IT’S not easy to thwart Amit Shah’s best-laid plans. However, one thing Tamil Nadu is getting used to is Premalatha treading on toes.
Already accused of stopping an alliance of her husband Vijayakanth’s DMDK with the BJP as well as with the DMK, of snapping ties with the AIADMK, and of forcing mini-rebellions in their own party, Premalatha took on another holy cow in the state earlier this month. Responding to comments that Vijayakanth’s speeches were incomprehensible, Premalatha said the late MGR had been incoherent. The legendary actor’s fans are fuming, not least because Vijayakanth had modelled himself as “karuppu (dark-complexioned) MGR” in his initial acting days.
At the same time, if Vijayakanth has emerged as a third pillar alongside DMK and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu politics, the one widely credited with putting him there is his wife. In line with Tamil Nadu’s politics, the myth-making has begun. A worker at a Tiruverkkadu temple Premalatha frequents, Muniyappan, has talked of her stepping in to help him “like God”. After he had a stroke, she got him a two-wheeler designed for the disabled, says a friend. Later, Vijayakanth distributed similar two-wheelers to disabled party sympathisers in 33 districts.
Vijayakanth’s aides say Premalatha has long been plotting his move to politics from cinema, a natural transition in the state. According to one associate, Premalatha “panicked” after Vijayakanth’s films started flopping post-2000. “Just as MGR had done, Premalatha and L K Sudheesh (her brother) started ensuring Vijayakanth’s movies had strong political messages, taking on rulers,” says a source close to the family. These films continued to do well in villages. While his small community Telugu Naidu is limited to northern Tamil Nadu, this fan base in villages, especially among Dalits and OBCs, came in handy when he took the political plunge.
He launched the DMDK in 2005 with a massive rally in Madurai, where he arrived on a blue van once used by MGR for his campaigns. In the elections a year later, while the party just won one seat after contesting all 234, it got 8 per cent of the vote. Those polls saw Premalatha make her first stage appearance, with Vijayakanth in Virudhachalam.
A decade later, Premalatha is at the heart of the DMDK campaign, whether defining the party line as pro-poor in the mould of MGR, forging alliances or taking on rivals. In the campaign in southern districts, she has made allegations against Jayalalithaa and her health — which not many do in the state for fear of earning the chief minister’s wrath.
She has led negotiations with potential allies, including the DMK and the BJP, and with the Vaiko-led front that the DMDK eventually joined. Senior BJP leaders say Vijayakanth wanted to ally with the NDA but Premalatha “sabotaged” it.
In her speeches, Premalatha has taken on rumours of Vijayakanth’s own ill health, talking about how he is “short-tempered”, “frank” and suffers from sinus. For his fans, this is endearing honesty.
Vijayakanth’s associates have got used to her managing her husband’s fandom and rise. While this daughter of a sugar mill manager belongs to the same community as he, his friends say the bigger attraction was that she belonged to a non-filmi family. “It was the marriages of actors Sivaji Ganesan and Shivakumar, their non-controversial family life, that inspired Vijayakanth,” says one of his closest friends.
When they married in 1990, he was 38, she in her mid-20s. Within a couple of years, Premalatha was looking after the hundreds of fan associations of Vijayakanth along with brother Sudheesh. Later, Sudheesh himself became a film producer.
Among those who advised Vijayakanth to go in for a partner outside film circles had been the late Ibrahim Rowther, his producer and best friend. But Rowther was among the first in a long list of Vijayakanth’s associates to fall out of favour after the marriage. After a gap of 10 years, Vijayakanth turned up at Rowther’s house only in 2015, to attend his funeral. As he stood weeping, much was made of Premalatha’s stoic expression.
A family friend compares Premalatha to Jayalalithaa’s aide Sasikala. “Premalatha did what Sasikala did to Jayalalithaa. She changed his life, for good or bad.”
Premalatha’s own associates insist there is no comparison. Calling her a genuine leader who may not have the polished English of Jayalalithaa, one aide says, “She treats party leaders and security men equally, and doesn’t allow separate dining at home for leaders and drivers.”
An aide talks about her rushing to the bedside of a follower who had had an accident. Later Premalatha met all the patients at the hospital ward where he was admitted. When she described their plight in a speech later, the authorities rushed in supplies.
As for Premalatha “spoiling” talks with the BJP, her associates say the negotiations fell through after the NDA refused to agree to demands of the Captain. Premalatha was merely helping in the talks, says an aide.
As per a senior DMDK leader, it’s not difficult to see what Premalatha wants. “Her biggest dream is to make Vijayakanth CM.”
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