Waiting for the script

Print edition : February 02, 2018

Rajinikanth greets his fans after announcing his entry into politics at the Raghavendra Kalyana Mandapam in Chennai on December 31, 2017. Photo: R. RAGU

Cheering fans greet the superstar’s announcement at Ragavendra Kalayana Mandapam. Photo: G. SRIBHARATH

Rajinikanth with Swami Gautamananda the Ramakrishna Mission Math at Mylapore in Chennai on January 1. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In a political climate marked by popular disillusionment and contempt for mainstream parties’ opportunism and corruption, Rajinikanth attempts to sell a dream as an alternative, but there is no clarity on his political road map yet.

A season of disenchantment is the perfect time for a new merchant to sell a dream. It does not matter that the dream itself is fantastic or outrageous, but it needs to find resonance with the masses.

In Tamil Nadu, this season followed the death of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in December 2016 and the near-retirement of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi. The all-round revulsion over the manner in which the family of Jayalalithaa’s friend and erstwhile fellow prison mate Sasikala took over the party; the prime-time drama at her memorial by former Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam; the doubts over Jayalalithaa’s death raised subsequently at a convenient time by men who were once her lieutenants; the trouble over succession in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) that played out in the open and sometimes on live news television; the many threats and counter-threats made by different AIADMK factions; the inability of the main opposition party, the DMK, to take on the government on most issues; the widespread bribing of voters ahead of the R.K. Nagar byelection; the government’s subservience to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Union government; the Chief Minister’s inefficiency in handling major issues such as the aftermath of Cyclone Ockhi or the transport strike; the strong BJP-led campaign that 50 years of Dravidian rule had destroyed Tamil Nadu; the lack of any serious political alternative in the State; and the increased popular interest in the State’s politics as reflected in the TRP numbers of Tamil news channels—all set the stage for a debate on a political alternative.

This is a question of finding not merely a leader to fill the vacuum left behind by Jayalalithaa but a leader who can steer politics away from the cycle of deception and hollow rhetoric and show a clear path forward even as joblessness grows, welfare schemes collapse, and the State slides towards bankruptcy. The actor Kamal Hassan set the stage for what was to follow by harping on the government’s “failings”—on Twitter mostly. The subtext was that all politicians were crooks and it was people like him who would lead the State on the path to prosperity—however unrealistic this might sound. After tweeting furiously until November 30 on a range of issues, collecting money from fans to start a political party, and then returning it, Kamal Hassan left for the United States to shoot his latest movie.

So, when Rajinikanth, a superstar of Tamil cinema who held no firm political views barring a few based on his personal dislikes in his career spanning four decades, decided to take the political plunge on December 31, there were many who welcomed his move. He did not float a political party, did not say what his policies and programmes would be or even hint at who his go-to people would be. His most famous quote on his policies: “I am scared of the media. A reporter asked me what my policies were. For a minute, I felt giddy.” Later, he said that all these would be announced closer to the Legislative Assembly elections—now scheduled to be held, in normal course, before May 2021. Since there was no time to put together an organisational structure before the local body elections, he would skip contesting these elections that were overdue. On the question of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, a call would be taken later. Rajinikanth did not clarify what would happen if the shaky AIADMK government went belly-up in the next few months.

Spiritual politics

Instead of explaining his political outlook, he gave the people a dream phrase: “spiritual politics”. And it was posited against the Dravidian parties’ politics, which has its roots in Periyar’s rationalism. When the media pressed him much later on what this phrase meant, he elaborated: “T0ruthful, straightforward and clean politics”. Asked if this meant that the politics of today was none of these, he refused to respond.

Every merchant needs a convincing delusion to sell. Rajinikanth’s is this special brand of politics that combines lofty spiritual ways with the mundane rough and tumble of politics. By his own admission, in an interview a few decades ago, spirituality and politics do not mix and should not be combined. They are like the proverbial mongoose and snake, believed to be in a perpetual fighting mode.

Spiritual politics, unlike the BJP’s in-your-face communal politics, is a relatively unexplored term in India and has certainly stuck a chord across the board. It comes after two attempts by the BJP to push its agenda in the State. The first was the communal polarisation in Coimbatore and Kanyakumari districts in the mid-1990s. This did not yield the expected results. Then came the next, softer push to use the popular Hindu god Ganesha as a unifier and vote catcher. This began in the guise of Vinayaka Chaturthi idol immersion processions. In Chennai, the Hindutva outfits tried their usual tactic of taking out a procession on a route where a prominent mosque was situated..

Ganesh Chaturthi processions were not the norm in Tamil Nadu. The north Indian community in Chennai and a few other cities celebrated it with processions. As part of the new thrust, however, celebrations were held in every village in Tamil Nadu for over a decade. But Ganesha politics fell flat in the face of the lack of interest in the Tamil community in celebrating it ostentatiously. Spiritual politics, which has all the markings of “soft Hindutva”, might work if the message is not overtly religious. Rajinikanth is seen as favourably disposed towards the BJP after his support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation move and Swachh Bharat campaign. He met the head of the Ramakrishna Math, and a video of the meeting showed a sadhu extolling the actor’s preference for spiritual politics over “so-called secularism”. Rajinikanth seems to have chosen his slot well.

Getting the semantics right

Rajinikanth got all the semantics right as he announced his entry into politics in his fully vegetarian marriage hall, Raghavendra Mandapam in Kodambakkam, the Chennai locality known as the capital of Tamil cinema, on December 31. “There is a need for political change,” he said in a short speech delivered in a monotone, without a prepared text. After lampooning politicians for looting the State and talking about the evil of corruption, he said, without altering his tone: “The system needs change….We need spiritual politics. That is my goal and wish.” However, he appealed to his fans not to criticise other parties. He also said a strict “no” to agitational politics. There were other groups to take up agitations, he said. The fans’ only immediate duty was to register all the fan clubs and expand their membership.

Rajinikanth also lamented that democracy had decayed in the State and that the events in Tamil Nadu in the past year had made the people hang their heads in shame. “People outside [the State] are laughing at us,” he declared. Going by all accounts, the speech was well received. While representatives of major political parties dismissed him on television, in private they admitted that he had made the right noises and that he could prove to be a threat. Seeman, who runs the Naam Thamizhar Katchi, which stands for a strand of ultra-Tamil nationalism, was open in his criticism of Rajinikanth, reminding people of his Marathi origins and rejecting the political philosophy that only a Tamil should be Chief Minister in the State. The 67-year-old Rajinikanth, originally Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, is Marathi by birth. Before entering the film world, he worked as a bus conductor in Bengaluru.

Many people from the film world are actively supporting Rajinikanth. Realising that many prominent faces were seeking to join him, he issued a gag order so that only coherent messages went out from anyone associated with him. The administrator of the Rajinikanth All India Fans Association clarified on January 6 that no one had been authorised to appear in TV debates on behalf of the association. The association said that Rajinikanth disassociated himself from the views expressed by his fans and supporters in the media.

Looking back

Right now, the image-building phase is on. Rajinikanth has said that he is not after the power of position. If he were, he claimed, he could easily have had it in 1996, when, he said, political power came his way. The reference was to the run-up to the 1996 Legislative Assembly elections, when there was a groundswell of public opinion against the Jayalalithaa regime. The people of Tamil Nadu were disgusted by many of her actions: the lavish wedding of her (later disowned) foster son V.N. Sudhakaran, her visit to the Mahamaham festival in Kumbakonam and the stampede there that led to several deaths, the unprecedented corruption that plagued her first term in office, and how her overzealous police force paralysed traffic every time she ventured out of her Poes Garden residence, citing threat from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. They were looking for a viable alternative. Karunanidhi, who joined hands with the veteran Congress leader G.K. Moopanar, who revolted against the party high command’s decision to ally with the AIADMK and formed the Tamil Maanila Congress, provided that alternative. In that politically exciting atmosphere, Rajinikanth, miffed by the police’s security overkill in the Poes Garden area, where he, too, resides, spoke out against Jayalalithaa. Then he made the famous comment: “If Jayalalithaa returns to power, even God can’t save Tamil Nadu.” That was believed to be one of the factors that led to the defeat of the AIADMK. The alliance arithmetic was unbeatable and it would have won even without Rajinikanth’s “voice”.

Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections of 2004, Rajinikanth recorded a message of support for the BJP and directed his fan associations to work against the candidates of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). The PMK was contesting in five constituencies in north Tamil Nadu and its leader, S. Ramadoss, was a fierce critic of film stars and the culture that they were spreading in Tamil Nadu. In what remains the PMK’s biggest Lok Sabha victory to date, all its five candidates won. The DMK-Congress-PMK-Left alliance won all the 39 parliamentary seats in Tamil Nadu and the lone parliamentary seat in Puducherry despite Rajinikanth’s support for the BJP.

Political situation

Senior leaders cutting across party lines feel that Rajinikanth will not become a leader on his own. Stalin’s acts of omission and commission will have a significant role to play in the State’s politics. Four leaders contacted by this correspondent pointed to the past: O. Panneerselvam was, to a certain extent, helped by the DMK in his “dharma yudh”. The party realised a few months later that OPS was gaining too much popularity and backed off. The massive victory of the former AIADMK leader T.T.V. Dinakaran in R.K. Nagar was facilitated by Stalin’s reluctance to meet his every move with a countermove. While Stalin came in for praise for his decision to not distribute money for votes, that the DMK candidate lost his deposit was a shocker. Dinakaran’s emergence as a leader to reckon with and the DMK’s weakness have made the political situation difficult to gauge.

Rajinikanth’s supporters point to the success of M.G. Ramachandran, who founded the AIADMK after breaking away from the DMK in 1972. This appears to be a case of interpreting history to suit a convenient narrative. MGR was a member of the Legislative Council for a term and of the Legislative Assembly for two terms representing the DMK and was a party worker much before he was an elected representative. As the treasurer of the DMK, he had organisational experience, too. For him, films were a path to politics. He had never held a glass of alcohol (a public official drinking is still viewed as a bad thing), never smoked on screen, and never delivered a line derogatory of women.

For Rajinikanth, who has some of the most regressive dialogues against women in Indian cinema, movies were an end in themselves. Politics seems to have been forced on Rajinikanth at a late stage in life, between the release of two of his movies, Robot 2 and Kala.

Rajinikanth is, at best, a reluctant politician. The disgust with politicians in general might have created a space for him. How he uses this elbow room to manoeuvre and move ahead will decide whether he will emerge as a “superstar” in politics or go the way of his political predecessors from the film fraternity—like the veteran actor Sivaji Ganesan, who miserably failed in politics; or Vijayakanth, founder-leader of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, who has reduced himself to a marginal player; or T. Rajendar, an also-ran.

Politicians are waiting for the day Rajinikanth hits the road seeking the support of the people. It remains to be seen whether his moves will resonate with the people.

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