Superstar Rajinikanth put an end to all speculation by announcing his entry into politics on the last day of 2017. The “will he won’t he” debate has been going on for 20 years. Rajnikanth said he will start a new party, which is yet to be named, and contest in the 234 constituencies in the coming Assembly elections in 2020. Fans burst crackers and distributed sweets all over Tamil Nadu. Life has not been the same in Tamil Nadu ever since its chief minister J Jayalalithaa passed away in December 2016. The state, which has had a stable government for 50 years barring a few blips here and there, has seen continued uncertainty. There is constant speculation about when the ruling party, the AIADMK, launched and nurtured by MG Ramachandran and his political successor Jayalalithaa, will implode. The lady had ruled the state with an iron hand. After her death, it is as though people have realised they can say what they want about the government without fear. Jayalalithaa did not encourage freedom of expression of any sort. The state, therefore, is constantly witnessing various protests and strikes which were far and too few during her time. The current government has not been effective in handling these.
The pro-Jallikattu movement, where hundreds of thousands of protestors assembled at Chennai’s Marina Beach last year around this time, became a symbol of various levels of discontent, attracting support from the entire state, cutting across caste and class barriers. O Panneerselvam, who was sworn in as chief minister the night Jayalalithaa died, was seen briefly as an able administrator as he handled this and several other crises competently. Then ensued the drama of VK Sasikala, the former chief minister’s close aid and companion, who anointed herself as the party head and chief minister. Following her arrest, more drama followed, and Edappadi Palanisamy became Sasikala’s choice to take over as the chief minister. Then the EPS and OPS (as O Panneerselvam and Edappadi Palanisamy are known, respectively) factions came together after much wheeling and dealing. Sasikala’s nephew TTV Dhinakaran spoiled the party by wanting to take over the AIADMK and the government. He swept the by-election to the seat vacated by Jayalalithaa’s death and to which he was denied the AIADMK’s Two Leaves symbol, causing even more dismay and confusion.
Rajinikanth’s entry has been perfectly timed as there is a leadership vacuum in the state, which has been ruled by charismatic and powerful personalities. The EPS, OPS combination is seen as lacklustre. DMK’s MK Stalin does not seem to have the oratorical skills or the political savvy of his father M Karunanidhi. It is generally felt that it is time that an alternative to the Dravidian parties is found. The national parties Congress and BJP have made no headway here. There is a lot of truth in what one of Rajini’s advisers, a former member of Tamil Nadu Congress, says: “There are actors and actors. But people do not see Mr Rajinikanth merely as an actor. He personifies truth, simplicity and always keeps his promises.” No one knows whether the love for the actor will translate into votes. Now that the euphoric reactions are fading a bit, it is time for some reality check. It is assumed that the film crazy Tamils prefer actors to politicians. In reality, the older members of the Dravidian parties were all grass-root political workers who used theatre and cinema as propaganda vehicles.
Karunanidhi was a scriptwriter who used the medium to spread the Dravidian ideology. MGR was a party worker from the 1950s who had several mentors. He held party posts during his film career. He kept up his parallel roles in both films and the DMK party almost till he became the chief minister after splitting the DMK to launch the AIADMK. Jayalalithaa, too, did not become the chief minister overnight. She joined the AIADMK in 1982, several years after she stopped doing films. She was groomed by MGR, travelled through the state as the party’s propaganda secretary, faced antagonism from resentful male party members, and had to go through many trials by fire till she emerged the party leader and the chief minister in 1991. All this toughened her for becoming the iron lady that she was.
The other film star who made some headway in politics was Vijayakanth, who launched the DMDK in 2005. There has always been a floating vote share of 8% to 11% belonging to those who do not vote for the Dravidian parties. Vijayakanth was able to get much of this vote share and disgruntled youth from the other mid-size Tamil parties were drawn to his party. The DMDK emerged the main opposition in 2011. However, it was routed in the 2016 Assembly elections, when it failed to get even one seat. Vijayakanth made many mistakes and now his health is in poor shape. He is no longer a force to be reckoned with. There were several other stars who had floated political parties but which have floundered and have seen an early death. There is no guarantee that a film star stands a better chance than the others.
For 20 years, Rajini has never revealed what he is really thinking and has been friendly with all the major parties. He was anti-Jayalalithaa in 2006, then made up with her, has kept his friendship going with the DMK, and has even had Prime Minister Narendra Modi dropping by to see him. He was very close to Cho Ramaswamy, lawyer and the editor of the Thuglak magazine, known for its political satire. Cho was one of the few friends Jayalalithaa had. Cho passed away soon after Jayalalithaa. Is Rajini now backed by S Gurumurthy, commentator on political and economic affairs, the current editor of Thuglak, and the RSS ideologue? Rajini is talking about spiritual politics. According to Gurumurthy, this is what Tamil Nadu needs, as people are tired of the anti-God ideology of the DMK and the ineffective AIADMK. There are murmurs that Rajini is tilting towards the BJP. Is Rajini capable of the tight-rope walking that Jayalalithaa did in her relations with the Centre without ever giving up the state’s identity?
MGR changed the history of Tamil Nadu in many ways. The iconic noon meal scheme, the 69% reservation in education, privatising of engineering colleges are some of his achievements. Both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa could take all this forward and successfully combined welfare and development. It is during their rule that Tamil Nadu became one of the top-ranking states in the country on many parameters. The achievements are beginning to sag a bit. The state is giving the impression of muddling along. Does Rajini have plans to create jobs, bring in big-ticket investments? People no longer want leaders who will simply wipe the tears of the poor. They want much more.