The 'chosen' one: Can Rajinikanth break the monopoly of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu?

After much wavering and keeping his fans in suspense for over two decades Rajinikanth has decided to enter politics. Does he have the political, ideological or organisational strength to break the monopoly of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu, which the BJP hopes to achieve apparently riding on his tinsel town popularity?

Published : Dec 16, 2020 06:00 IST

RajiniKanth  at a press conference in Chennai on December 3, after announcing his plan to launch a political party.

RajiniKanth at a press conference in Chennai on December 3, after announcing his plan to launch a political party.

I n many ways, 1982 was special for Rajinikanth. It was in that year that the ‘superstar’ of the Tamil film world realised the extent of his popularity in the State, and decided to be exceedingly picky in choosing his roles.

On August 14, 1982, two major Tamil films released: Engeyo Ketta Kural , starring Rajinikanth, and Sakalakala Vallavan , starring Kamal Haasan. Both movies were directed by S.P. Muthuraman.

Anyone who lived through those years would remember that Sakalakala Vallavan rocked the box office like never before, and remained the highest grossing Tamil film until the late 1980s. It was a masala movie of stunts, gimmickry, and song and dance that established Kamal Haasan, until then largely considered a suave and urbane star, as an entertainer of the masses in villages and towns across Tamil Nadu.

Engeyo Ketta Kural was a complex family drama that was not easily palatable to audiences in rural areas. Some politicians who watch movies as much as they keep tabs on the State’s politics think that Muthuraman deliberately switched the actors in the two movies. J. Constandine Ravindran, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) spokesperson and avid movie watcher, said that Rajinikanth should have starred in the runaway hit, Sakalakala Vallavan . “ Engeyo Ketta Kural was not the kind of movie that a Rajinikanth audience expected. But what you should remember is that Rajinikanth’s fans did not let him down,” he added.

Engeyo Ketta Kural was released, among other screens, in Madurai’s Thangam theatre, then claimed to be Asia’s largest cinema hall that could accommodate 2,563 people at a time. The film was not drawing the kind of crowds that the theatre owner had expected. It meant all-round losses.

At that juncture, the local Rajinikanth fan clubs stepped in. Every day, for every show, the members of these clubs would purchase multiple tickets; sometimes they would sit in and watch for the nth time. The members of the fan clubs were mostly from the lower middle class—autorickshaw drivers, automobile mechanics, daily labourers, and so on. They had but one aim: their hero should not fail at the box office, especially at a time when Kamal Haasan was emerging was a tough competitor. If they had to contribute a portion of their daily wages, so be it. That was the extent of their loyalty to their hero. The movie ended up being a commercial success.

Also read: DISPATCHES | Ending two decades of suspense, actor Rajinikanth decides to launch a political party

Rajinikanth’s unshakeable popularity rests on these fan club members. For decades, they have always been at the forefront of ensuring the larger-than-life persona of their hero, carrying out his wishes and celebrating his birthday in a grand manner year after year.

The superstar is now 69. A film veteran who was a part of all big productions pointed out that Rajinikanth’s core supporters have also aged.

“For any hero, the core of his supporters will be about 20-25 years younger than he is. That’s the kind of supporter who is willing to confront anything for the sake of the hero. That’s the guy anointing the hero’s cutout with milk on the day a new movie is released,” said the veteran, who did not wish to be named.

Rajinikanth’s critical drawback at the time of his political plunge is that a majority of his core supporters are past their prime and cannot jump into anything their leader wants them to because of factors such as family commitments.

Vijayakanth and Rajinikanth

In contrast, when the actor Vijayakanth took the plunge into Tamil Nadu politics in 2005, he was less than 55. “His core supporters were in the 25-35 age group. They worked like maniacs to make him succeed,” the movie veteran said. Vijayakanth succeeded, and after the 2011 Assembly election, his Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) became the main opposition party in Tamil Nadu, a feat not achieved since the advent of another matinee idol, M.G. Ramachandran, who broke away from the DMK, formed the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and went to capture power within five years of forming his party. Tamil Nadu politics has been a two-horse race since MGR’s success. Until the DMDK’s feat, only the AIADMK or the DMK occupied the role of the main opposition party, if they were not not in power.

As a political party, this was the pinnacle of the DMDK’s political achievements. But the major damage that the DMDK inflicted was in 2016. It forged an alliance with the with the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), another offshoot of the DMK. The alliance called the Makkal Nala Koottani did not live up its promise of being the third force in Tamil Nadu. It did not win single seat but the 5-odd per cent of the vote it polled came in the way of the DMK capturing power. The DMK-Congress alliance lost to the AIADMK alliance by just over 1 per cent of the votes. In that election, there was no serious anti-incumbency mood against the AIADMK led by its general secretary Jayalalithaa.

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It is precisely a similar situation that those backing Rajinikanth hope to create and keep the DMK out of power once again.

The post-2016 scenario is: the DMDK has become irrelevant owing to its leader’s poor health; while the CPI and the CPI (M), the VCK and the MDMK are in alliance with the DMK; although Jayalalithaa passed away in 2016, the sentiment against the AIADMK, which was the reason for its debacle in the 2019 Lok Sabha election (where it lost all but one seat), is not apparent in the State now.

A few DMK leaders told Frontline that this was the reality. One of them said: “If the 2019 Lok Sabha results hold, we should win over 200 seats [converting 38 Lok Sabha seats to Assembly segments and giving room for some deviation]. But the ground looks different. The same anger is not there against the AIADMK.”

The ‘voice’ that failed

Ahead of the historic 2004 Lok Sabha election, Rajinikanth, who had stayed away from commenting on politics for nearly a decade, broke his silence. He put out an audio message expressing his support to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and asked his fan associations to work against the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which was contesting in five constituencies in north Tamil Nadu in alliance with the DMK.

(His antipathy to PMK leader S. Ramadoss stemmed from the latter’s criticism in 2002 that film stars were spreading a “bad” culture in Tamil Nadu. In fact, Ramadoss directly attacked Rajinikanth (a Marathi by birth) for not doing anything for the welfare of Tamil after minting money through his Tamil films. A tense situation prevailed in Tamil Nadu when PMK cadre threatened to block the screening of Rajinkanth’s film Baba .)

Rajinikanth’s message had a near-zero impact and all the five PMK candidates won. (It was in sharp contrast to the situation in 1996 when Rajinikanth’s ‘voice’ was believed to have added to the anti-Jayalalithaa mood in Tamil Nadu and ensured a landslide victory of the DMK-led alliance in the Assembly election then. It was also the time when speculation about Rajinikanth’s political entry started and, since then, the actor has kept the people in suspense about his political ‘ambition’.)

The DMK-Congress-PMK-Left alliance in 2004 won all the 39 parliamentary seats in Tamil Nadu and the lone parliamentary seat in Puducherry despite Rajinikanth’s support for the BJP.

The defeat crushed Rajinkanth. He kept away from making any political comment for a decade. In 2014, Narendra Modi, who was looking for his first term as Prime Minister, met him at his residence just ahead of the Lok Sabha election. Three years later, it was the turn of Rajinikanth to make sure that he met Modi at the platinum jubilee celebrations of the Daily Thanthi newspaper in Chennai.

However, it was after the death of Jayalalithaa in 2016 that the BJP made bold to firm up its strategy to strengthen its presence in Tamil Nadu. The death of DMK president M. Karunanidhi speeded up its efforts. With two mass leaders of the Dravidian parties not being in the scene, it was the right time to make inroads in the State, with the help of a pliable ruling party and an actor with a huge fan following.

In 2019, at a time when an impression was gaining ground in Tamil Nadu that the Modi government was acting against the interests of the State, Rajinikanth described Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah as Krishna and Arjuna of the Mahabharata. Clearly, Rajinikanth’s uncritical and whole-hearted approval of the Modi-Shah brand of politics removed any doubt in anyone’s mind of his political orientation. The actor also tweeted his support for the Modi government’s demonetisation move.

Among those who routinely called on him were S. Gurumurthy, auditor and an office-bearer of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, and Arjun Sampath, a leader of the rightwing fringe group Hindu Makkal Katchi, apart from a few other persons affiliated to the BJP. Unlike Kamal Haasan, who met leaders from across the political spectrum before he launched his political party named Makkal Needhi Maiam, Rajinikanth has so far met only those who sought him out.

As Dinesh Gundu Rao, the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee in-charge, put it, “many of the BJP people” are now associated with the actor. In fact, Rajinikanth’s main political point person, Arjuna Moorthy, was previously the head of the BJP’s intellectual wing. Interestingly, within hours of Rajinikanth announcement that Arjuna Moorthy would be his prospective party’s coordinator, the BJP announced his expulsion from the party. While it is the time-tested practice of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) to depute its members to Sangh Parivar outfits, this is perhaps the first time a Sangh Parivar member has moved to an yet-to-be-launched political party.

The BJP has been vocal in promoting and protecting Rajinikanth and S. Gurumurthy has gone on record saying that the star’s impact in the 2021 election will be similar to that of MGR, forgetting that MGR first fought an election on his own in 1972, after considerable experience in politics. MGR was not only an actor but also a politician with considerable organisational experience in the DMK as its treasurer.

An obliging Tamil media too has been playing up Rajinikanth in an effort to create a buzz around his eventual political entry and his brand of “spiritual politics”.

Going by Rajinikanth’s actions from 2017, the year he announced that he would launch a political party, to December 2020, when he said he will launch one on December 31, it is clear that the actor is reluctant. In the case of Vijayakanth, the DMDK was launched in 2005 and it became a force in Tamil Nadu politics in the 2006 election.

Vijayakanth also positioned his party well: Dravidian in ideology and secular in outlook, which gave a platform for youth from all walks of life to showcase their might. Rajinikanth’s yet-to-be-defined “secular spiritual politics” and his frequent interactions with members of the Sangh Parivar have firmly bracketed him with the BJP’s majoritarian politics.

Rajinikanth had built an organisational structure for the party as early as 2018. He did this essentially by converting his fans’ associations into a new entity called Rajini Makkal Mandram (RMM) in all districts. By 2018, as many as 7,000 fans were appointed to positions in 38 district units that he had created. The 7,000 office-bearers were tasked with recruiting youngsters in the vicinity of each of the 60,000 plus booths in the state. The RMM has also opened a website for memberships.

The pandemic this year helped Rajinikanth reassess his strengths and his entry into politics. After a massive lull, on October 29 he announced that a leaked statement attributed to him had many facts in it—including that he underwent a kidney transplant and that he had to take additional precautions. The leaked note stopped short of saying that he was quitting politics, but it appeared that Rajinikanth wanted to find out for himself what the impact of such a statement would be. He had also made it clear that he would not be able to undertake a strenuous campaign.

There was no major reaction to the note in Tamil Nadu, a State with a history of cadres self-immolating when leaders went to jail or faced a life-threatening illness. While the State remained calm, it appeared that the BJP was riled up over the actor’s antics.

On November 30 the actor met his supporters in Chennai and heard their views. He also explained his viewpoint but did not make it clear if he was taking the plunge. But just three days later, on December 3, he announced that he would make an announcement about party formation on December 31. The party is to be launched in January.

Also read: Rajinikanth: Waiting for the script

D. Ravikumar, VCK leader and Member of Parliament, said: “If Rajinikanth had come out in the same secular fashion as in 1996, where he was seen with [former Congress leader] G.K. Moopanar and others, and if he had retained that pro-Congress image, it would have helped establish himself as a credible secular alternative in Tamil Nadu.”

If he had been seen as secular, it would have completely transformed the political narrative in State, in a post-Jayalalithaa, post-Karunanidhi scenario.

Ravikumar said: “Even the Congress and the Left parties would have retained the idea of joining hands with him as an option. He now says he will form a political party. Who will ally with him now? No one from the DMK alliance will join him. Neither will the Naam Tamizhar Katchi. At best, it can be the PMK. But even this is unviable because the PMK will demand an equal number of seats. Even the AIADMK will not accept him or someone nominated by him as the Chief Ministerial candidate because it has already declared Edappadi [K. Palaniswami] as the C.M. candidate. Hence, it is very clear that he has no political ally other than the BJP.”

So, is fielding Rajinikanth as someone who identifies himself with the Sangh outfits a mistake? Ravikumar said: “Yes. By his response to the Thoothukudi firings, the eight-lane highway and Kanda Sashti Kavacham issues, and so on, his identity as a secular politician has been compromised.”

(Rajinikanth supported the police’s action in gunning down 13 anti-Sterlite protestors at Thoothukudi, saying that “anti-social elements and toxic germs” had infiltrated the ranks of the protestors. On the proposed eight-lane highway from Chennai to Salem, which is a pet project of the Chief Minister and which led to massive protests across Tamil Nadu, he sided with the State government, stating that projects like the highway were important for the State’s development.

On the controversy over a video that made fun of the Kanda Sashti Kavacham devotional hymn, he thanked the Tamil Nadu government for taking action against those who hurt the religious sentiments of millions of Hindus.

“I hope people do not talk bad about a particular religion or God at least in the future,” he said in a video posted on his Twitter handle.)

Ravikumar said: “If Rajini contests on his own, it will affect the BJP and the AIADMK. Even when Kamal Haasan contested the last time, the urban vote in places like Chennai and Coimbatore that he got was the BJP’s.”

Rajinikanth is trying to do an N.T. Rama Rao, known as NTR, who launched the Telugu Desam Party in 1982 just months ahead of the Assembly election in undivided Andhra Pradesh. NTR launched his party when there was no serious alternative to the Congress, which alienated large sections of its supporters with its high-command controlled politics changing Chief Ministers at will. NTR took on the Congress, with the strong plank of ‘Telugu pride’ being insulted by Indira Gandhi’s style of functioning.

The situation is different in Tamil Nadu. Rajinikanth has to take on both the DMK, a regional party which sees 2021 as a make-or-break election, and the AIADMK, which will possibly split if it is not in power. For the Congress, Andhra Pradesh was just another State. For both the DMK and the AIADMK, it is a matter of political survival. Moreover, until the last round of elections, over 70 per cent of the popular vote went to the alliances led by them, leaving little space for a third force .

Rajinikanth’s options

The moot question is: Does Rajinikanth have agenda to capture the imagination of the people in Tamil Nadu or the political, ideological or organisational strength to break the Dravidian monopoly in Tamil Nadu? As of now, for the superstar, who has enjoyed the luxury of choices in cinema, where he could pick and choose the role or the banner, there seem to be very few options: ally with the BJP or break the AIADMK and bring a part of it to his newly formed party and project him as the chief ministerial candidate (even though he has said that he will not occupy the post). But the moment he does this, Rajinikanth will stop being the alternative because he would have become part of the ‘system’. For a person who has declared that the “system is not right” and “everything needs to be changed,” this will be the humble realisation that the system is always right.

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