that for both parties, the alliance was mutually beneficial. Allies turning bitter and leaving the AIADMK after an election is not unprecedented, and it happened with DMDK too.

Within days of the elections, the displeasure was visible and it finally resulted in personal attacks between the actor-politician and Jayalalithaa. The latter also said that Vijayakanth’s party owed his victory completely to AIADMK. He hit back saying he would show his strength in the next elections.

The present signs of a possible defection could have been the result of some underground political maneuvering by the AIADMK, which incidentally has a huge upper-hand as the ruling party. A strong DMDK will most likely end up in a third front with the left, MDMK and other small parties, and perhaps AIADMK wants to chip away at his base ahead of the parliament elections. Even if they cannot win, the DMDK and a third front can spoil the AIADMK’s party.

However, since his party is largely family driven, with his wife and brother-in-law sharing its control with him; and the voter-base mostly comprises his fans and followers, it remains to be seen if a split in the party can indeed destabilise him and weaken his constituency. Since the MLAs are virtual nobodies, perhaps a defection or split might not mean much to his electoral influence.

Another option for the fence-sitting MLAs, if they decide to ditch Vijayakanth, is to resign and contest on AIADMK tickets. That will be a true test of Jayalalithaa’s claim that DMDK couldn’t have made it without her. Perhaps she may like to prove the point ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.

Meanwhile, Vijayakanth, who had landed himself in trouble on a few occasions for allegedly intemperate public behaviour, is certainly agitated over the development although he says he is cool. He had a scrap with some reporters at the airport on Saturday when they pursued him with questions on the possible split in his party.

This development will be interesting because unlike many other film personalities launching political parties and losing steam, either because of the sheer demand of realpolitik or the hard work and money it takes, Vijayakanth has proved himself to be a winner. Within five years of launching his party, he has made a mark as an ally. He took his role as a politician seriously and worked tirelessly in establishing his presence across the state.

Thanks to his popularity as a evil-fighting mass hero, the initial period has been an easy journey for Vijayakanth. The real test is now. Will he able to avoid the split? Even with a split, can he wean away the support-base of the two principal Dravidian parties or will his stagnate with his 8-10% vote-share that makes him nothing better than an ally or a party-pooper?

Anyway presently he's  facing the full extent of Jayalalithaa’s wrath, despite being an ally just 18 months ago. Now he has no option but to fight back.