Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is the Consultant Editor of Express Newspapers Ltd
“My entry into politics is certain.This is the compulsion of the times. In the upcoming state assembly polls, I will start my own political party, and contest in all the 234 constituencies in Tamil Nadu.” With those words, Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, idolized as Rajinikanth the larger than life superstar of the Tamil movie world, entered the political arena on New Year’s Eve, bringing to an end two decades of vacillation over the move.
Declaring that the time for political change has come, the superstar pronounced his politics would be spiritual and devoid of religion or caste orientations, but purposefully refrained from spelling out any ideological position or political program.
As to forming his own party, Rajinikanth has emerged pragmatic, saying there isn’t time to get organized to contest the local body polls, likely to be held in few months, and as for the 2019 parliamentary elections, he would decide when the time comes. However, the superstar who has been extremely critical of political events in Tamil Nadu in the past year, is said to have urged his fans not to talk politics or about him and not to criticize other political leaders and parties until his party is launched, to face a democratic challenge.
Ever the charismatic superstar, Rajinikanth used his formidable stage presence to get the message of his political ambitions to fans all over Tamil Nadu. Clearly, he has his eye on the state assembly elections in 2021, with the Chief Minister post as the ultimate goal.
Rajinikanth’s talk of spiritual politics has naturally stirred up intense debate in a state dominated by Dravidian ideology mainly based on secularism and rationalism. Many are questioning whether he is acting as an advance guard for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its divisive Hindutva ideology in Tamil Nadu, where they have no traction so far.
Two days after his speech in front of his fans in Chennai, the superstar was compelled to clarify his position on ‘spiritual politics’ to the media. He claimed what he meant by the term was honest and transparent politics. He also went on to exalt Tamil Nadu as a place of many historical political events, among them, Mahatma Gandhi discarding his attire and opting for loin cloth. This prompted some twitteraties to question tongue in cheek, whether the action hero who is enjoying immense popularity is considering turning to loin cloth in his new political avatar.
Political observers are divided on their assessment on the timing of Rajinikanth’s foray into politics. Some say he has come in too late, while other think the timing is perfect.
Professor Ramu Manivannan, head of Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Madras, who frequently comments on Tamil Nadu politics said Rajinikanth’s decision came 20 years too late, and had come at a time when the state’s politics was at a low point, hinting that the newest entry would sink it further into a bottomless pit.
Rajinikanth is keeping his cards close to his chest. At least for now, and there are concerns that he could change his mind after spending a few months on the ground.
The superstar has not divulged any details about the party he plans to form or was formed, neither its ideology nor its electoral strategy. Certainly he has made his diehard fans deliriously happy, but the question is; will he be able to capture the political imagination of the masses and become a viable alternative in Tamil Nadu politics.
It remains to be seen how political parties and the politically savvy people of the state respond to his transition. I am sure he will be forced to respond to difficult questions that would test his political acumen. According to Prof.Manivannan, Rajinikanth may find it difficult to convince the people of his brand of politics , especially with a decade-long people’s movement in Tamil Nadu and the politically active Jallikkattu generation becoming more vocal on social media and in political debates.
Meanwhile, the Hindustan Times editorially commended Rajinikanth’s timing saying in politics as in dialogue delivery (and flipping – a – cigarette), timing is everything and he has always been a master of that.
Those who appreciate the timing of his political foray point to the current political morass in Tamil Nadu, where the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is in disarray after the demise of its powerful the Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram and Dravidathe Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) nonagenarian leader M. Karunanidhipolitically inactive due to age-related ill- health as evidence to substantiate their thinking. The situation is succinctly put in a January 2 The Hindu editorial, which says that with neither the BJP nor the Congress being in a position to challenge the two Dravidian major parties, it is an opportune moment for Rajinikanth to cash in on his fan base, especially in the absence of a popular leader on the scene.
It is common place that whenever a South Indian film personality enters politics, he or she is compared with the late Chief Minister and founder leader of AIADMK M.G.Ramachandran, and questioned aloud as to whether they would be as successful as him in politics. Incidentally, a few days before Rajinikanth threw his hat in the ring, he reminded his fans of MGR’s uniqueness and said the former matinee idol was still living in the people’s hearts because of his good character.
Those who want to enter Tamil Nadu politics cannot help invoking MGR or avoid talking ill MGR. Rajinikanthis not an exception. He purposefully tries to show the Tamil Nadu populace that he shares similar characteristics of MGR and iseager to win over his party supporters. One wonders whether superstar who has no prior background of continuous political work or electoral engagement can walk in MGR’s shoes or be as successful as him.
There is no doubt that Rajinikanth wants to become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu within a few months of forming a new party. The late MGR unlike Rajinikanth was active in politics, starting in his forties and rising to become the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister in 1977 when he turned 60. But Rajinikanth, now 68, has no previous political experience other than some selective appearances with the political leaders and parties in power.In 1996 he backed DMK – Moopanar Alliance against Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, ensuring in a landslide win for the former. In recent years however, he has regretted that decision.
Some believe that MGR’s greatness as a politician is owed to the fact that he was a great film star who had acted in 136 films and captured the imagination of the film going public. This is, of course, partly true. MGR won great popularity by playing roles where he championed the underdog. The stories of his filmswere simple, clear and moral oriented. He played the roles of the do-gooder, the dutiful son, or the hero fighting the idle rich or vulgar, the greedy, the unscrupulous and anti-social.
But, there have been other great actors, notably Sivaji Ganeshan, who did not make the successful transition into politics. He started his own party after the death of MGR and contested the 1989 assembly elections in an alliance with one faction of the AIADMK led by former the Chief Minister’s Widow V.N. Janaki, but was unable to win even in his own constituency. After the drubbing Sivaji did not engag in active politics until his demise in 2001.
To understand the rise to political stardom of people associated with the film industry, like C. N. Annadurai, MGR and M. Karunanidhi (all of whom were Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu at one time or another), it is essential to understand the rise of the DMK movement in the State and the radical course it spearheaded in order to win the confidence of the downtrodden masses.
In reel life Rajinikanth can claim that he has been doing what MGR did to a certain extent , but in real (political) life comparison between the two cannot be made on account of the activities. MGR, though not a native Tamilian of Tamil Nadu, same as Rajinikatha who is a Maharastrian born in the neighbouring Karnataka state, identified himself with the Tamils’ causes. Rajinikanth on the other hand is a reluctant participant in any of the movement in the interest of Tamil people. However, now he says he wants to create a political revolution in the state politics and blames the system for all the problems faced by the people of the state, ironically forgetting the same system made him a superstar on the large screen.
Be that as it may, the question now is, can superstar Rajinikanth do a Puratchi Thalaivar MGR?