Reinvention is the survival mantra in both politics and cinema. Looking for a new role and script, 66-year-old superstar Rajinikanth feels his hour has come to move from the phantasmagoria of the silver screen to the reality of the political stage. For the past few weeks, his clarion cry to fans to ‘prepare themselves for the war’ against a ‘rotten system’ is echoing not just through Tamil Nadu, but also in New Delhi. The octaves of that war cry perhaps herald a change; gathering the velocity to sweep through the state’s tentatively turbulent politics after the death of film icon chief minister Jayalalithaa. Rajini, whose popular moniker is ‘Thalaivar’ (leader), is no stranger to success.
Today, if he raises a finger, his admirers will stand on their head. Bollywood contemporaries bit back their bile after his spectacular box office magnetism made him the highest paid actor in South Asia. It was a long journey to the top—150 Tamil and about 30 in other languages. The Numero Uno of Tamil Nadu politics is decided by numerology of celluloid; if just all those who buy tickets for Thalaivar’s films vote for him, all other candidates will lose their deposits. Today, standing at the cusp of change, the reason motivating Rajini to take the political plunge would be the absence of a pan-Tamil Nadu charismatic leader with the moxie to unite all castes, communities and youth under one banner.
With Jayalalithaa’s unexpected death and DMK chief Karunanidhi’s failing health, Tamil Nadu’s parties exist in a vacuum, lacking ideological connectivity or a cult personality to win elections. For the past 50 years, the state was ruled by powerful film personalities with strong roots in Dravidian culture. They emotionally bonded with the masses. Rajinikanth expects to inherit this celluloid heritage, whose energy has catapulted every film personality with a fan base into political relevance. Of the 12 Tamil Nadu chief ministers since 1952, four were drawn from the world of cinema—Annadurai, Karunanidhi, M G Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa.
For 49 years, they held sway over Fort St George; in 1967, the Congress hold over Tamil Nadu had been demolished forever by the Dravidian wave. It was not anti-incumbency that vapourised the Congress. Rising popular sentiment against Brahmin social domination and imposition of Hindi rung its death knell in the ’60s. In the wake of this anger, DMK converted anti-Congress sentiment into votes, driven by the tempo of filmdom. Its leader was Annadurai, a force to reckon with in celluloid Madras, who forged the clout of film writer K Karunanidhi and matinee divinity M G Ramachandran into a devastating Dravidian weapon.
Two years later, Karunanidhi filled the void Anna’s death left. After a subsequent split, it was the towering film star MGR who won the election leading the newborn AIADMK. Not the Congress. History shows in Tamil Nadu that in the event of disruptions, non-cinema personalities were sworn in only as stopgap chief ministers, who would vacate their chair for the next film bigwig. For example, it was the fatuous fate of V R Nedunchezhiyan, a senior minister in Anna’s cabinet, to be a temporary CM in 1969 and 1987, later stepping aside for Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa respectively.
The electoral failure of national parties in Tamil Nadu emboldens the point that votes revolve around personalities, not ideologies. Though the DMK and the AIADMK have ethnic affinity and connectivity with the lower and middle classes, their electoral successes are derived from the celluloid charisma of their leadership. After Independence-era Congress leader Kamraj died, his party failed to find an equally popular and credible leader from the unprivileged classes.
On the other hand, forward class leaders won elections repeatedly because they straddled the film world. MGR was a Malayali Nair who ruled Tamil Nadu for almost a decade at the helm of a Dravidian anti-Brahmin party. His protégé Jayalalithaa, a Brahmin from Mysore led it to victory in three elections and reigned as chief minister for almost 13 years.
Film star-turned-politicians in the South have dictated terms to national parties on policy issues in exchange for favours for their state and themselves personally. Powerful, popular leaders such as Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and others failed to make significant political dents in Tamil Nadu without an alliance with a party led by a film big wheel. Jayalalithaa made her indomitable hold apparent when she swept the state by herself in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Even the magnetic Modi reaped a negligible harvest in Tamil Nadu.
Now, its Rajinikanth who is ready to step into the field with a scythe of his own. His sponsors and promoters are betting on his box office appeal to consolidate the Tamil sentiment. Ironically, Rajinikanth is neither a committed Dravidian nor a born Tamil; born as Shivaji Rao Gaekwad in a poor Maratha family in Bangalore. His father was a police constable. He himself had worked as a carpenter, coolie and bus conductor before shifting to Chennai where stardom awaited.
It is not for the first time Thalaivar is sending enigmatic political signals. Though he is being wooed by the ruling BJP now, he has supported the DMK and the Congress in the past. In 1996, when the Congress and AIADMK fought the Assembly election together, Rajinikanth supported winning alliance of DMK and Tamil Manila Congress. He supported it again in the Lok Sabha polls. Then in 2004, he made his intention public to vote for the BJP though he didn’t campaign for it. Today, the BJP is looking for a luminary who can fuel its expansionist plans in South India. In Rajinikanth, it has found cordial compatibility.
He is multi-lingual, has no national political ambitions and does not espouse any Dravidian cause or ideology. There is nothing called coincidence in politics. Rajini’s residence in Chennai was Modi’s first pit stop in Tamil Nadu as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate in 2014. The BJP has honoured Thalaivar with Padma awards—Padma Bhushan in 2000 and Padma Vibhushan in 2016. BJP realises a combination of Rajinikanth’s caste-neutral fans and its ideologically motivated cadres could prove fatal for the regional parties.
An alliance between super stardom and political resolve would compensate it for any likely losses in the North and the West in 2019. By adopting Thalaivar to author a new narrative of star-struck Tamil politics, the BJP is aiming to marginalise Dravidian influence and bring the state close to its nationalistic agenda. But Rajinikanth is confronted with a dilemma of his own. Create a regional political identity for himself, or be reduced to just another adjunct of a mighty national force? The script will be written by Rajini, for Rajini of Rajini. This is just the trailer.
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