The Thalaiva Twist

Superstar Rajinika­nth, Thala­iva (literally: leader) to the legions of his fans, turns 70 on December 12. Much is being made of the political timing of his latest announcement that his much-awaited political debut, frozen now for a while in ‘Coming Soon’ mode, is indeed, finally, coming soon. On New Year’s eve, he says. There’s barely four months left for the assembly election, but in cryptic tweets that seem like teasers ahead of a film release, he promises to usher in sweeping change.

It’s not impossible, though, that the superstar felt his advancing age while tweeting ‘it’s now or never’ though the tweet (in Tamil) is couched in grand promises and delicious ambivalence. ‘We will certainly win the assembly polls, and give the people corruption-free, transparent, secular and spiritual politics. A miracle and wonder will definitely happen,” he tweeted. For nearly three years now, Rajini has kept his fans on edge, made moves to suggest the plunge was imminent and then pulled back. He has exhorted the Rajini Makkal Mandram (RMM) fan clubs to be ready for the big day. He even had them grouped into (poll) booth comm­ittees, ostensibly to ensure that the support base converts, at the right time, into votes.

What has stopped him from launching his party, refusing to even officially name it despite the demands of fans? Why wouldn’t he attempt an NTR (N.T. Rama Rao), the yesteryear actor in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, who launched the Telugu Desam Party and stormed to power in 1983?

Well, for one, Tamil Nadu is a vastly different proposition, with the commanding presence of the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and the AIADMK (All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), who between them have shared power for over five decades and evolved as cadre-based parties under towering leaders. The passing away of M. Karunanidhi (DMK) and J. Jayalalithaa (AIADMK), and the absence of any Dravidian leaders of matching stature or following, opens up the field, but it’s still a daunting task to challenge and dislodge them considering their committed cadre base.

Rajini is not likely to be content playing just a spoiler. His friend S. Gurumurthy, a political commentator and RSS ideologue, would like us to believe the actor can influence a tectonic shift in the state’s politics. But Rajini has not even announced a party name, nor given a sense of his likely policies or programmes. The megastar will not want to end up like actor Vijayakanth and his DMDK (Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam), which polled 10 per cent of the vote in the 2006 assembly poll a year after its launch, and has now been reduced to something of an irritant.

The BJP has wooed him for years now, but Rajini has tried to affect a certain independence even while endorsing the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A meeting with Modi in 2014 had fuelled much speculation, but the interest seemed to fizzle out. The BJP intensified efforts to draw him into state politics but Rajini held back. If the past is any indication, Rajini could remain non-committal till much later, possibly even till elections come round. It’s most likely this uncertainty that prompted Union home minister and BJP chief strategist Amit Shah to tell state leaders, during his Chennai visit in late November, that the party should not bank on celebrities and build on its ideological moorings.

In its current alliance with the AIADMK and smaller regional parties, sources say, the agreement is that the AIADMK will contest the largest number of seats, about 165, with the BJP and other regional allies splitting the remaining 70-odd seats. In exchange, these sources say, the BJP will be allowed to contest a majority of the 39 seats in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

Not many analysts share Gurumurthy’s reading of Rajini’s potential influence. There is a difference, they say, between fan club loyalists and common folk, who do not see him as a political force. “By himself, Rajini can create some ripples, but securing the 30-35 per cent votes needed to make a difference looks improbable. With a much lower (vote) share, his party could, in some constituencies, cause the defeat of either of the Dravidian alliances, especially the AIADMK,” says political commentator N. Sathiya Moorthy.

For a real shot at ushering in the change he promises, Rajini might need to forge an alliance with one of the Dravidian parties, and become part of a winning combination. Chances of his still-to-be-formed party joining hands with the AIADMK-BJP alliance are not being ruled out. Some in the AIADMK like deputy chief minister O. Panneerselvam have in recent months even welcomed such a prospect. But Rajini’s stand on ‘coalition dharma’, be it aligning with a major Dravidian party or stringing together several smaller regional ones who have shown interest, is still unclear. There’s also the small matter of his avowed anti-corruption stand—any alliance with the AIADMK, mired as the party is in a myriad corruption cases, could severely dent his credibility.

“If Rajini joins hands with the AIADMK and the BJP, it will add heft to the combine but then he’ll lose his claim on eradicating the corrupt Dravidian parties. If he rides with the BJP alone, it needs to do a lot more than tax raids and court cases against DMK and AIADMK leaders for the combine to win,” says Moorthy. He also points out that “the RMM is made up of youthful fans with political aspirations but untested political or electoral management skills. Here, the BJP and RSS cadre can make a difference to Rajini’s last-mile campaign.”

His advocacy of a spiritual politics sans corruption does not offer enough clues. “It’s unlikely that he’ll be able to wean away votes from either the DMK or AIADMK. His vote bank is untested, as mythical as a filmic hero and miles from reality. His ‘spiritual politics’ will have to be judged by the inclusiveness of his political ideology as well as the response of the minorities,” says Prof. Ramu Manivannan, head, department of politics and public administration, Madras University. At best, he adds, “he may be able to draw a few over-the-hill politicians and desperate public figures who will float with him to keep themselves in the limelight”.

The BJP’s calculation is that even if Rajini goes it alone, and draws the support of those opposed to the Dravidian parties, it will gain in the long term, beginning with the 2024 Lok Sabha election. As for the Thalaiva himself, by keeping his options open and contesting separately or as a third front oppo­sed to the Dravidian alliances, he can still opt for a post-poll understanding with the BJP. “Like water on top of the lotus flower, staying as far or as close, never letting it stick and always remaining on top, that is Rajini’s strategy when it comes to the BJP. There is only a wafer-thin line between his spiritual politics and the BJP’s communal agenda,” says Manivannan.

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