Rajinikanth’s interaction with his fans in Chennai last week, eight years after he last undertook a similar exercise, has triggered excitement about whether the Tamil super hero was poised to join politics. When questioned, his responses were sufficiently ambiguous to keep everyone guessing. “My life is in the hands of God. I’m not sure what he has in store for me. But I will always perform the duty that he bestows on me. So, don’t feel disappointed if I don’t enter politics,” he said initially.
Later, he clarified: “I have responsibilities and work, same with you, let’s do it, but when the ultimate war comes, we all will see.” This was more like Muthu, a character he played two decades ago: “Naan eppo varuven eppadi varuvennu yarukkum theriyathu. Eppo varunumo appo correctaa varuven” (Nobody knows when I’ll come, how I’ll come. But when I need to come, I’ll just be there). A year after the release of Muthu, ahead of the 1996 Tamil Nadu assembly election, he declared support for the DMK-Tamil Maanila Congress combine. J. Jayalalithaa, facing corruption allegations, and outrage over the ostentatious wedding of her foster son, lost that election badly.
Since then, Rajinikanth’s entry into politics has been a matter of constant speculation. His scriptwriters have kept the pot boiling by throwing suggestive lines in his dialogues. The electorate’s fatigue with the dominance of two parties — the DMK and the AIADMK — in state politics, perhaps, is a reason for the chatter around his political entry. There is a perception that filmstars influence Tamil Nadu politics and Rajinikanth, being the biggest of them, can provide an alternative to the Dravidian parties. The current spin is also influenced by the BJP’s attempts to find a foothold in the state, which it seems to believe is possible if Rajinikanth associates with the party in some manner.
No doubt the death of Jayalalithaa and DMK patriarch Karunanidhi’s retreat from active politics have opened up the political space in Tamil Nadu. Barring the AIADMK and the DMK, no party has a serious pan-state presence or cadre loyalty in Tamil Nadu. Mobilisations like the Jallikattu protests earlier this year reveal deep disenchantment among the youth with the established parties and leaders.
Since 1967, the DMK or AIADMK has ruled Tamil Nadu, with smaller parties aligning with either of them. The attempts to project a third alternative — by the DMDK in 2006, the NDA in 2014, a People’s Welfare Front including the Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi and the communists in 2016 — didn’t gain sufficient traction. The NDA, in 2014, got over 20 per cent votes and two MPs. Similarly, the DMDK projected its chief, Vijayakanth, a popular hero with the moniker Karuppu (black) MGR, as an alternative to Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi in the 2006 Assembly election. It polled nearly 10 per cent votes but all its candidates, barring Vijayakanth, lost. However, the votes gained by the DMDK in 2006 and the NDA in 2014 (DMDK was a part of it) indicate that the space for a third force exists in Tamil Nadu.
But can Rajinikanth occupy it? Can he, like M.G. Ramachandran or MGR, a superstar in his day, launch an outfit and hold sway over the Tamil masses? Is his screen image sufficient to pull in voters?
The truth is, MGR was an exception; no other male filmstar in Tamil cinema has been successful in transferring his screen popularity to electoral success. Sivaji Ganesan could compete with MGR at the box office. But his forays into politics failed — Sivaji was with the DMK, the Congress and even headed the Janata Dal in the state. Tamils across class, caste and religion loved him as Nadigar Thilakam (jewel among actors), but did not trust him with their votes. Many stars of the 1970s and ’80s — K. Bhagyaraj, Rajender, Sarath Kumar, Karthik — flirted with politics, they could land only minor parts. Some like Napoleon associated with established parties to become legislators. The point is, cinema influences Tamils, like it does people elsewhere. But stardom is insufficient to win elections. In fact, the intimacy of cinema with politics has more to do with the economy of the film industry.
It is a misreading of MGR’s film and political career to assume that his success as a politician is entirely due to his work in cinema. MGR launched the ADMK or Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in 1972. As the name of the party suggests, he claimed the legacy of both Anna, the founder of the DMK, and the Dravidian Movement. He could do so because he was associated with the Dravidian Movement for many years, first as a campaigner and a fund-raiser, then as a party office bearer. His loyalty to the party had been endorsed by Annadurai himself, who found his popularity useful to the party and the movement. Anna leaned on cinema as a useful propaganda forum to spread the word about the DMK’s ideals among the illiterate poor. By the time MGR launched the ADMK after falling out with Karunanidhi, who had become chief minister after Anna’s death, he already had a political profile; Tamils knew MGR as a disciple of Anna and a follower of the Dravidian Movement.
MGR, of course, built a bank of goodwill by doing carefully curated roles that portrayed him as an underclass hero, with the will and power to transform society. He had also organised his fans in rasikar mantrams (fan clubs). When he floated the ADMK, these thousands of rasikars became his cadre. After forming the government in 1977, he turned the populist welfarism promised by his heroes into state policy. From broad-basing the PDS basket to expanding the mid-day meal scheme to customised welfare measures for targeted groups, he reinforced his popularity by projecting state welfare as his largesse to people. He transformed politics in Tamil Nadu from being movement-oriented to leader-centric. The paradigm has stayed, influencing every other party, including the DMK, to follow suit.
Jayalalithaa, who succeeded MGR, of course had a film career, but she was hardly the star her mentor was. She worked her way up in the party, flaunting her closeness to the Puratchi Thalaivar (Revolutionary Leader). In office, she furthered the MGR model. Now Puratchi Thalaivi, she insisted on being a legatee of Periyar, Anna, the Dravidian Movement and, of course, MGR. She too turned the government’s welfare agenda into an extension of her personal brand.
In short, both MGR and Jayalalithaa were rewarded by the Tamil Nadu electorate not merely for their career in films but also for their political cunning and ability to work the system. They were a part of established political platforms. They nurtured extremely regressive and anti-democratic tendencies, but the patronage politics they cultivated did not discriminate against any community.
At 66, it is anybody’s guess whether Rajinikanth has the energy and ambition to carve out his space in politics. His rasikar mantrams may provide a core cadre. But many of those who whistled from the front rows when a young Rajini danced to rustic numbers like Poduvaga en manassu thangam have aged with him. Rajinikanth in real life seems an unpretentious person, who prefers to keep to himself and follow personal spiritual pursuits. Will he be up for a 24X7 job? The BJP is eager to launch him. But its ideological baggage may weigh down the party’s prospects in Tamil Nadu. Hindutva nationalism will have to be subservient to Tamil subnationalism and its pet peeves like vegetarianism will have be dumped in the Bay of Bengal if it wants to expand beyond its current pockets of influence in Kanyakumari and western Tamil Nadu.
Tamil politics, surely, is undergoing a churn. But the beneficiary may not necessarily be an ageing star, however much he promises to lead the “war” or reiterates his Tamil credentials.