Debating India

Star strike

Friday 30 July 2004, by SUBRAMANIAN*T.S.

The Pattali Makkal Katchi sets its followers on a violent course of action against actor Vijaykant, but the latter’s fans hit back. Now Vijaykant is planning to launch a political party.

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Vijaykant addressing mediaperons in Chennai.

FOR 14 days a political party and a film star in Tamil Nadu were engaged in a pitched battle. But it ended as suddenly as it began, with neither side in a position to claim victory. When Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) activists attacked film actor Vijaykant’s fans, burnt the fans association offices and attacked cinema halls screening his films, they learnt at least one lesson: that Vijaykant’s aficionados are not butterfingered boys.

What provoked PMK men was an observation by the actor on June 13 about politicians becoming Ministers without getting elected by the people. They read it as an innuendo against Dr. R. Anbumani, son of PMK founder Dr. S. Ramadoss. Anbumani became Union Health Minister first and then got elected to the Rajya Sabha. The fracas ended with PMK president G.K. Mani asking his partymen on June 27 "not to take action any more" because the "party leadership knows how to meet this situation politically" and there were people’s problems to be addressed.

The incident only firmed up Vijaykant’s resolve to start a political party. He announced on July 2 that he would consider the question after knowing his fans’ views on it. "If I start a party, it will be on my birthday. Or the announcement may be made on Tamil New Year’s day [in April 2005],"he said.

Sources close to him say that in his assessment the people of Tamil Nadu are looking for an alternative to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the party he launches could provide that alternative. His fans’ association’s flag may become the party flag.

What may stand the actor in good stead is the organisation and structure of his fans association, which is built in the form of a political party with units at the village, panchayat, town and district levels. According to Vijaykant, 575 of his fans were elected to the local bodies at various levels. S. Ramu Vasanthan, general secretary of the Vijaykant Fans Association, says: "Only nominally our movement works as a welfare organisation. In fact, it functions like a political party. We have 35,000 units and each unit has at least 100 members."

Behind Vijaykant’s moves is his bitterness that neither the DMK nor the Congress/Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) used his services although he had in the past expressed his admiration for DMK president M. Karunanidhi and the late TMC leader G.K. Moopanar. What also rankled him was that while his colleagues in the cinema field - Sarath Kumar, Napoleon, Radha Ravi, S.S. Chandran and T. Rajendherr, among others - had been elected to the Rajya Sabha or the State Assembly, he had not been considered. This despite his having a much bigger fan following and his remaining the puissant president of the South India Artistes Association (SIAA).

In the past four years, Vijaykant has frequently revealed his political ambitions. While affirming his affinity for the Tamil/Tamilian cause, he also expressed his nationalistic outlook. He started wearing khadi and made his piety obvious by wearing vibhuti (sacred ash) on his forehead.

With the Tamil Nadu electorate decisively rejecting Tamil film actor Rajnikant’s opposition to the PMK and his endorsement of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and Rajnikant abandoning any plans that he might have had to start a political party, Vijaykant felt it was time that he tested the political waters. He did so at a public meeting of his fans at Kallakurichi, a small town in the Vanniyar heartland in Villupuram district, on June 13. (The PMK represents the interests of the Vanniyars, a dominant caste in the State.) At the meeting, Vijaykant raised some inconvenient questions. Farmers in Thanjavur were eating rats, "did anyone elected from Tamil Nadu ask for the Agriculture portfolio to help them? Did anybody ask for Water Resources to resolve the Cauvery issue? They were after portfolios that would fetch income," he said. He took a potshot at those who became Union Ministers without getting elected.

The DMK and the Congress ignored his remarks. (There are 12 Union Ministers from Tamil Nadu belonging to the Congress, the DMK and the PMK.) But the PMK took them as an affront to their chinna iyah (`junior Sir" - Dr. Ramadoss’ son). And its members went berserk. They attacked Vijaykant’s fans association units, burnt the actor’s effigy at Cuddalore, Kurinchipadi, Salem, Trivellore, Devakottai and Chennai, mobbed cinema halls screening his films. They warned that the screening of Vijaykant’s forthcoming film Gajendra would not be allowed in "Vanniyar areas". Not surprisingly, none of the PMK’s allies, the DMK, the Congress, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Left parties, condemned the violence.

Vijaykant’s fans hit back. They burnt Dr. Ramadoss’ effigies, attacked PMK offices and allegedly burnt down a party office in Cuddalore.

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Dr. S. Ramadoss, founder leader of the Pattali Makkal Katchi.

What was a red rag earlier for the PMK was a huge public meeting organised by Vijaykant (as the SIAA president) and the film industry at Neyveli, again in the Vanniyar belt, on the Cauvery issue in 2002. But the PMK was wary as many of its cadre were either fans of Rajnikant or Vijaykant and even had their pictures adorning their homes.

H. Raja, BJP legislator, put the issue in perspective when he said that the violence revealed the PMK’s intolerance to criticism and posed a challenge to the freedom of expression and democratic rights.

For the PMK to get a taste of its own medicine was something new. It had earlier got away with similar actions against Rajnikant and his fans. The stand-off between Rajnikant and Dr. Ramadoss erupted after the PMK founder lambasted Rajnikant for scenes showing him smoking and drinking in the film Baba. The PMK leader said such scenes would corrupt the youth.

What took matters to a head a few weeks before the Lok Sabha elections in May was Dr. Ramadoss using abusive language against Rajnikant in an off-the-record conversation with reporters at Tiruvannamalai. A Tamil daily, however, published it. That touched off a row. When Rajnikant’s fans showed black flags to Dr. Ramadoss in Madurai during his election campaign, his security men beat them up.

At a press conference in Chennai on April 12, Rajnikant called Dr. Ramadoss "the king of violence" and said his fans associations would work against PMK candidates in the six Lok Sabha constituencies they were contesting. He pledged his fans’ support to the BJP-AIADMK alliance.

However, BJP and the AIADMK candidates were trounced in all the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry.

According to Jnani alias N.V. Sankaran, political analyst and Editor of the Tamil monthly Dheemtharikida, Vijaykant’s politics and image are different from that of Rajnikant. "Vijaykant has never been a supporter of Hindutva and the BJP. Although he came from a family with a Congress background, he has, like DMK men, exhibited pro-Tamil feelings. At the same, he has avoided giving an impression that he is a DMK man".

"Even when circumstances compelled Rajnikant to observe a fast on the Cauvery issue, it was not accepted that he had pro-Tamil sentiment. Vijaykant’s strength is his pro-Tamil image. Even the propaganda that his mother tongue is Telugu will not cut much ice. Tamilians did not care about MGR (M.G. Ramachandran, AIADMK founder and former Chief Minister) being a Malayali and looked upon him as a Tamil actor, the same holds good for Vijaykant," Jnani said.

Vijaykant has been working to a plan on his Good Samaritan image. Generous to the poor, he supports the education of poor students and organises mass marriages, and his fans do social work. According to one observer of the Tamil film industry, Rajnikant’s fans remained mere fans but Vijaykant’s fans have social awareness. Vijaykant showed mettle in resolving disputes in the SIAA. He organised a gala cultural event in Singapore in which Rajnikant and Kamal Hassan took part, and the proceeds went towards clearing the SIAA’s debts. He fully backed the demands of the Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI), which has on its rolls workers of about 25 categories.

For now, Vijaykant is focussing on the grassroots - he is reportedly in the process of strengthening his fans association units.

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