Thalaivar’s New Avatar
by R Hariharan on 14 Jan 2018 4 Comments

The two-decade long wait of thousands of fans of Tamil cinema’s superstar Rajinikanth ended on New Year eve when he announced his entry into politics is certain. To the roaring approval of thousands of fans attending the six-day interaction with the Thalaiva (as they lovingly call him), he added, “I will form my own political party and contest from all 234 seats in the next assembly election.”


As the news spread, Tamil Nadu’s political parties went into a tizzy. They have strong reasons to worry - many of their youthful party cadre were also members of Rajini fan clubs across the state. Responding to their Thalaiva’s call, there is a fear that they may shed their party affiliations to join his party. 


Officially, there were 50,000 registered Rajini fan clubs in the state in 1995-96, when registration was stopped. Incidentally, there is a fan club in far-off Tokyo! According to a media estimate, now there are 80,000 fan clubs in all. In his speech, Rajinikanth said “I have several thousand fan clubs, in villages and cities all across the state. The unregistered ones are twice as many.” Rajinikanth said that uniting them all would be the first task. Moreover, there are thousands of fans in all age groups outside the fan clubs also. It is these formidable numbers that worry the political parties.


Timing it right


Rajini’s entry could not have come at a more inconvenient time for political leaders as Tamil Nadu politics is in disarray. The ruling AIADMK’s EPS-OPS leadership is locked in a power struggle with the challenger TTV Dhinakaran, after his resounding victory in the RK Nagar by-election. Soon after his victory, he has vowed to “sort out” the present AIADMK leadership.  He is the visible face of the Mannargudi “gang” of Sasikala, which provided the muscle for the late chief minister Jayalalithaa to rule the party with an iron fist. Thus leadership shake-up in the AIADMK looks imminent.


The DMK, cut down to size in the RK Nagar polls, is sulking, while other smaller players, who piggy back on one of the two dominant Dravidian parties, are in a tailspin. All political parties, barring TTV Dhinakaaran faction, are certain that the RK Nagar election has institutionalized corruption in the state.


In this murky political scenario of sleaze and corruption, governance has taken a nosedive. Tamil Nadu, once considered one of the most advanced states, is now a dismal 14th in national ranking. So, common man is able to identify himself with Rajinikanth when he said “the last year events in the state politics have shamed people of Tamil Nadu. The government has to be changed, system has to be changed.” He was humble enough to acknowledge that it would not be easy to do this and appealed for trust and support from the people.


Other leaders have either welcomed the superstar’s decision to enter politics or been cautious depending on the shade of their party colours, ranging from saffron, blue, red and green. The AIADMK predicted Rajini would fail in his new avatar, while TTV Dhinakaran and the DMK welcomed the move. The Congress expressed doubts about his ability to succeed without the organisational backing of an established political party.


Saffron leader?


Ultra-Dravidian fringe leaders sporting black shirts picked on Rajinikanth for opening his speech with a quote from Bhagavad Gita to brand him a saffron leader. However, Rajinikanth has made it clear he would not join any political party. Though BJP is not sure of Rajini’s support, the party’s state chief Tamilisai Soundararajan praised him for his aim to eradicate corruption in Tamil Nadu, as it resonates with the call of the BJP in the state.


Caste-based parties of the state had always opposed film actors’ entry into politics, so it was no surprise they suspected BJP hand in Rajini’s decision. The irrepressible Subramanian Swamy of BJP did not disappoint – he called Rajinikanth an illiterate. He said, “What will he tell us? Rajini is an uneducated man.” The MP called Rajini’s entry into politics a joke.


Tamil Nadu is no stranger to actors morphing into political leaders. In fact, the Dravidian parties have had close umbilical links with the film industry. So Swamy’s argument that Rajini as an actor would not be able to fit in the political mould is untenable. Three powerful chief ministers of the state had film industry background - DMK leader M Karunanidhi was a well-known script-writer; M.G. Ramchandran, AIADMK founder, and his favourite heroine, Jayalalithaa, too, made their mark first in movies. All of them had a strong grooming in politics before they became CMs. The only exception was Vijayakanth, another popular cinema star, who started his own party with the support of his fans. He did fairly well initially, but seems to have been sidelined now.


Rajinikanth’s challenge will be to transform his loosely organised fan clubs and supporters into a coherent, disciplined political party with motivated leaders at the grassroots level. Then only he can take on both the DMK and AIADMK, which are strong cadre based parties.


Some minuses


He is hobbled by his background as a non-Tamilian from Karnataka. In the state where Tamil nationalism is on the upswing, it will be an uphill task for him. The second handicap is that he speaks of spiritual politics, nationalism and corruption-free rule amidst people who have long been exposed to Dravidian discourses about atheism and open hostility to Hindu religious traditions. It is fashionable for leaders of the state to portray New Delhi as the villain out to suppress the Tamils. Considering his spiritual grounding – he was groomed in the Ramakrishna Math and is a follower of Raghavendra Swamiji, a well-known Vaishnav saint, his politics may well turn out to be a green-field experiment in a not-so-friendly political environment.


At 67, Rajinikanth has another movie phenomenon to contend with - Kamala Haasan – who too has been wearing the Dravidian symbol of black shirt, saying he will enter politics.


Can Rajinikanth succeed? He is probably able to relate with the audience better than anyone else. He has charisma and that is what led to the fairy tale transformation of Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, a bus conductor from Bengaluru into Rajinikanth. In 2007, he was touted as the highest paid film star in Asia when he was paid Rs 27 crore for Sivaji. As he has called for “political revolution” in Tamil Nadu, it waits to be seen if Thalaiva can bring about a change. He has given himself three years for the task. Will the reel life hero morph into a real life one?


The writer is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and International Law and Strategic Studies Institute. Courtesy

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