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Will he, won’t he, can he? Mystery over Rajinikanth’s entry into politics

The mystery surrounding Rajinikanth’s political debut is growing in hero-worshipped Tamil politics ever since speculation swirled that the BJP is wooing the star to gain a toehold in this southern state.

india Updated: Jul 17, 2017 18:37 IST
In this file photo, Tamil superstar Rajinikanth can be seen addressing fans in Chennai. The actor has given a strong hint of joining politics.
In this file photo, Tamil superstar Rajinikanth can be seen addressing fans in Chennai. The actor has given a strong hint of joining politics. (PTI)

In his very first film, the 1975 critical and commercial hit Apoorva Raagangal, Rajinikanth was not the hero. Kamal Haasan was. Rajinikanth had a few scenes as the abusive husband of the heroine, Bhairavi (Srividya). So when he flung open the large gates of Bhairavi’s sprawling house and strode in, everyone sat up. He was opening the gates to a new era in Tamil cinema.

Less than three years later, in a film coincidentally called Bhairavi, the title cards announced Rajinikanth as the superstar — a moniker that would put him almost on par with the iconic MG Ramachandran, and would very soon get Tamil Nadu warming to his ‘imminent’ entry into politics.

But for over two decades now, Rajinikanth has been supposedly nurturing political ambitions. Or has he? Fans and political observers have never been sure. Is it a long game, a game he has no appetite for or no game at all?

In May 2017, when he met his fans in clubs across TN for the first time in eight years, hopes were given a fresh lease of life. Again. In the three-day meeting, Rajinikanth spoke extensively about how leaders were good but the system remained ‘rotten’. He exhorted his fans to be prepared for a ‘war when that happens’. But then wherever he met the press in the next few weeks — in airports and other unplanned encounters — he sometimes sounded tired about having to answer questions on politics and would sometimes keep hinting that he is ready to take the plunge soon. But this time, observers say Rajini is serious. If he does take the plunge, will Rajinikanth be able to repeat the MGR magic that continues to hold sway over TN for three decades after his death?

As is well-known about TN, several actors like Sivaji Ganesan and SS Rajendran have made the leap from cinema to politics. What is less known is that they mostly came up a cropper. 

Actor and director SS Rajendran was highly political and the first Tamil actor to actually try his hand at electoral politics (in 1957). Famously in 1964, on Independence Day, he hoisted a black flag. When the police tried to arrest him, he defended his right to not celebrate Independence with a gun in one hand and a microphone in the other hand to declaim his views. In his second attempt, he became a DMK MLA in 1962. Much later, he joined the AIADMK and became an MLA again in 1980. But his political career was a mere blip compared to MGR, who gathered a million votes, seemingly with just a smile and a wave. The mighty Sivaji Ganesan started off as a DMK supporter and later shifted his loyalties to the Congress. Indira Gandhi made him a Rajya Sabha MP, but after her death in 1984, Sivaji couldn’t sustain a career in politics.

Ever since the 1990s, Rajinikanth has been considered a ‘serious enough’ actor for politics, and ever since, attempts have been made to read his future in the tea-leaves of his film songs and dialogues. What did it mean when he sang “Enakku katchiyum venaam oru kodiyum venaam,” (”I neither need a party nor a flag”) in Rajadhi Raja (1989). Or in Uzhaippali (1993), when he asked: “Nethikku oru coolie, inikku oru nadigan, nalaikku?” (I was a coolie yesterday, an actor today and tomorrow?) In Muthu (1995), he again says he doesn’t need a party but adds it all depends on time. (Katchi ellam ippo namakku ethukku, kaalathin kaiyil athu irukku). In the same film, he would go on to say: Naan eppo varuven, epdi varuvennu yarukkum theriyathu. Aana vara vendiya nerathula correcta vandhuduven (”Nobody knows how I would come or when. But when the time is right, I certainly will”). In Baba (2002), he again reiterates he does not like parties or positions, but he would not pass on the command of time. (Katchigalai pathavigalai naan virumbamaatten, kaalaththin kattalaiyai naan marakkamaatten).

Observers point out that it was in the last two decades that Rajinikanth had carefully cultivated the do-gooder image through his films and that perhaps betray his political intentions. It was in the 1990s that he seems to have begun focusing on movies that would carefully cultivate the leader image. These films only portray him as invincible, where he once played anything from angry young man to ageing Casanova. After Thalapathi, posters sprung up in some districts across TN hailing him as the ‘future Chief Minister’. In films that followed — like 1995’s Baasha — Rajinikanth effortlessly solidified this public perception as a leader, someone who could redeem TN from any and all of its troubles. 

In December 2016, at Jayalalithaa’s condolence meeting, Rajinikanth sounded regretful even while claiming to be an important cause of her defeat in 1996. Back then he had said, “if Jayalalithaa is voted back to power, even God cannot save Tamil Nadu.” But it was never clear whether there were political reasons for his grim denunciation or whether this is what happens when two of the most well-known people in TN live next door to each other. Rumour has it that Rajinikanth was annoyed that his vehicle was stopped one morning at Poes Garden (where both reside) for Jayalalithaa’s convoy to pass by. A subgenre of this legend has it that an enraged Rajinikanth stepped out of his car and lit a cigarette, gathering massive crowds and preventing free passage of Jayalalithaa’s convoy. The sum of all this is that his friction with Jayalalithaa burnished his image as a fearless toppler of the mighty.

The convoy-and-flaming-cigarette urban legend points to an important question. No one knows what Rajinikanth stands for politically. He has flip-flopped on everything, including Jayalalithaa. Even back in 2011, he’d called Jayalalithaa, “dhairya lakshmi” (the goddess of courage).

Since May, he has also been meeting leaders and activists to apparently discuss the pros and cons of his political plunge. The long and varied list included the likes of actor Kasthuri (who had tweeted “Can someone who cannot decide for decades make up their own mind be a decisive leader?), farmers’ association leader Ayya Kannu and Hindu Makkal Katchi’s Arjun Sampath.

“Not all superstars can be MGR,” says R Kannan, Dravidian commentator and biographer of CN Annadurai and MGR. “People forget MGR’s political armature, and the years of planning that went into it. MGR’s journey to full-fledged public affairs took some 25 years of preparatory hard work, careful planning, do-gooder image building, organisational base and the grudging ability to risk the indignities involved in politics. But Rajinikanth began doing only positive roles in the last two decades.” And no sign of actual political organising at all.

Kannan also says politics requires enormous energy levels. Months before she died, Jayalalithaa did a whirlwind campaign tour across the state for the 2016 Assembly elections, despite her poor health. She addressed 22 major rallies covering all 234 constituencies. Karunanidhi, then 92 years old, addressed 17 public meetings, besides making 18 speeches from his van. “It’s still not clear to me if Rajinikanth is able or willing to make that punishing commitment,” says Kannan.

Rajini Ramki, author on a Rajinikanth book wonderfully titled Sapthama Sagapthama? (Empty noise or Legend?) too believes the time is ripe for Rajinikanth to take the plunge. “Many people say he should have joined politics in 1996 when he gave his voice against Jayalalithaa. But there were two tall leaders then — Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. Today, except Stalin, there is no tall leader around. Rajinikanth can effectively fill this vacuum.”

Kannan takes a contrarian position. He argues that MGR’s strength perhaps lay in the fact that he had a formidable enemy in Karunanidhi to take on. “Rajinikanth’s difficulty is this: Who is he taking on?” Which brings us back to the question — what does Rajinikanth mean politically?

With a reliable 20 to 25 percent vote bank (as seen in the 2016 elections), the DMK would need another 10 percent to form the government. Does anyone believe that Rajinikanth would bring that? The AIADMK, which is in shambles now, has no reason to gravitate towards Rajinikanth, given their long to-do list of internal bickering.

Political commentator Gnani Sankaran is one of those who believes that Rajinikanth cannot lean DMK or AIADMK. “The talk about forming an alternative for the Dravidian parties is doing rounds since early 1980s. But nothing much has happened since. If Rajinikanth doesn’t position himself as an alternative to the Dravidian majors, he would soon be discredited.”

And if there’s one party that could enormously benefit from Rajinikanth’s entry, it’s the BJP, which won just one seat in TN in the 2014 parliamentary election despite the Modi wave. Senior BJP leaders hope Rajinikanth’s entry into politics will help them gain a foothold. A senior TN BJP leader on condition of anonymity, said, “We know if he does, Rajinikanth would only start a new outfit and not join the BJP. Nevertheless, we hope and we are very certain that Rajinikanth’s party will forge an electoral alliance with us. For us, it would be a big thing.” For those looking for BJP-ish leanings there are aplenty — like when Rajinikanth met Maharashtra CM Fadnavis’ wife and Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan or that he is (unofficially) advised by S Gurumuthy.

Senior journalist DI Aravindan points out that Rajinikanth has neither an ‘ideology nor strategy to form a party’. “Like many others, he speaks of clean politics. That apart, it is clear that he has no strategy. One is not sure what ideology he is guided by. Some say he is close to the BJP but he has not said that openly anywhere. What he has been talking is neither new nor offers any hope.”

If Rajinikanth runs will he win?

Popular Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan recently drew parallels between actor Vijayakanth of DMDK and Rajinikanth. “Vijayakanth has already taken the hit. Rajini soon will,” the magazine predicted. In 2016, a decade after he launched his Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam, Vijayakanth, led the People’s Welfare Alliance in and drew a blank. In 2011, with AIADMK, he won 29 seats. In 2014, despite being with the BJP, he could not win a single seat. The majority of political observers agree that this will be Rajinikanth’s fate.

Sankaran disagrees. “Vijayakanth’s fan base is not as large as Rajinikanth’s nor did he enjoy the kind of cult build up that Rajini has enjoyed over the years.” A cult built up, he points out, by “several leaders including Moopanar, Karunanidhi and personalities like Cho Ramaswamy who kept talking about Rajini’s entry into politics”.

Does Rajinikanth enjoy the same popularity as he did, say a decade ago? Statistics say in early 2000s, the State had about 45,000 fan clubs for Rajinikanth. It now officially stands at 50,000, across the country and the world. But members of fan clubs will tell you on the quiet that numbers have dropped substantially. The average age of Rajinikanth’s ardent fan is close to 50 in a state where the average age is 37. So who does Rajini really bank on? “Not just his fans” says Ramki. “It’s evident that he is banking on the middle class. The people who are looking for a change in the current political scenario, who expect someone to fill the vacuum would support him.”

Will he? Won’t he? What does he mean? For decades, observers have been trying to solve the mystery of Rajinikanth’s political hope. But perhaps he best represents hope for Tamil Nadu, only as long as the mystery remains unsolved.

(In arrangement with Grist Media)