CHENNAI: It may have been incidental. But it made 2017 the only year since the dawn of Dravidian politics when players at the helm of Tamil Nadu’s politics were not closely associated with Kollywood.
While AIADMK icon J Jayalalithaa passed away, DMK president M Karunanidhi has been inactive. Both the ruling, opposition and the rebel camps had no cinema personalities leading it. And DMDK chief Vijayakant has almost become a forgotten name in the political landscape.
Does that mean politics in Tamil Nadu is back with hardcore politicians for good?
There are no clear answers, but all new aspiring politicians the year saw were also from the tinsel town. We don’t yet have someone like Jignesh Mevani, a Dalit rights activist who was elected as an independent in the recent Gujarat Assembly elections against the might of ruling BJP.
From Rajinikanth to Kamal Haasan and Vishal Krishna (and a few others with political ambitions content with ‘punch’ dialogues as of now), all the new aspiring politicians are from the glamour world of cinema.
Political observers across the spectrum are sure about one thing — we also don’t have an MGR yet. When the undisputed Kollywood hero snapped ties with DMK and floated his own party, it appeared as if the people were just waiting to make him the Chief Minister.
But political observers say the image cultivated through cinema alone is not going to help in stitching a successful political career any more.
Political commentator V M M Suba Guna Rajan is blunt when he says the phenomena of Rajinikanth, the most popular Kollywood actor, is over and he is not of “political material.”
“Politics is not about being popular or unpopular, its about gaining the credibility of the people through ideology. In the twilight of his cinema career, he has no ground to succeed in politics,” Guna Rajan says.
His opinion on Kamal Haasan is no different. Haasan has earned an image of a “rebel” through his Twitter posts. “Then he was repeatedly interviewed by all national media houses for a few days. One fine day, he went into hibernation.”
Beyond individual popularity, Tamil Nadu politics is centered around Tamil identity — social and cultural. In the last five decades, all the actors who ventured into politics without fail asserted their Tamil identity in all possible ways. For instance, MGR, a Malayali by birth, was politically accepted since he strongly associated himself with DMK, a party that stood for State autonomy and linguistic rights of Tamils.
In contrast, Rajinikanth has always identified himself as a nationalist and has given an impression that he is likely to be associated more closely with national parties. “Rajinikanth doesn’t seem to be clear on how to position himself in a State where national parties have no prospects. Identity crisis may also be one of the reasons for his hesitation to enter into politics,” says Rajan.
Commenting on whether film actors are preparing to venture into politics without any ideologies, Ramu Manivannan, Head of the department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Madras, feels both have no complaints over pro-corporate policies. “The ideologies of Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa on autonomy for States secured them a place in Dravidan political legacy. But, aspiring politicians, including Rajinikanth, are apologists of corporate system,” he says.
Do ideologies matter?
There are also those who think voters are not worried about ideologies any more, but go by the popularity of the politician. This factor could help aspiring politicians from the Kollywood.
“Both the major Dravidian parties have been attracting voters through freebies (ration, TVs and fans) for several years. Without a Dravidian legacy or Tamil identity, Rajinikanth can certainly emerge as a State-level leader accepted by all sections of society. But, he may have to pass an identity test in the initial days,” says Stalin Rajangam, a Madurai-based writer and Dalit scholar.
What also may turn into an Achilles heels for Dravidian parties when challenged by popular actors is the inseparable caste dynamics on which both the parties have built their vote base over the decades.
While political parties have identified themselves with certain castes and sections, the widespread popularity of someone from Kollywood can give him or her the advantage of being a “neutral” candidate who would unite all sections.
Even though the State has no official records on caste census, Vanniyars, Dalits, Mukkulathors, Kongu Gounders, Nadars and Mutharaiyars are considered as majority castes, accounting for a large population of the State and have strong presence in their respective regions.
After Kamarajar, no person from any of the majority communities ruled the State. The reason is quite well known.
For more than 45 years, despite being from non-majority castes, MGR, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi ruled the State more with their charisma and populist policies than by banking on caste-based politics.
“People from majority castes are very clear about who should not rule the State. A person from any of the majority communities will be seen as a potential threat to other communities and will be confined to that particular region or caste. This popular tendency will help a person from a minority background to rule the State conveniently, provided he gives due share to the majority castes the governance,” said Stalin.
What could also help people like Rajinikanth is the political propaganda by parties like Naam Thamizhar Katchi against Telugu-speaking population as ‘Vantherigal’ (migrants). “The State has sizeable Telugu-speaking population. There is a greater chance that Rajinikanth may get the support of those communities,” he added.
Issues like NEET, methane exploration and jallikattu ban had resulted in a popular feeling of the State being a victim of the policies of the Centre. So, the two main ingredients for any newcomer to be successful is perhaps by positioning himself as someone who can ensure the rights of the State and as an alternative to AIADMK and the DMK.
But it’s a question of not just opposing, but spearheading a cause and withstanding the heat in the political battlefield. Only 2018 will say if Tamil Nadu will see another hero like MGR.