Will Thalapathy Vijay disrupt Tamil Nadu politics?

Vijay’s appeal transcends caste, class and religion, and his superstardom rivals that of the legendary MGR. Can he disrupt Tamil Nadu’s political status quo?

Vijay, affectionately called ‘Thalapathy’ (commander in Tamil), announced the launch of his political party, Tamizhaga Vetri Kazhagam, on Friday (February 2). While Tamil Nadu has seen its fair share of actors and cinema personalities try their hand in politics, Vijay is only the second superstar, after the legendary M G Ramachandran (MGR), to make this transition.

Can he mount a challenge to Tamil Nadu’s political status quo?

First, a look at the state’s political landscape
Tamil Nadu’s politics is dominated by two parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhgham (AIADMK), whose alliances together occupy 70 to 80 percent of the voteshare. The remaining 20 to 30 percent votes, however, are up for grabs. This is the space that Vijay will be targeting — and many before him have eyed for the last three decades.

In 1996, veteran Congress leader G K Moopanar launched the Tamil Manila Congress (TMC). In 2005, ‘Captain’ Vijayakanth launched Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK). A film star in his own right, though nowhere close to the stature of Vijay, Vijayakanth made a significant, but short-lived mark in the state’s politics.

Film director Seeman followed in 2009, with his Tamil nationalist Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK). He maintains a minimal but consistent presence in the state. In 2014 and 2016, Anbumani Ramadoss, former union minister and leader of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), projected himself as the ‘next chief minister’ but failed to dent the DMK-AIADMK duopoly.

Actor Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) was launched in 2018, as an alternative to the “corrupt” DMK and AIADMK. Haasan, however, failed to generate any traction electorally, and is now in talks to secure at least one Lok Sabha seat for the 2024 general elections in the DMK-Congress alliance. BJP’s K Annamalai, an IPS officer-turned-politician, emerged in 2021 as the next upcoming face in Tamil Nadu politics.

Among all the aforementioned figures, however, Vijay’s stature is unparalleled

Vijay’s transcendent appeal will hold key
Like MGR, Vijay’s superstardom will be his biggest strength entering politics. Although he is a Christian himself, and can find his roots in the backward Udayar community, political observers in Tamil Nadu believe that Vijay’s appeal transcends caste, class, religion, and even region.

Vijayakanth was the “Raja of B and C class theatres”, and thus chose Virudhachalam constituency for its large proportion of rural voters. Haasan, on the other hand, contested from Coimbatore South, due to its educated, urban demography. But Vijay’s fans, however, throng multiplexes and C class cinema halls alike.

“We estimate that he still has a high edge in rural areas. Madurai may be the place we would be suggesting for him [to contest], for its peculiar semi-urban character,” one of Vijay’s close aides told The Indian Express.

Vijay will need to have a coherent ideology
But popularity itself is not enough to succeed in Tamil Nadu politics — one also needs to have a coherent ideology. The short-lived success of Vijayakanth, and Haasan’s struggles are testament to this fact. So is the success of the late MGR, whose superstardom was complimented by a politics deeply rooted in the Dravidian movement.

Vijay’s aide told The Indian Express that the superstar’s statement announcing the launch of his party categorically elucidates his ideology. It begins with the following line from the Tamil text Thirukkural: “Pirappukkum ella uyirukkum…,” or “for birth and all life”.

“It suggests a universal kinship among all beings, or the notion that every life is bound by the same cycle of birth, largely focusing on virtues like compassion, non-violence, and respect for life. That is our ideology,” the close aide said.

The third paragraph in the statement further reads: “You are all aware of the current political situation. On one side, there is ‘a culture of politics tainted with corruption’ and administrative malpractice, while on the other, there is a ‘divisive political culture’ striving to fragment our people through caste and religious differences. These are the hurdles in our unity and progress.”

Lack of faces, shy persona will be a challenge
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Vijay will be the lack of prominent faces in his nascent party. While Vijayakanth was assisted by veteran politician Panruti S Ramachandran in his early years in politics, that is not the case with Vijay. At least, not yet.

Reliable sources from Vijay’s camp, told The Indian Express on condition of anonymity, that Vijay is already in holding talks to onboard some prominent faces. These include M Ravi, a retired IPS officer of the 1991 batch, C Sylendra Babu, recently retired DGP of Tamil Nadu, and U Sagayam, a no-nonsense IAS officer who clashed with the state government on several occasions, including the Madurai mining scams, before resigning from service in 2021.

Some fans also have other concerns. Unlike many from the world of cinema, off-screen, Vijay is a shy, and fairly reserved person — not exactly like the typical politician. When asked, a person close to the actor said on Friday: “Such people can have a really aggressive face too, isn’t it?”

Scene ripe for Vijay to disrupt TN politics
The story of Vijay’s political journey is yet to be written. But the situation is ripe for him to shake-up Tamil Nadu politics.

The AIADMK, post J Jayalalitha’s death in 2016, has been a shell of its former self. While it still boasts of a gigantic political machinery and cadre in the state, without Amma’s charismatic leadership, the party has been mired with infighting and perennial crises.
Notably, since signs of Vijay’s eventual entry into politics first emerged in June 2023, almost all political parties, including the BJP and the ruling DMK, have been muted in their reaction.

Vijay, however, has said that his party will not have any stake in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, and is targeting the 2026 assembly polls instead.

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