SHE EMERGES from atop her campaign vehicle, her hands folded — the imagery not lost on a Tamil Nadu electorate with strong memories of J Jayalalithaa still. She works the crowd with her passionate oratory, and she is clear about the future of the DMDK, a party led by her ailing husband Vijayakanth, that she is now shouldering: the baton, she says, has been picked up by son Vijay Prabhakar, 29.
It’s not just the absence of Vijayakanth from the campaign that makes this a do-or-die battle for Premalatha, who is in her mid-50s. Refused the number of seats it wanted by the ruling AIADMK alliance, the DMDK has tied up with T T V Dhinakaran’s AMMK. In the 60 seats the DMDK has been allotted, Premalatha is contesting from Virudhachalam. The election could determine the future of the party after having lost all the seats they contested in the 2016 Assembly polls and 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Talking to The Indian Express in the middle of her tour of Virudhachalam, Premalatha keeps emphasising that Prabhakar is as much at the forefront of the DMDK campaign as her, and that she is confident of winning from the seat. “Virudhachalam was the first seat won by the Captain (as Vijayakanth is referred to) and the party in 2006. We won again from here in 2011. The people here have immense love for him.”
She says the family has always been around for Virudhachalam, while talking about the agrarian constituency’s struggle with water during summers. “At one point, we deployed six lorries to supply water in villages. During his (Vijayakanth’s) campaigns, I have stayed up to a month here as the Captain had to travel across the state for other candidates.”
It was with the 2006 Assembly election that Vijayakanth first came to notice. While the DMDK had won just that one seat of Virudhachalam, the party just one year into its formation had bagged 8.4% of the votes. In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the DMDK vote share had risen to 10.3% votes. In the 2011 Assembly polls, the DMDK contested 41 seats as part of the AIADMK alliance and won 29 — emerging as the second-largest party as the DMK suffered a massive defeat.
The DMDK’s decline started with the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, when the AIADMK struck an alliance with the BJP. The party lost all the 14 seats it contested, with its vote share plunging to 5.1%. In the 2016 Assembly polls, the DMDK led a third front but didn’t just lose all the 105 seats it contested, its share went further down to 2.4% of the votes. The decline coincided with the worsening health of Vijayakanth. Premalatha scotches the illness claims, saying, “The Captain is fine now. He will come for campaigning in the last week of elections.”
According to Premalatha, the DMDK paid a price for the unpopularity of the AIADMK-BJP alliance. “There was no coordination between allies. People hated the BJP and we had issues with the PMK.”
This time round, Premalatha says, the AIADMK delayed seat-sharing. “Even after they offered us very few seats, we agreed and demanded the list of constituencies. But they insisted that we sign the alliance deal first. That was the point when we decided to leave.”
Another reason was the allocation of Virudhachalam to the PMK — the DMDK seeing it as part of a pattern of its strongholds being given away without consulting it.
The PMK has fielded from the seat a Vanniyar, a dominant community in Virudhachalam. In her campaign, Premalatha is concentrating on the over 60% non-Vanniyar votes.
The poll arena is a world away from Premalatha’s origins as the daughter of a financially sound sugar mill manager belonging to Gudiyattam village of Vellore district. Vijayakanth picked her as he wanted to marry someone outside the film industry. Now, with Vijayakanth unable to interact with cadres or address meetings, along with Premalatha, her brother L K Sudheesh holds the reins.
“Naturally, he is passionate and has a lot of dreams about the development of Tamil Nadu and the welfare of its people,” Premalatha says of her son. “He was upset about the AIADMK alliance… Now he will go to all the constituencies and campaign for our candidates.”