Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Rajinikanth Entry: Will it stir the politics of Tamil Nadu?

"Everything has already been done by me. All you have to do is to shoot the arrow". With a calmly smile on his face, Rajinikanth quoted these lines from the Gita to the cheering crowds of fans and supporters on the much awaited last day of 2017. He then spoke of "correcting the System" and revealed his intent to launch a new party and contest in all the 234 seats in the next State Assembly election that is three years away. The Super Star then appealed to all his fans to always speak good and do good, as usual.

While this announcement cleared the 'suspense' over the Super Star's future plans, the bare minimal nature of it in it has made the political Pundits and the general public to run into wild speculations about it, reading all kinds of "messages". Some leaders of the Tamil Nadu BJP explicitly welcomed his entry, while the mainstream DMK and ADMK just had a causal, neutral response, on the lines of "Every Indian citizen has a right to start a new party, our organization is very strong and firm and feels noway perturbed by such a development".  The small time fringe outfits espousing chauvinism and regionalism have vehemently spoken against Rajini, predictably.

So, what is to be made out of this announcement and its probable real effect, in the future politics of Tamil Nadu?

Rajini promised to usher in "spiritual politics" (aanmeeka arasiyal) transcending the boundaries of caste and religion in his announcement. His life story of having risen up to the top of stardom from very poor and humble background, coupled with this spiritual aura strikes a genuine charisma cutting across sections of the society. His personal and professional integrity in the Tamil film Industry circles is well known. This has already created a robust image of a man who is incorruptible and is ever willing to put the welfare of the poor and common people above his self interest. The erstwhile Bengaluru  bus conductor image of Rajinikanth very much resembles the erstwhile Jamnagar Tea seller image of Narendra Modi. This is an advantage of that none of his probable political contenders can claim to have.

But for a one time aberration of overtly supporting DMK even in the aftermath of 1998 Coimbatore bomb blasts, Rajini has always stood on the side of supporting Indian nationalism. He has openly expressed his Hindu religious affinity by sporting Hindu religious symbols and advising his ardent fans to indulge in Dhyana and Bhakti practices. On this count, he is a refreshing contrast  to the comical hypocrisy of many Dravidian party politicians, some of them denouncing Hinduism outright while appeasing "minorities". Brahmin hatred is a pet theme of many Tamil politicians of all hues, even writers, artists and media personalities. This is thanks to the skewed racist discourse of the Dravidian movement. It goes to the credit of Rajinikanth that he has never indulged in such hate speech, though it would have won him some favors and accolades in the overall climate of the state. So, even though Rajini has not given any hints about his chosen political ideology, it is believed that it will certainly be a form of 'soft Hindutva', much closer to the BJP ideology than any other parties.

The remarkable identity mix of Rajinikanth, of being born in a Marathi family as Shivajirao Gaikwad, growing up in Karnataka and attaining stardom among Tamils - this in itself is a great tribute to National Integration and the idea of a United India. The 'problem' of Rajini being not native to Tamil Nadu is pepped up only by the fringe groups at present. It is never an issue for mainstream parties and people.

The caste politics of Tamil Nadu has always been an important factor in the electoral victories of both ADMK and DMK. But, it is more of a back stage drama and is never spoken openly in the political discourse of Tamil Nadu unlike the other South Indian states, where the "strength" of caste groups like Lingayats and Kapus is a subject that is openly discussed in TV shows. In Tamil Nadu politics, what comes to the foreground is the charisma of the strong leader, like Karunanidhi, MGR or Jayalalitha and the caste equation factors only in the ticket distribution, giving proportionate share to all the castes. It is to be noted that none of the above mentioned leaders were from dominant castes of Tamil Nadu. Given this history, if Rajini's charisma works the same magic, combined with the practical caste calculation born out of realpolitik, he has much brighter chance of capturing the imagination of Tamil Nadu voters. Because no other political leader, be it Stalin or OPS or EPS or anyone, has such a charisma like Rajini.

It is well known that Rajini has been hinting his political ambition on and off screen right since the start of 1990s, with sudden hypes and scenes of euphoria about his "entry" and the subsequent drubbing off and frustration of the hype being a "false alarm". Though there is a well established network of fan clubs ("Rasikar mandram") in every Taluk of the state with a decent membership of local youth, turning this into a political party work force remains a very big challenge. We already have many examples of failure in this context, like the Telugu actor Chiranjeevi. Rajini and his new party have to put a lot of hard work on this count.

Overall, Rajini's announcement has already stirred the political debate in Tamil Nadu. Lets hope it will bring positive development to the state.


Kannada translation of this article was published in Vikrama Kannada weekly, 21 Jan 2018. 

Kannada version here: