Explained | Rajinikanth’s political exit before entry

The superstar will remain an untested electoral force, irrespective of the larger than life political image given to him by those who propped him up for extraneous reasons

Superstar Rajinikanth in a three-page statement on Twitter cited the COVID-19 pandemic and his health condition to make an exit without entering politics. He had undergone a renal transplant in 2016. He feels even if a COVID-19 vaccine is found, health complications could arise during electioneering since he is on immuno-suppressant medication. This could make scapegoats of those part of his political journey. Therefore, cognisant of the criticism his decision would attract, he would prefer to withdraw.

Was this decision entirely unexpected?

No. As early as March this year, he had given an indication that he was a reluctant political entrant. He had declared that he would not be the Chief Ministerial candidate of his proposed party. Significantly, he added a political caveat that he would take the plunge only when he sees a wave of resurgence among the people. In October, he appeared to prepare his supporters for an exit confirming information about his fragile health condition contained in a letter attributed to him. He, however, denied writing the letter. In subsequent meetings with Rajini Makkal Mandram (RMM) functionaries, he placed his health status before them. But throughout all this he was clear that this was a ‘now or never moment’ for political change in Tamil Nadu. Since he was ageing, he wanted to run an electoral sprint and not a marathon.

Why then did he announce that he would reveal the date of his party launch on December 31?

There are claims that he did it under pressure from certain political players. However, this would remain in the realm of speculation. His announcement on December 3 had taken some RMM functionaries too by surprise. Conscious of the contagious nature of the pandemic, he went to the extent of saying that he was ready to “sacrifice his life” for the people. He also appointed a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionary, Ra Arjunamurthy, as coordinator and Gandhi Makkal Iyakkam founder Tamilaruvi Manian, the overseer of the proposed party.

Why is this decision seen as an anti-climax?

No other political script in the country was in the making for nearly three decades. Since the 1990s reams of newsprint and reels of film have been devoted speculating about his political entry. His supporters waited anxiously but patiently. To be fair to him, only on December 31, 2017 he categorically announced that he would launch a party and field candidates in all 234 Assembly constituencies in Tamil Nadu. His fans’ associations were integrated and converted into RMM, as a prelude to his political party launch. Now he has backed out.

What went wrong for Rajinikanth?

Two factors, other than COVID-19, could perhaps be attributed for his volte face. One, the actor did not anticipate the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government to last its term. In early 2017, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, the man hand-picked by former AIADMK leader Jayalalithaa’s aide Sasikala before she went to jail, was unpopular. His administrative acumen remained untested. Later that year, when Sasikala’s nephew TTV Dhinakaran broke ranks with the AIADMK, the government appeared unstable. Second, Mr. Rajinikanth propounded “spiritual politics”, which was interpreted as an extension of the BJP’s pro-Hindutva politics at a time the national party’s image was at its lowest ebb in the Dravidian State. He continued to court controversies with almost every remark he made. For instance, after 13 persons died in police firing during the anti-Sterlite protests, he said, “If protests were held for everything, Tamil Nadu would turn into a graveyard.” In the meanwhile, Mr. Palaniswami managed to deflect public criticism by consolidating his hold on the government and party as well as initiating welfare measures. As on date both the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the AIADMK continue to be the main political forces in Tamil Nadu despite the absence of their respective towering leaders M. Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. This made him acknowledge that facing these two “political behemoths” won’t be an electoral cakewalk for him. However, he did nothing on the ground to accelerate his party formation, instead choosing to wait for the Assembly elections.

What happens now?

Mr. Rajinikanth would remain an untested electoral force, irrespective of the larger than life political image given to him by those who propped him up for extraneous reasons. The DMK and the AIADMK would be happy that they do not have to cross swords with a charismatic new entrant. The BJP, which hoped the superstar would chip away from both Dravidian parties and help create a space for itself, has to sweat it out longer. Parties such as the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi need not fear losing some of its younger cadres, who could have gravitated towards Mr. Rajinikanth. Actor Kamal Haasan, who was was eager to work with him, will have to continue to fight his own battle.

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