There was something unusual about the Tamil Nadu political scene on Saturday. Vijayakanth was in the news – it was his birthday – and he had not invited troll attention. It seemed as if they had given him a pass because of his failing health. The trolls had enough of him, it seemed, and wanted him to have his peace.
Vijayakanth stands out in many ways in Tamil Nadu politics. His party has no moorings in any idea – he claims no ideology and has little connect with the Dravidian or any other movement. His party name does carry the mandatory Dravidian reference although any further adherence to the ideology is shot down by the term nationalist (Desiya). Though an oxymoron, the DMDK did carry a certain appeal, a change for many. It was based on the Captain’s charisma but did not turn away anyone. It appealed to no particular sect or ethnic identity. It spoke for everyone and sought to be an alternative. It even commanded the affection of many Dalit voters.
The DMDK made a mark in the 2000s and seemed to command a sizeable section of the electorate, especially the disillusioned AIADMK voter.
Vijayakanth commanded respect in the film industry since he treated everyone with respect, gave space to colleagues, encouraged new directors and film institute students. He was called Black MGR.
The DMDK made a mark in the 2000s and seemed to command a sizeable section of the electorate, especially the disillusioned AIADMK voter. Once the party made its presence known, it had to inevitably face up to the Catch 22 situation that smaller parties face in Tamil Nadu. Once they establish a presence, they have to decide whether to align with one of the main Kazhagams or go it alone.
Going alone may mean legislative irrelevance in the first-past-the-post system and not too many parties can sustain such a prospect for too many electoral cycles. Aligning with a Kazhagam would mean running the risk of getting maneuvered out.
Vijayakanth was generally unafraid to take on Jayalalithaa head on but chose to align with the AIADMK in 2011. The decision made him the Leader of the Opposition in the assembly but he lost credibility since his electoral positioning was that of an alternative primarily to the AIADMK.
After the high noon of the 2011 elections came the downslide in popularity ratings. Ill-health started to dog him.
Nationally, the Modi campaign was reaping the benefits of online campaigning – a combination of fake news, trolling and dirty tricks. In Tamil Nadu, Vijayakanth was facing the barrage. Before he could realize what was being done to him, a serious contender to the chief minister position had been reduced to a bumbling buffoon by memes.
Vijayakanth was their favourite. Trolls relished his bombast and his malapropisms. His earthy, conversational style of oratory was ridiculed. On the internet, such people are targeted and cut down to size. Rahul Gandhi’s pretension toward leadership was savaged. And Vijayakanth was targeted too.
The online operations of political parties contributed their share of memes. They had dedicated teams watching his moves and contributed to the roast. WhatsApp videos of his unsteady but temperamental behavior went viral. His sometimes slurred speech – a consequence of his illness — seemed to hint at drunken stupor.
Once his credibility and leadership was under a cloud, his brave attempt to forge an alternative through the Third Front came a cropper. There were whispers of backroom deals struck with one of the Kazhagams that sought to portray his effort as a Machiavellian move to work against its rival Kazhagam.
Today, Vijayakanth is a shadow of his former self. His ill-health is only a part of his tragic political story. Vijayakanth was brought down, in-part by a deliberate political campaign. The internet had added a cutting edge to the nastiness inherent in politics. It would certainly be a superhuman task for him to salvage his career and rise again.