The Rajinikanth dilemma in Tamil Nadu politics

On Nov 30, Rajinikanth said he would announce his decision on ‘entering politics’ very soon. Since he first made his political interest clear in 1996 by giving a voice against the then Jayalalithaa regime, rumours about Rajinikanth’s political entry have often surfaced in Tamil Nadu.

UPDATED: January 13, 2020 10:36 IST

In 1982, Rajinikanth acted in Sri Raghavendrar, which was incidentally his 100th film as an actor. His portrayal as saint Raghavendrar was markedly different from the fiery, high-spirited characters that he is associated with. Experts say that despite the fact that the film did not do well, Rajinikanth considered it close to his heart. Exactly 20 years later, Rajinikanth made another rare departure in his film career to do the role of Saint Baba and his reincarnation. Both films directed by ace filmmakers known for dishing out outstanding Rajini Hits (the former by SP Muthuraman and the latter by Suresh Krissna) failed to strike a chord with audience.

In hindsight, films like Sri Raghavendrar and Baba perhaps gave away Rajinikanth’s political intentions. The films perhaps shaped his idea of ‘spiritual politics’ something that he hopes will be new in a state like Tamil Nadu. Whether his idea of spiritual politics will be embraced or come up a cropper just as his two ‘devotional’ films, is another question. The primary question is this: Whether he will take that plunge at all?

On November 30, Rajinikanth repeated what he had been doing for some years now. Once again, he kept his fans waiting. After a two-hour long meeting with the office bearers of his Rajini Makkal Mandram (Rajini People’s Forum) an extension of his fan clubs, Rajinikanth said he would announce his decision on ‘entering politics’ very soon. Since he first made his political interest clear in 1996 by giving a voice against the then Jayalalithaa regime, rumours about Rajinikanth’s political entry have often surfaced in Tamil Nadu.

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In December 2017, Rajinikanth finally announced that he would enter politics given that there was a vacuum created by ‘Jayalalithaa’s death and Karunanidhi’s ill-health.’ “In 1996 he was a catalyst yes, but to entirely credit him with the victory of DMK-TMC (Tamil Maanila Congress-a breakaway group of Congress) wouldn’t be fair. They would have still won, though maybe not as big as they did,” says Priyan, senior journalist and political commentator. Priyan points out that Rajini’s ‘voice’ in subsequent elections including 1998 and 2004 did not create the same kind of impact.

But when he made his announcement on political entry in 2017, Rajinikanth, experts say, was genuinely interested. “He has been making his comments on many issues including Sterlite, Sathankulam, anti-CAA protests, Thiruvalluvar issue etc,” says Priyan. While his remarks on intrusion of anti-social elements in the struggle against Sterlite was not taken kindly by Tamils, Rajinikanth made a surprise remark on saffronisation of Thiruvalluvar stating neither the poet nor he could be saffronised. “Yes, many of his comments had to be criticised. But then, it appeared that he was serious about politics,” Priyan says. But the Covid pandemic threw cold water on Rajinikanth’s political plans.

A key reason for Rajinikanth’s dilemma now is apparently his health. Admittedly, Rajinikanth has had a kidney transplant a few years ago and the doctors have advised him against active politics since he has comorbidities. But writer and Rajinikanth fan Rajini Ramki says that he took a lot of time to speak on his health at the November 30 meeting in Chennai. “He wanted them to know things are not as bad as has been portrayed. He is in fine health, though of course he needs to take care.”

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But whether the actor will have the desired impact if he indeed makes a political entry is again another question. At the meeting on November 30, Rajinikanth supposedly told the office-bearers that it makes no sense to get only 15 percent votes. MGR, when he first launched AIADMK, consolidated a vote bank of 30 percent but it came after a five-year labour. “The question is if Rajinikanth will emerge a victor or spoiler,” asks Priyan. “Also, a lot has changed in these three years. Both the DMK and the AIADMK have put up formidable fronts. In forthcoming elections, there will be other players like Kamal Haasan, Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam and Naam Thamizhar. So, it is evident that Rajinikanth wants to be certain before he takes the plunge.”

But Rajinikanth’s decision to not meet Home Minister Amit Shah during his recent Chennai visit maybe a case in point. “It could actually mean that Rajinikanth is seriously considering politics and wants to project himself as a leader distant from the BJP. But on the flip side, Rajinikanth’s organisation does not have the kind of infrastructure that the AIADMK and the DMK has which is important for electoral politics.”

Ramki says that he needn’t make his announcement for the forthcoming state assembly election scheduled for May 2021. “He is certainly launching his party. Whether for this election or in future is the only question. He wants to usher in a real change, something new into the state. Yes, it is getting delayed but when he finally does it, he will have answers for all the questions that are being raised now”.

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Rajinikanth might have entirely a different game plan together says, S Kosalram, senior journalist and author of a book titled Rajini aagiya Naan (I, Rajinikanth). “He is not going to announce till the last moment, but he has promised his fans in 2017 and he will stick to it. The only question is whether his political journey will also be electoral or otherwise.”

Concurring with Rajini Ramki, Kosalram says Rajinikanth’s idea is to bring a huge change in politics. “It is my understanding that he doesn’t want to engage in current form of politics which is all about pointing fingers at each other. He wants to bring about constructive, progressive politics. It is easy to find a chief minister or a party president, but not an overarching personality who can be a complete guiding force. Rajini aims to be that.”

The idea seems like a departure from the politics that Tamil Nadu is used to just as the idea of films like Sri Ragavendrar and Baba. Just that Tamils loved him more as an unabashedly raw Kaali (Mullum Malarum) and swashbuckling Baasha (Baasha).

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