When Premalatha Vijaykanth took the stage at a rally in Tirupur last week, the audience was expectant.
No social issues would be discussed, they knew.
No lofty promises about creating jobs or bettering the stumbling Tamil Nadu economy either.
Premalatha, a fiery politician in the making, wife of ‘Captain’ Vijaykanth of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), the third largest party in the state by vote-share, was expected to attack her political opponents hard. She did not disappoint. As she skewered Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and rival Dravidian party chief M Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Premalatha went on to unleash more vitriol.
“Captain is Mahatma Gandhi when required… but can also turn into Godse if needed,” she thundered.
Premalatha’s fury is not restricted to invoking the Mahatma or Godse alone. She has lashed out at Ministers of the ruling All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), ridiculing them for being ‘hunchbacks’ in front of their leader Jayalalithaa.
At another recent rally, Premalatha took on former Chief Minister MG Ramachandran too. “Nobody could understand what MGR said when he spoke,” she stated. “Why do you all point fingers at Captain?” This comment struck a peculiar note, coming from the wife of a politician who was fond of referring to himself as ‘Karuppu MGR’ meaning ‘black’ or ‘dark-skinned’ MGR.
The DMDK is now the lead ally in the Third Front, with the People’s Welfare Front (PWF) which comprises Vaiko-led MDMK (Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), the two Left parties and Dalit leader Thol Thirumavalavan’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK). The other two Dravidian parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, are yet to begin campaigns in earnest, but the Third Front is already in the thick of poll action.
Ally Vaiko, a fiery speaker himself, has been at the receiving end of ire from the Dravidian parties of late, for his uncontrolled verbiage.
“DMK offered Rs 500 crore and 80 seats to Vijaykanth to bring him into their alliance,” alleged Vaiko to reporters at Madurai on March 25. The DMK promptly sent him a legal notice and is preparing to sue the MDMK chief for defamation over what they call his baseless remarks.
Vaiko then went public with another allegation against Jayalalithaa – that container trucks filled with cash were lined up outside her Siruthavoor bungalow, awaiting cash distribution to voters during elections. While the Election Commission is quietly looking into these allegations, not much is expected to come of it.
If sensation is the goal, the Third Front is certainly on the right track. But political experts feel that apart from the high decibel sloganeering, nothing much of substance is available in the speeches of these leaders.
“The DMDK has never spoken about what they would do as an alternative to the two Dravidian parties,” said Aazhi Senthilnathan, political critic. “Vaiko and Premalatha have never spoken about anything other than personally attacking rival leaders. Even when the DMDK party was launched in 2005, Premalatha was only talking about how Vijaykanth’s marriage hall was demolished. There is nothing substantial in her speeches,” he said.
Vaiko, who was once respected for firm ideological stands, he says, has slipped politically. “What we are now seeing is the degradation of Vaiko,” added Senthilnathan.
Experts also lament the lack of focus on social issues and themes ahead of the elections. The prevalence of cult politics in the state, where leaders are seen as more crucial than their ideology or policies, is pointed out as one reason for such attacks.
“Cult personalities are a major issue,” explained C Lakshmanan, associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) and a political commentator. “People in Tamil Nadu are not politicised. Their political IQs are deliberately kept at a low level. So politicians get away with not addressing substantial issues,” he said.
Lakshmanan points to the manner of campaigning and speeches by key political leaders as intricately joined with their past professions – cinema. Jayalalithaa and Vijaykanth are both former cine stars. Karunanidhi too was a script writer for Tamil films and has recently penned the script for a teleserial.
“Look at the way they address people at rallies,” argued Lakshmanan. “There is nothing natural about it. It is all about melodrama. People of this state have been habituated to emotional hyperbolic rhetoric,” he said.
As poll fever grips Tamil Nadu, the DMK and the AIADMK are all set to get the campaign wheels in motion. In the next couple of months, Tamil Nadu is likely to witness a blistering scathing series of personal attacks as the stakes are high for every leader. Especially in an election that appears to be one that will be won on razor thin margins.
The author tweets @sandhyaravishan