Is there a political vacuum in Tamil Nadu? Well, ‘political vacuum’ is a codeword for Rajinikanth and his entry into politics. Tamil Nadu is now almost divided into two camps. If you agree that there is a political vacuum, it means that you are looking for Rajinikanth’s entry into politics, and if you say NO, it means you don’t care much.
Stalin and Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami are together on one issue; that there is no political vacuum and they have made it clear on every occasion. They hope to discourage Rajinikanth as they do not want an unpredictable variable in the game of Tamil Nadu politics.
Rajinikanth has been playing this cat and mouse game of political entry for long. It all started in 1996 assembly polls, when political parties made a beeline to him to get him to endorse an anti-Jayalalitha stand. Finally, he said something to this effect: “If Jayalalitha comes to power again, even God cannot save you”. That was enough for his fans and followers. He was at the height of his popularity then and some still feel that he missed the bus then.
Jayalalitha faced the most humiliating defeat in her career, when she lost as an MLA and most of her partymen lost the elections. However, the credit for the defeat may not lie with Rajinikanth alone as a massive anti-incumbency wave was afoot even before the polls were announced. Rajini was just on the right side of history.
He Has been caught on the wrong side too. His brand of endorsement of political parties came to a naught, when during the 1998 parliament elections he openly supported the DMK – Tamil Maanila Congress alliance (Moopanar’s party) which went on to lose the polls. The elections were held in the backdrop of a growing disenchantment with the DMK and the Coimbatore bomb blasts.
In the 2004 parliament elections too, Rajinikanth supported the BJP-AIADMK alliance which flopped miserably. However, his political brand endorsements are restricted to either interviews or a formal announcement of support. He has never campaigned for anyone or hit the streets in support of any political party. At times, his endorsements looked laboured, as an afterthought or simply that he was under pressure to do so.
From the mid-1990’s Rajinikanth films had dialogues and hints of his willing to take on a greater role, and in Tamil Nadu that would simply mean he was keen to join politics and become the chief minister. There are no subtle nuances. His ‘punch’ political dialogues were a talking point, whenever his films were released. It was also not seen as something odd in a state with cinema and politics being bedfellows for long.
With Rajnikanth, issues have never been his forte. He has his generic ‘system is wrong’ type of comments which was enough to set tongues wagging, the political commentariat busy for weeks with hair splitting discussions on how they could be interpreted. Some of his ‘punch’ film dialogues could be terribly inane like “I might be late, but I will be the latest”. Such dialogues pop up out of nowhere in his films, and you must recognise that has nothing to do with the film, but a larger political statement. Unless you are immersed in Rajiniana, you would never recognise that such statements have political intent, and it is the star signalling something significant enough to his audience.
Cynics say that is all play acting, just to keep the fans happy and engaged. It also seems to help the film career of aging stars if there is a question of a political entry hanging over their head. Maybe, it helps fans too as they could hope for a career change over and above being a part of the fan clubs. If one does not have grand plans, it appears that Tamil fans might start deserting the star for those who have such larger than life ambitions.
Once in a while, politicians see through the game, and start harassing the stars. It is an occupational hazard of being an ‘action hero’ in Tamil films. However, Rajinikanth has been given a free pass by the politicians so far as he is too popular to be meddled with. However, when he joins politics formally, it would be a free for all and Rajinikanth would have to face the heat as he has never done before. That is where the BJP at the centre comes in, giving enough space and wherewithal for Rajini to grow politically.
Rajinikanth does not have it easy. He is a poor communicator offscreen, speaks in a rushed manner and is often struggling for words, particularly in Tamil, in a state where public speaking and oratory is considered a fine art in itself. Added to that, he at times speaks in riddles in a self-effacing and self-deprecatory tone. In a politically charged land with politics being seen as war by other means – Stalin the DMK chief is known as Dhalapathi or commander – or has hyperbolic overtones, (MGR and Jayalalitha were known as revolutionary leaders) a shy, reticient and unassuming figure like Rajinikanth is an odd man out. Such a reclusive persona has added to his appeal and personableness, but whether it would help manage a political organisation in a state like Tamil Nadu is an open question. That is reason enough for many to feel that he has not yet made up his mind, and he is being dragged in reluctantly into the political arena. It might be more to do with the expectations of the fans, rather than the ambitions or the drive of the star himself.
‘Will Rajinikanth enter politics’ has been discussed ad nauseum for more than 25 years that many of his die-hard fans and followers are tired and jaded. Moreover, you must recognise that Rajni’s core fan base has aged and now there are other contenders to the throne. He is the wholesome family entertainment star, and not the angry young man who can drive and lead other angry young men to mobilise voters to the polling booths. He is so mainstream and avuncular that he is seen as harmless- not the rebel waiting to change the system. He is considered too decent for politics.
Rajinikanth fans and followers look up to MGR and NTR as role models. MGR was brought up in the crucible of Dravidian politics and NTR rode on the wave of an anti-incumbency sentiment. There is no comparison here, though Rajnikanth is with these leaders in terms of popularity and acceptance. Rajini has now converted his fan clubs into a proto political outfit and they are in an outreach mode; not the political protest variety but of the charity type. A lot of groundwork has been made, local level functionaries have been appointed, and it is now for the superstar to say GO.
Rajinikanth says that he would start his political party only during the runup to the 2021 assembly elections and he would not comment on anything political till then. That might sound a bit coy, for fans and followers who might have been waiting for his entry for the last 20 years. He wants to be a centrist with the spiritual touch, but in the rough and tumble of Tamil Nadu politics that’s easier said than done. Most of his political capital is now being spent on explaining that he is not in bed with the BJP, despite his open admiration for Modi. Without the BJP umbrella, Rajinikanth is easy prey for Dravidian parties, and herein lies the challenge and the opportunity.
The only imponderable in the Rajini story is that he has never addressed large public meetings or had been on mass contact programmes. Unless he embarks on something of that sort it is tough to gauge his appeal and his capacity for mobilisation. His fan clubs too are untested on large political mobilisation.
Is there a political vacuum in Tamil Nadu? It all depends on whom you ask. There is a well-oiled DMK with Stalin in the lead (perhaps a chief minister-in-waiting for the longest period of time in Indian politics) and hungry for power. There is a Edappadi Palaniswami who is slowly consolidating his hold on power. Both parties have men, money and muscle in abundance. Other smaller parties are at their beck and call.
If not a vacuum, there is perhaps a space for an alternative, but the ride won’t be fun, fast and easy as film stars hope for.
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