FILE PHOTO: Narendra Modi shakes hand with film star Rajinikanth (L) before addressing an election campaign rally in Chennai April 13, 2014. REUTERS/Babu/File Photo
As 2017 ended on Sunday, Tamil filmdom’s superstar Rajinikanth made the much expected announcement of his entry into Tamil Nadu politics.
The star of over 160 films, many of them hits, had been toying with the idea of entering politics as per a tradition in Tamil filmdom in which successful actors end up trying their luck in politics. But unlike other matinee idols M. G. Ramachandran (MGR) and Jayalalithaa, “Rajini” did not have the required self-confidence to actually take the risk.
However, when two decades of dilly dallying ended finally, his enormous fan following was delighted, and forces which have been keen on riding piggy back on his popularity, were relieved.
The forces hoping to ride piggy back are the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the allied Sangh Parivar comprising Hindu nationalist organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Hindu Munnani (HM).
It is therefore not surprising that only the leadership of the BJP in Tamil Nadu welcomed Rajini’s announcement on Sunday. Both Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan and state-level leader Tamilisai Soundararajan came out with public statements.
Earlier, on an occasion when Modi visited Chennai, he made it a point to call on Rajini which set off speculation about the BJP’s wanting to use him as its mascot in Tamil Nadu with its cinema crazy and star-struck population.
For new entrants,the political field in Tamil Nadu has never been as open as it is now. For that reason, Rajini’s entry can be considered well timed and opportune.
The ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is a sharply divided house with one faction led by the Sasikala family (the closest to the Late leader Jayalaithaa) staging a comeback after TTV Dinakaran won the R. K. Nagar by-election to the Tamil Nadu State Assembly convincingly. Dinakaran’s astounding performance triggered speculation about Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy and his Deputy, O.Panneerselvam, coming under pressure to hand over the party and even the government to Dinakaran. However, the struggle that this entails will weaken the party in the coming months and open up opportunities for other players including Rajinikanth.
As for the DMK, it is still to re-invent itself to face the electorate with its ageing Supremo, M. Karunanidhi, in a wheelchair, and his son and heir M. K. Stalin still to secure mass appeal. The DMK was a party with a definitive ideology in the past. But it has lost its ideological shine over the years. Like the AIADMK, the DMK too is tainted by corruption stemming from long incumbencies. The corruption associated with the rule of the Dravidian parties since 1967 could be exploited by Rajini who has made anti-corruption campaign his USP.
The Congress in Tamil Nadu remains what it has been since its ouster from power way back in 1967 – a party out of sync with the emotions and concerns of the Tamils. After K. Kamaraj, the Congress in Tamil Nadu has had no local leader with mass appeal. The Congress is therefore seen as being subservient to its leaders in imperial Delhi. This is an automatic disqualification in Tamil politics which is against kowtowing to the North in general and Delhi in particular.And with the Congress not being in power in New Delhi now, Tamil Nadu Congressmen feel all the more handicapped.
Unlike the other star, Kamal Haasan, who also has been toying with the idea of using his fan following to enter politics, Rajini has defined himself quite clearly and credibly too. In his address to his fans on Sunday, he said that his platforms are “spirituality in politics” and a resolute opposition to corruption and misuse of power. He described himself as a crusader and asked his fans not to think of themselves as party “carders” but as “saviours”. This is entirely in line with the persona Rajini has been portraying though his films – a ruffian who will fight for the common man against an oppressor. He has also made films with a Hindu spiritual content. And has always portrayed himself as a yogi, given to simplicity,meditation and spiritual retreats in the Himayalas.
If the persona he has built up appeals to the Tamil masses, who are deeply religious, Rajini could turn out to be a political success.
More importantly,he will be useful as a brand ambassador for the BJP’s Hindutwa ideology in Tamil Nadu politics. So far, Hindutwa has had no traction in TN politics because of the hold of Dravidian ideology which is secular. Both the DMK and AIADMK have been politically secular though their cadres and leaders may actually be religious.But secularism may wane in Tamil Nadu if Hindutwa is branded well and propagated as a benign ideology.
Once Rajini clearly the way for Hindutwa using his mass appeal, the BJP/RSS and VHP could enter the state to use it, radicalise it and put Tamil Nadu in the Indian Hindutwa mainstream.
The BJP, RSS, VHP have been very keen on finding a foothold in Tamil Nadu. While the BJP has made headway in the other Southern States such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala (in Karnataka the BJP has been in power and in Andhra Pradesh it is in alliance with the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP) a regional party), in Tamil Nadu it has failed to make an impact.
Therefore there is a suspicion that Rajini is an advance guard for the BJP in Tamil Nadu, clearing the way for it. In this context it is significant that Rajini has made it clear that he will not launch his new party until it is time for campaigning for the 2021 State Assembly elections. He needs time to popularize his ideology of spiritualism and clean public life before establishing a formal structure to contest elections.
In the meanwhile it is hoped that the existing Dravidian ideology and Dravidian parties will atrophy further and the BJP under Modi will win the 2019 parliamentary elections, to enable the BJP to contest the Assembly polls in Tamil Nadu in alliance with the like-minded Rajini.
However, Rajini has a few handicaps. He is not a native Tamil but a Maharashtrian from Karnataka, his real being Shivaji Rao Gaekwad. To add to this handicap, he has not shown genuine interest in upholding causes which have been important for the Tamils. He had been non-committal in the river waters dispute with Karnataka and has shown little or no interest in the Sri Lankan Tamil issue.
If he joined film personalities’ protests on these issues it was only due to pressure from the society around him.
MGR and Jayalalitha also had handicaps. MGR was a Keralite and Jayalalithaa was a Brahmin, both communities at odds with the Dravidian movement. But they were extremely successful in Tamil politics because they identified themselves fully with the Tamils’ causes and took the lead in promoting them vigorously.
Rajinikanth is trying to divert the Tamils’ attention to other issues like clean politics, clean administration, spiritualism, and soft Hindutwa if not the hard one touted by the BJP. Will the new brand sell?