Explained: What does Rajinikanth’s political plunge mean, ahead of Tamil Nadu polls?

All these years, Rajinikanth’s fans awaited his entry in politics and his installation as Chief Minister. It has been a long wait — his core fan base, who were in their 20s and 30s when they first demanded his leadership in the 1990s, are middle-aged now.

On Thursday, the popular Tamil actor Rajinikanth announced that he will launch a political party, ending years of speculation. On December 31, he plans to announce a January launch date for the party. Tamil Nadu goes to Assembly polls in May 2021.

The long wait

Speculation about Rajinikanth entering politics entry started in 1996, when he first spoke against then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa; he would claim later that it was his statement that defeated her in the polls that year. Even before that, he had a strained relationship with Chief Minister and AIADMK founder M G Ramachandran — himself an actor — and Jayalalithaa, who succeeded MGR.

His first decisive statement about joining politics, however, came only on December 31, 2017. In March this year, he said he would not contest elections — in his words, he would be a lunatic to have a thirst for power at age 70 if he didn’t have it when he was 45 (in 1996).

All these years, his fans awaited his entry in politics and his installation as Chief Minister. It has been a long wait — his core fan base, who were in their 20s and 30s when they first demanded his leadership in the 1990s, are middle-aged now.

On Thursday, after announcing his decision, he asserted there will be a regime change. “Everything is fate. This election is to change the fate of Tamil Nadu… If I win, that will be a victory for the people, and if I fail, too also belongs to them… I will change everything, everything!”

Another player in 2021 fray

In 2016, opposition votes split between the DMK and a third front of Left and Dalit parties, helping the AIADMK survive anti-incumbency. Rajinikanth’s entry will add yet another player against the two Dravidian majors. TTV Dhinakaran’s AMMK and actor Kamal Haasan’s MNM are also in the fray, contesting individually.

Many believe, however, that Rajinikanth is more likely to gain from bastions of the AIADMK and BJP rather than split the opposition votes, given that cadres and supporters of DMK, Left-leaning and minority parties are mostly unhappy with Rajinikanth’s camaraderie with the BJP and RSS.

In 2017, Rajinikanth had announced that his party would contest on its own. Now that he is actually launching the party, it looks possible that he will not go into an alliance in 2021 either. If he does contest alone, he will face a challenge even to repeat what Captain Vijayakanth had achieved in the 2006 elections with his new party DMDK. Fielding candidates in all seats got the DMDK about 8% of the vote, but not a single candidate, except Vijayakanth himself, won the election. Any performance less than Vijayakanth’s would be embarrassing to Rajinikanth.

It is seen as unlikely that Rajinikanth will get smaller parties into his new alliance. Parties such as CPM, CPI, VCK and Vaiko’s MDMK will not leave the DMK alliance unless serious disputes emerge over seat-sharing talks. And Rajinikanth is not expected to join hands with an unpopular BJP before polls. Again, chances of AIADMK-NDA ally, PMK, and Vijayakanth’s fading DMDK allying with Rajinikanth cannot be ruled out altogether.

Rajinikanth has hardly any prominent faces in his camp — something that also robbed Kamal Haasan’s political entry of its sheen. His party workers will likely include fans of whom most are already in their past 50s, while new-generation film fans follow superstars such as Vijay and Ajith.

Rajinikanth was silent about his alliance plans, or even about his own candidature. In March 2020, he said he would not contest polls. If he is not projected as the chief ministerial candidate, the question to ask is: why would his fans, who had been voting for different political parties over the years, support a new party with unknown faces?

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