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Baasha or Baba: Which way will Rajinikanth’s political career turn?

There is a vacuum in Tamil Nadu politics that ‘Superstar’ Rajinikanth can capitalise on. But can his fan base really convert into a vote bank, or can this euphoria sustain till the polls?

opinion Updated: Jan 19, 2018 16:01 IST
Viju Cherian
Viju Cherian
Hindustan Times
Time will tell whether Rajinikanth entering politics will end up like Baasha, his biggest hit, or end up like Baba(PTI/Agencies)

Putting an end to two decades of speculation, matinee idol-politician ‘Superstar’ Rajinikanth on December 31 announced his intentions to enter mainstream politics. Ever since then, there’s a buzz about how this will “change” politics in Tamil Nadu, and, of whether he will follow the footsteps of MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa to become chief minister. There is also speculation if he will be the politician who will veer Tamil Nadu away from its present Dravidian politics and thus make it easier for non-Dravidian parties, particularly the BJP, to gain a foothold in the state.

Such expectations arise because politics in the state is in a shambles: corruption, bad policies and lack of governance are just some of the problems the state is facing. But can Rajinikanth change politics in Tamil Nadu?

“Most certainly he can make a change. But a lot of it depends on the team he forms and the political ideology he adopts,” says Sumanth Raman, political commentator. “There is a big political vacuum in Tamil Nadu, with people disillusioned with the existing players.”

How can there be such high expectations from a debutant, who has said precious little about his policies and politics? There can be, if that debutant is ‘Superstar’ Rajinikanth.

The film-politics tango in Tamil Nadu has meant that many actors are open about their political leanings and in some cases even venture into politics. But it is not necessary that the ride from Kodambakkam, the fulcrum of the Tamil film industry Kollywood, to Fort St George, the seat of political power in the state, is going to be a smooth one. “As long as Rajini was only in cinema, everyone was speaking well of him. Now that he has entered politics, soon we will see how he is attacked and his every move criticised. Rajini is not used to such close and constant scrutiny,” says S Anwar, a Chennai-based film-maker.

The current buzz about Rajini’s political success reminds me of an incident way back in August 2002. After second show in Chennai’s famous Devi theatre, my friends and I noticed a large crowd on Mount Road (or Anna Salai). Mount Road is Chennai’s transport artery and crowds are common, but not at 2 am. The centre of everybody’s attention was an autorickshaw, and majestically on its rear window was a painting of Rajinikanth with a signature hand gesture from his soon-to-be released film Baba. His previous four films, including Baasha, were phenomenal, blockbuster hits. Such was the anticipation and craze about Rajinikanth that in the days to follow till the movie released, Baba was all over Tamil Nadu: on autorickshaws, T-shirts, magazines, posters, etc. Baba released on August 15, but not only did it fail to live up to the hype, it also left his fans polarised; and the film distributors burnt their fingers. Incidentally, Rajini, on December 31st, re-introduced the Baba hand gesture — the thumb holding down the middle and ring finger.

What explains the excitement about Rajini joining politics?

Of course the poor performance of the incumbent EK Palaniswami-led AIADMK government has helped. The infighting within the party has weakened it to an extent where many feel that the bipolar contest witnessed till now between the two Dravidian parties, the AIADMK and DMK, will no longer take place; thereby opening the field for newcomers. Rajini’s entry should be seen in this background. “The AIADMK cadre which are disgruntled with the present leadership could move towards him. This will, however, not affect us [DMK],” says TKS Elangovan, DMK leader and Member of Parliament from Rajya Sabha.

One of the calculations why many think Rajini will be a successful politician is the belief that his 80,000-plus fans associations (with at least 25 members each) are an automatic vote bank. This arithmetic is delusional at best, because, if this two million-strong fan base had watched every Rajini movie at least once, all his movies would have been super hits. Rajini’s flops at the box office are a handful. If fan loyalty is not guaranteed for his movies, can it save his political innings? Also, at the height of his popularity in 1996, when he could have had it all on a platter, he refused to enter politics. Now, even though there is an opportunity, it seems a bit late in the day.

There’s little doubt that 67-year-old Rajini has a fan base that no other Indian actor, young and old, can boast about; but, the challenge, and a herculean one at it, is to convert this fan base to a vote bank. Rajini’s success primarily will depend on this. “More than 90% of Rajini’s fans are die-hard, loyal fans to him. Only the rest have affiliations to other parties,” says Venkatesh, an administrator of an online fans club and member of a fan association in Thiruvallur, near Chennai. “Now we’re all working at the ground-level to gain support.”

What could work against Rajinikanth is his presumed closeness towards the BJP, a party that is largely seen as anti-Dravidian in the state. Tamilisai Soundararajan, BJP’s state president, a few days back said that Rajinikanth’s politics was aligned to that of the BJP’s. RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy has batted for Rajinikanth and BJP joining hands — all these could be detrimental for Rajini’s political prospects in Tamil Nadu. “Rajinkanth’s attraction is that his party would be a regional outfit and would put the interests of the state over anything else much like the Dravidian parties — a luxury that national parties do not have,” says R Kannan, the biographer of Annadurai and MGR, and a observer of Dravidian politics. “Rajinikanth could learn from Vijayakanth’s experience in 2014 when he led a front, which comprised the BJP.”

Fellow actor Kamal Haasan has also announced his intentions to enter politics, but so far it has received a tepid response. And in that is a warning for Rajini. Kamal Haasan is often said to be the thinking man’s actor, as opposed to Rajini, the mass hero. The challenge for Rajini will be to maintain this initial euphoria till the hustings and thereafter. For this, meaningful, pragmatic, even deliverable policies must be offered. Ideas like “spiritual politics” offer good sounds bytes to journalists but are hollow without concrete plans.

Rajinikanth, while announcing his political plunge said “it was the compulsion of time” that made him take the step. Time will tell whether this move will end up like Baasha, his biggest hit, or end up like Baba.


First Published: Jan 19, 2018 14:56 IST