Last month, Tamil Nadu politician Vaiko – the coordinator of the People’s Welfare Front and leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam – pulled off a coup, stealing a prize catch from right under the nose of his former mentor M Karunanidhi.

The DMK had been wooing Vijayakanth, leader of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, as was the Bharatiya Janata Party. Karunanidhi was so certain that Vijayakanth was on board that he had hinted that the alliance with the DMDK was complete and only the formal announcement was left. But to everyone’s surprise, the People’s Welfare Front – comprising Vaiko’s MDMK, the two Left parties, and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi – minnows in terms of resources, managed to bring Vijayakanath over as an ally.

However, on Monday, just as surprisingly, Vaiko announced that he would not contest the 2016 Assembly polls. District youth wing secretary of the MDMK G Ramesh filed his nomination from Kovilpatti Assembly constituency in southern Tamil Nadu instead of Vaiko. The state votes for a new government on May 16.

Vaiko, who was enroute to the zonal election office to file his nomination papers, stood atop his campaign van, green turban in place, and told waiting mediapersons that the DMK was the reason for his unexpected decision. “The DMK is engineering protests against me on casteist lines,” said Vaiko. “They are attacking me due to my caste.”

That statement is ironic, because on April 7, Vaiko attacked Karunanidhi over his caste.

“Chandrakumar (a rebel MLA from Vijayakanth’s party) and Karunanidhi would do better to take up the oldest known trade, which some want legalised,” he said, smugly, at a press conference. “I am not saying anything wrong. Karunanidhi knows well the occupation of playing the Nagaswaram (musical instrument).”

This statement infuriated the DMK and Vaiko’s allies in the People’s Welfare Front. Karunanidhi hails from a community whose traditional occupation once was to play the Nagaswaram; Vaiko had pronounced a caste slur. No one was pleased and Vaiko was forced to apologise. In a statement, he said it was the biggest mistake of his life, and he hoped Karunanidhi would forgive him.

The DMK saga

But that’s perhaps easier said than done.

Vaiko’s relationship with Karunanidhi goes back a long way. He had joined the DMK in the late 1960s and soon became the party leader’s right-hand man, but things started to unravel in 1989. That year, Karunanidhi returned to power in Tamil Nadu after 13 years in the wilderness. But days after taking over as chief minister, Vaiko, then his trusted lieutenant and Rajya Sabha MP, vanished.

Karunanidhi was hugely embarassed. News had leaked that Vaiko had set off on a secret voyage across the Palk Straits to meet V Prabhakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in his northern Sri Lanka hide-out. This was the time the Indian Peace Keeping Force had been sent to the island nation by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. A furore broke out over the impropriety of Vaiko’s mission, and the DMK quickly distanced itself from the venture.

A letter Vaiko had written on the eve of his departure reached Karunanidhi almost three weeks later. It said that the purpose of his journey was to prepare Prabhakaran for a negotiated settlement that would bring eternal glory to Karunanidhi as the architect of redemption for Sri Lankan Tamils.

Vaiko returned a few days after this, and apologised for his stunt.

But that marked the beginning of the end for him in the DMK. The party leadership was upset because his trip had exposed it to severe criticism. But that wasn’t all. That Vaiko made personal political capital from his venture – he was seen as a daring hero among the youth – did not go down well with its leadership as he now constituted a danger to MK Stalin, the Youth Wing leader at the time, who was being groomed as Karunanidhi’s political heir.

In 1994, the DMK expelled Vaiko for dissent, and he formed the MDMK. “The scar caused by his unceremonious exit from DMK has not completely vanished,” said senior journalist, R Mani.

Misses greater than hits

Over 20 years later, Vaiko is still struggling to recover a fraction of the clout he once enjoyed in the state by virtue of his being a close Karunanidhi aide.

The MDMK has mostly had a dismal showing at the polls. The 1996 Assembly elections gave Vaiko a chance to test his new party’s strength. But despite unprecedented anti-incumbency that swept out the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the MDMK, which fought in alliance with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Janata Dal, lost its deposit in 168 of the 173 seats it contested. It garnered 5.78% of the votes, but did not win a single seat. Vaiko also lost in both the constituencies – Vilathikulam and Sivakasi – he contested from.

The MDMK’s performance in subsequent Assembly elections continued to be dismal. It lost its deposit in 95% of the seats it contested between 1996 and 2001. Between 1996 and 2006, it contested 423 seats over three elections and won only six seats – all of them in 2006, when it was part of an AIADMK-led front. Chastened by these defeats and unable to find an ally, Vaiko didn’t contest the 2011 Assembly polls.

Vaiko’s fortunes looked up in the Parliamentary elections as the MDMK won 12 seats in four Lok Sabha elections from 1998 to 2009, in alliance with either the AIADMK or DMK. In 2014, the MDMK joined the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, but lost all the seven parliamentary seats it was allotted.

The most significant factor in the MDMK’s electoral history is the way it has switched alliances. While Vaiko lays claim to being the most principled politician in the state, his alliances speak louder than words. For instance, he shouted himself hoarse when he became the first person in the country to be arrested under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act in 2002, when J Jayalalithaa was chief minister. Vaiko was behind bars for 18 months. But in 2006, he allied with Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK.

Too emotional?

Will Vaiko’s decision not to contest have any impact on the People’s Welfare Front that he was instrumental in stitching together?

“I think the front will pull on without Vaiko,” said RK Radhakrishnan, a senior journalist based in Chennai. “But he is creating unnecessary problems for the coalition.”

Radhakrishnan added that coalitions of this nature are new to Tamil Nadu and require a lot of restraint on the part of leaders in the alliance. If Vaiko had not discussed his decision with other leaders, “it means that fissures within the alliance are beginning to show,” he said.

Radhakrishnan added: “Once this happens, ground level coordination problems will start. When coordination becomes a problem, the cadre will not join hands and that is the issue. It looks like a unilateral decision by Vaiko and this act of his is only going to weaken the PWF. Now people will start questioning his motives in doing this.”

His decision may also cost him the loyalities of his party workers, as they have in the past.

“We left the DMK along with Vaiko but because of his emotion-driven decisions, the party suffered setbacks,” said M Kannappan, a former Vaiko loyalist who is now with the DMK. “He did not consider the views of party functionaries on the question of alliance and instead took unilateral decisions. Since we were not allowed to have our say, we quit MDMK. Vaiko’s moves now are on the same lines and will not yield him any dividends.”

At 71, Vaiko may be a spring chicken as compared to 93-year-old Karunanidhi, but he is still one of the oldest political leaders in the state. Will his decision not to contest help his party, or the front? Find out on counting day on May 19.

This is the third in our series of important politicians in Tamil Nadu. Read the others here: O Panneerselvam, KN Nehru.