It had been more than 20 years in the making, and finally Tamil cinema superstar Rajinikanth delivered on innumerable past overtures when he plunged into the troubled waters of Tamil Nadu politics.
The big question on everyone’s mind is this: will he be a force to reckon with after he cobbles together a party apparatus with aspirations of political mobilisation, or will his democratic dream simply fade away after this foray comes a cropper against the jagged edges of the Dravidian parties’ electoral juggernauts? Hard to tell with any certainty, but an analysis of his entry in the context of Tamil Nadu’s colourful political past, its frustrating, dysfunctional present, or its ominously cloudy future yields some clues.
Past: fish out of water
Tamil Nadu has always been a standout State. It was home to a unique social movement that was also one of India’s most successful experiments in populist mobilisation and pioneering social welfare policies. Dravidian politics surged to the fore in 1967, when the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) unseated the incumbent Indian National Congress and in doing so, forever altered the State’s political terrain.
Few Indian States have so purposefully used the motifs of ethnic identity, so adroitly deployed them through the silver screen, and so rigorously converted caste politics into a practical class mobilisation.
Over time the social radicalism of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi, under the aegis of the anti-Brahmin, anti-Hindi campaigns of the DMK, gave way to a more inclusive style of governance under the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) founder M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), and later his protégé Jayalalithaa.
Against this arc of Dravidianist-mobilisation history, Mr. Rajinikanth’s entry in some sense reduces him to a fish out of water, an aspiring wild card entrant seeking to make a lateral move despite lacking direct participation in the defining political movement of the State.
This matters considerably, not only because he now faces enormous pressure to define his politics, but also because, sans party association, he must embark on the unenviable task of building an organisation structure that is robust enough to take on the muscle of the AIADMK and the DMK.
It is true that he will not be building it from scratch, the way Periyar and Annadurai did, in the mid-20th century. According to some estimates, Mr. Rajinikanth enjoys the unflinching support of at least 50,000 fan clubs scattered across the cities and towns of Tamil Nadu, with each having at least 25 die-hard admirers of their “Thalaivar”. Yet it is an open question as to whether the millions of his fans are at all inclined towards hard-nosed political campaigning and mass mobilisation. All they may care about are his movies!
This brings us to another dimension of Tamil political history that poses uncomfortable questions for Mr. Rajinikanth: is he capable of being the sort of “benevolent” autocrat, the patronage-inclined “soft-authoritarian” like others before him, including Jayalalithaa, MGR and Mr. Karunanidhi?
Mr. Rajinikanth certainly commands attention based on his legendary charisma, yet on the flip side he has been painfully publicity-shy over the four decades that he has spent in the cinema world. Thus, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that he will smoothly transition into an aggressive leader capable of marshalling party members and resources towards orderly execution of campaigning, fundraising, lobbying efforts and much more.
Present: politics in ferment
Coming to the present scenario in Tamil Nadu, among the most widely touted reason for betting on Mr. Rajinikanth as the cure to what ails State politics is the fact that both Dravidian parties have faced an untimely loss of leadership capacity, the AIADMK owing to Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016 and the DMK owing to Mr. Karunanidhi stepping back from an active role after his health declined in recent years.
In the context of this power vacuum, the State may be Mr. Rajinikanth’s to lose. The vacuum, however, holds lessons for any aspiring entrant. First, the AIADMK has imploded in spectacular fashion since Jayalalithaa’s death because it is being torn asunder by bitter factional squabbling. That was a natural consequence of the weak-kneed leadership that has been thrust into the hot seat overnight, after decades of rule by an iron-fisted politician who degraded four rungs of leadership within her party to nix all potential challengers.
The second lesson for Mr. Rajinikanth is the fumbling of the DMK. The AIADMK clearly stole a march on its older rival since 1977 (the AIADMK has ruled for 26 years and counting, the DMK only for 12 years, of the past 40) owing to a more durable party ideology and broader social base, both of which geared its agenda towards mass distribution of welfare goods. While these are derided by some as “freebies,” social scientists consider them factors contributing to Tamil Nadu’s relative outperformance on human development and poverty reduction indices. When will Mr. Rajinikanth delve into these complex socioeconomic and policy questions?
Future: New Delhi calling
Finally, on the murky future that awaits any party that the superstar may float, he will have to be nimble on the radioactive subject of Hindutva politics, and in that regard the tactical question whether to align with the BJP, for several reasons. First, Hindutva politics as such never made headway in India’s southernmost State given the Tamil people’s consistent record of rejecting the Hindu-North Indian-Brahmin matrix as a single, unwanted political package. They considered this matrix a product of north Indian hegemony, one that the Nehruvian state and then other dispensations in a distant New Delhi sought to thrust upon the “Tamizhan,” the quintessential Tamil man (or woman). That feeling of “Tamil-ness” is still very much alive.
Second, Mr. Rajinikanth may have struck a chord with some voters when he spoke of “spiritual” politics – yet he has more to clarify on whether he intended that phraseology to convey the anti-thesis of corruption, or whether it was an overture to Hindus and Hindutvavadis across the State and in New Delhi. If it is the former, it would be most welcome at this nadir of democratic politics in Tamil Nadu, a dark period of grand larceny and covert institutional looting of the public coffers.
If Mr. Rajinikanth went out on a limb to take on politically connected corruption, shadow corporations and the massive rent-seeking network that has permeated every corner of the government and has led to capital flight to neighbouring States, the people of Tamil Nadu would flock to him.
Third, he may do well to give thought to whether his political foray would simply end up playing spoiler for either Dravidian party and prevent both from forming a strong, stable government. In such a scenario, wouldn’t his efforts only delay the long-awaited return of good governance?
Like many heroes of the silver screen, Mr. Rajinikanth’s entry into politics is a test of fire. He lacks many vital political appurtenances and a living link to an important historical chapter of this State. His very announcement of entry has spurred vicious attacks on his purported intentions, his character and his personal life.
Yet he stands – humbly, one must grant – at what might turn out to be a momentous crossroads for Tamil Nadu: its past political glory depleted in the gradual decline of the AIADMK and DMK, its people now pray for a political renaissance. Thalaivar to the rescue, perhaps?