The girl from the small town of Ambur, who loved athletics more than anything, talks on her plunge into politics

Anchor of Captains ship In conversation with Premalatha first lady of TNs third front
news TN2016 Wednesday, April 27, 2016 - 00:07

A campaign van in tow with its convoy of ten cars pulls up at a crowded market in Kumbakonam, as the waiting crowd is told to put their hands together for Tamil Nadu’s ‘Anni’ (sister-in-law in Tamil). As the sunroof opens up, Premalatha, wife of DMDK chief Vijayakant, emerges, waving her hand at the people gathered. Draped in a pale grey cotton saree, she begins her speech, composed and confident, showing no trace of nerves.

In a short time, Premalatha has emerged as the driving force behind Vijayakant and is said to have plotted the DMDK’s political trajectory this election. On March 10, minutes before Vijayakant took to a stage at a rally in Chennai to announce he will fight the 2016 battle alone, it was Premalatha who set the tone for the announcement, tearing into the AIADMK and DMK mercilessly. In May 2014, when Narendra Modi addressed the BJP Parliamentary party after winning the elections, the entire nation noticed the tears in his eyes, but Tamil Nadu raised its eyebrows when Modi heaped praises on Premalatha for her relentless campaign. “My god, kya kaam kiya usne,” he had said. (“My god, what work she had done.”)

But did this girl from the small town of Ambur, who loved athletics more than anything ever envisage that she would be a political leader one day?

“Never”, she says. “I was always tall and well built. I wanted to be an IPS officer,” Premalatha says, as she settles down for a detailed interview amidst her busy campaign schedule in Kumbakonam. 

Born to a sugar factory office manager Kannaiah and his homemaker wife Hamsaveni at Ambur in Vellore district, Premalatha describes herself as a student who loved extra-curricular activities more than anything. “I was an athletic champion in my school and I used to play tennis, table tennis and every other game I could.”

Her love for sports and theatre continued during her days as a BA (Literature) student at the Auxilium College in Katpadi. “During my final year, the college decided to make a student the chief guest of the annual day, and I got voted for the honour. My friends would practise their march past and other programmes for hours just for the sake of the chief guest,” she recalls with excitement.

But her IPS dreams were never to be realized. “I got married. It happened soon after college,” she says matter-of-factly.

It was in January 1990 that Premalatha’s family got a proposal from actor Vijayakant, who had by then reached superstar status, with accolades, awards and commercial success under his belt. “It all happened very soon. The horoscopes were matched. I was taken to my sister’s home in Chennai as he could not travel to Vellore. The families agreed and the wedding was conducted on January 31,” she says.

Premalatha who has now transformed with ease into a campaigner and negotiator says getting married to a popular actor had shocked her then. “I could not sleep for days. It was unbelievable that a big actor like him was going to marry me,” she says.

After a whirlwind wedding, the bridegroom left for work the very next day. “The wedding itself was unnerving. There were crowds at the Tammukam grounds in Madurai as far as my eyes could see. He got busy with shooting as soon as we reached Chennai. We didn’t even have a conventional honeymoon. I went along for the shooting of the movie ‘Pudhu Padagan’ in Ooty and our families called that our honeymoon.”

Courtesy: Celebritykick.com

From then on the journey was swift, with Premalatha choosing not to remain in the background like many star-wives. By 2003, Vijayakanth’s trusted aide Ramu Vasanthan’s health was failing and Premalatha stepped in to help manage her husband’s fan associations. “I would attend weddings and other events. It was good to connect with fans as they were Captain’s pulse in Tamil Nadu,” Premalatha says.

While Vijayakant’s fan clubs grew into a rage and even got a common flag for themselves, it was political provocation, and not thirst for power which spurred Captain to take up politics, according to Premalatha.

“It was in 2004 and it was because of the PMK,” Premalatha’s swiftly replies. “The PMK then held protests across the state and attacked our fans, they were upset over a statement Captain gave outside director Murugadoss’ wedding venue. Their attacks spiraled out of control, but our fans hit back with vengeance. The fighting stopped only after Karunanidhi intervened. But when that incident happened, the fans were agitated and told us that we need to form a political party to counter political attacks.”

A year later, Vijayakanth launched the DMDK from Madurai.

“Captain was always seething with anger at the DMK and AIADMK. The formation of the party was a natural thing to do. In 2006, we contested 234 seats. Though we won only his seat in Vridhachalam, the 8.4% percent votes we garnered surprised everyone,” she says.

Premalatha made her first political appearances campaigning for her husband in Vridhachalam, while he was busy canvassing in other constituencies.

With Ramu Vasanthan’s death in 2009, Premalatha and her brother Sudheesh, a film producer, stepped forward to take control of the party along with Vijayakanth.

The picture Premalatha paints of her husband is that of an MLA dedicated to his constituency.

But if that was the case why has he changed his constituency each election, was he scared of losing? “No, not at all. If that was the case, why did our candidate Muthu Kumar win Vridhachalam in 2011? Captain is the leader of a party. We want him to represent as many constituencies as possible,” she counters.

Premalatha has been touted as the driving force behind Vijayakanth’s decision to reject an alliance with the BJP. She, however, denies this and insists she has no decision making role in the party. “It was a decision taken after discussions in the party. They were keen to continue the NDA alliance. But unlike what the media said, we never rejected any meeting with them. Tamilisai Soundarajan is our neighbor, can I tell her not to come to my house? We were civil, but did not want the alliance.”

Premalatha during a campaign

She also categorically denies that the party had any talks with the DMK. “Has there been even a single official meeting? We met Prakash Javdekar, but not even once did we meet the DMK. We never wanted to be with them.”

Her entourage is all praises for her and calls her a woman who is polite to all, irrespective of their positions. Though party insiders boast of a ‘polite and understanding Anni’, she has been scathing in her criticism of Jayalalithaa, unafraid to take personal digs at the Chief Minister. Why not extend the minimum courtesy to another woman leader? “Why should I?” comes the prompt reply. “She has ruled this state for so many years. Look where that has left us. I cannot be polite when I speak about her. I have met her only twice in my life and have nothing personal against her. But what she and Karunanidhi have done to this state is unpardonable.”

Premalatha dutifully defends her husband, who has been has in the news more than once for his antics that include spitting at journalists and shoving people.  “He is an action hero, he has certain mannerisms. Why is the media always highlighting these things?”

Why not, I countered, he did spit at journalists. “It was just an action, to show his contempt. Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa are bribing voters; there is clear human rights violation as people are made to sit in her rallies in the extreme heat, why doesn’t the media take them on? They are fighting this election with truckloads of money and everyone knows no party in our alliance has money. Still, the media has no time to point out their fallacies.”

Though political analysts believe that DMDK’s vote share will dwindle significantly this election, Premalatha is unabashed about her dream of Captain becoming Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister. “I have a goal, a challenge and I will work hard to achieve it. We don’t have money, but I have faith and confidence. I want Captain to become CM and people to say ‘This kind of a Tamil Nadu is achievable’. Agriculture is the backbone of our economy, but farmers have no power or water. We can’t do much as individuals, but a government can change destinies.”

And to achieve this dream she says, she prepares well each day. She speaks on micro issues at every campaign stop. While in a village in Kumbakonam she speaks about the need for a well in the 15th ward, in a Chidambaram village the speech was on the need for a school.

On the campaign trail, Premalatha’s campaign-in-charge and former MLA Nallathambi identifies elderly citizens and drapes shawls around them. When I ask why, he says, “Anni is greeted with shawls at each point, she has instructed me to give away the shawls at the next point to the elderly.”

Premalatha has been living out of a suitcase for the past few weeks. Every evening, as she readies for the day’s campaign, her small battalion of security guards first take a set of suitcases into her campaign van. A crowd of local supporters wait outside every hotel she stays in.

Though she spends a few minutes interacting with the supporters, they are asked not to go near her and not to click her pictures. Her supporters are trying hard to create an aura around her, but one cannot be sure if it really exists. But if Tamil Nadu’s political history is anything to learn from, a strong woman can create an aura around herself, and that can take her far in politics.

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