Even if Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan debut in politics, can they make a difference
Superman and Batman may be world famous. But they aren’t real. And in Tamil Nadu its Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan who are deified, worshipped and bathed in full cream Aavin milk. Now that they’ve ruled the silver screen for over four decades, they both wish to jump out of the screen, and on to the political stage. But who will Tamil Nadu vote for? Rajini and Kamal are as different as day and night! What will the people do?
TWIST IN TALE
There has been no official announcement from him yet but there need be no doubt that Rajinikanth is laying the ground for his political entry, says Tamilaruvi Manian, a former Congressman and founder of Gandhiya Makkal Iyakkam, a party espousing Gandhian ideals. Manian should know — in August, he had convened a meeting in Trichy attended by a sea of people, where he said the superstar would be entering politics soon, though he did not specify when?
The meeting was called with the blessings of Rajinikanth, who had previously met his fans in May and told them he would call upon them when it was time for “war”. At his modest apartment in Chennai, Manian says Rajinikanth is in “stealth mode”, preparing for the plunge, and establishing a base in all 234 constituencies in Tamil Nadu using his network of fan clubs.
The three main planks Rajinikanth will fight on are the interlinking of rivers in the southern region from Mahanadi to Cauvery to solve the problem of drought, a government free of corruption and transparency in governance, says Manian. The rumours that Rajinikanth would ally with BJP are just that, he says. “Even a common man on the street knows that BJP is allying with AIADMK. And Rajini believes the system has been corrupted by both the Dravidian parties and he won’t align with either of them,” he underlines.
Rajinikanth has thus far spoken only through Manian about his political entry and obliquely to his fans, apart from the occasional tweet. But Haasan has been more direct, giving various TV interviews over the past week where he has confirmed he will be joining the fray. Yet, despite the best efforts of the anchors to wring it out of him, he has refused to commit to much else, including when the party would be launched and who he might align with.
While he has been extremely critical of the ruling AIADMK, using Twitter to attack its policies, he has not committed too much else. Last month, when he visited Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, he told the media that his colour was not saffron. He has also said, on multiple occasions, that many of his heroes are from the Left. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal visited him in Chennai, setting tongues wagging, but there was no dramatic announcement following their meeting.
TIMING THEIR ENTRY
This skittishness in committing to an ideology need not be a hindrance, feels SV Srinivas, author of Politics as Performance and a professor at Azim Premji University.
“His reluctance to declare allegiance might be the recognition that it is not easy to directly be in politics. But (former Andhra CM) NTR did not have an ideology when he entered politics — the plank of Telugu identity and his manifesto came later,” he points out. The same criticism had been levelled against MGR when he stood for elections but, in Tamil Nadu, celebrities are not about ideology, he says. More interesting is the fact that he might influence the electoral outcome even without directly contesting the elections.
Political analyst and writer Gnani Sankaran says Haasan also has the advantage of being single, as was Jayalalithaa. “If Rajinikanth’s family interferes in his politics, voters will not look on that favourably.” But he also acknowledges that Rajinikanth’s fan base is much wider, spreading across the state, while Haasan is seen more as a more cerebral actor.
It is this wide fan base that the actor and his supporters are hoping to harness, once they have launched the party, says Manian. “He has fan associations in every village in the state.” The two major parties in the state, the DMK and the AIADMK, have booth-level committees in every constituency. To give them a serious run for their money, any rival would need to have a similar infrastructure in place, which is where the associations would come in handy, says Manian.
But while these are the success stories, there have been spectacular routs, too, of others who attempted going down the same path, highlighting that box office victories need not be a guarantee of one at the voting booth. The most infamous of these is possibly that of matinee idol Sivaji Ganesan, MGR’s contemporary and on-screen rival. Initially aligned with Annadurai and then Kamraj, he launched his own party in 1989 but it lost all the seats it contested, including Ganesan’s own.
While the rumours of Rajinikanth entering politics has been doing the rounds for years, a combination of circumstances has made the current climate favourable for both the stars’ entry. Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016 and the subsequent factionalism and squabbling among its ministers and her confidante Sasikala’s family members has left the AIADMK in complete disarray.
Its rival, DMK, has a succession plan with Karunanidhi’s son, Stalin, readying to take over but he is not held to have the charisma of his 93-year-old father, who is ailing. As long as Jayalalithaa and Karunandhi were feuding for the CM’s chair, no rival stood a chance. But now, the political climate is greatly altered.
Though Rajinikanth might have appreciated Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Swachh Bharat” campaign that need not be interpreted as support for the BJP, says Manian. Haasan’s comments suggesting an alliance between the BJP and Rajinikanth were uncalled for, he feels.
While welcoming his prospective entry into politics, Manian also says that if Haasan were to contest independently, he would meet the same fate as Sivaji Ganesan, since his support base is confined to the upper and upper-middle class. “His options are limited. If he joins the DMK, he will lose credibility. He is a vociferous critic of the AIADMK and an atheist, so he won’t align with BJP either. His only practical option is to join hands with Rajinikanth.”
Haasan himself has been ambivalent about this, indicating that he is open to all options. But regardless of alliances, the next elections could be Tamil Nadu’s opportunity to look beyond the two Dravidian parties that have been taking it in turns to be in power, for decades. And one or both of its silverscreen heroes might just be instrumental in scripting that historic change.