“Rajini has entered politics; now, will politics enter Rajini?” This was both a widespread joke and subject of media speculation when superstar Rajinikanth announced three years ago that he would launch a party and field candidates in all 234 Assembly constituencies in Tamil Nadu. In fact, Rajinikanth propounded “Jaadhi madham illaadha aanmiga arasiyal”, literally translating into “spiritual politics without communalism or casteism”, which was interpreted by many as an extension of the BJP’s pro-Hindutva politics. And apparently Rajinikanth was seen as a natural ally of BJP in the Dravidian State.
Rajini’s entrance in the political arena, however, was the natural consequence of more than a two decades-long wait for one of the most elusive political entries in the country. As a prelude to his political launch, Rajini’s fan associations were integrated and converted into ‘Rajini Makkal Mandram’ (RMM) – a loosely structured outfit carved out for the epic political transition.
However, it is now clear that Rajinikanth never finally started his career in electoral politics. He remained in the transition phase for three long years, and in late 2020, in the backdrop of the poll-bound perspective in Tamil Nadu, he cited the Covid-19 pandemic and his health to make an exit even without entering politics. Much like his “spiritual” statements three years ago, Rajini’s withdrawal also sounds spiritual: “I see this [hospitalisation] as a warning given to me by God.” Fair enough, although earlier he had gone to the extent of saying he was ready to “sacrifice his life” for the people. And, although the possibility of Covid-19 was not there in the past, there is no doubt that Rajinikanth faced these health risks even when he made pronouncements about entering politics in December 2017.
He was treated at a Singapore hospital in 2011 for a kidney ailment and underwent a kidney transplant at a hospital in the United States in May 2016. Moreover, Rajini’s decision to withdraw himself from politics was not entirely a surprise – even before Covid-19 could exhibit its severity, as early as in March 2020, Rajini had given an indication that he was a reluctant political entrant.
Over years, celluloid and Dravidian politics have been inseparable, although K Kamaraj, a former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, was known to wonder: “How can there be government by actors?” Yet, Kamaraj was proved to be wrong as five out of seven chief ministers of Tamil Nadu from Dravidian parties so far are from Tamil cinema – either writers or actors. There is no denying that Dravidian politics depend too much on ethnic and cultural identity, and personalities associated with Tamil cinema have long dominated the political arena of the state. The illustrious list includes the likes of CN Annadurai, M Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran, J Jayalalithaa, Sivaji Ganesan, SS Rajendran, Vijayakanth, Kamal Hasan. Rajinikanth, fondly called Thalaivaa (leader), is apparently a powerhouse in Tamil society, and has been viewed as a potentially powerful political player of the state for quite some time now.
“Naan late-aa vanthaalum latestaa varuven (Even if I arrive late, I will be the latest).” This was a very popular dialogue of Rajinikanth’s 2002 movie ‘Baba’. As his real-life entry into electoral politics did not materialise eventually, Rajinikanth would certainly remain an untested electoral force, despite having a ‘larger than life’ screen and social image and an almost similar political image bestowed upon him by several political experts and commentators.
Of course, there were those who thought Rajinikanth was a “marginal political player”. Mani Shankar Aiyar, for example, believed that “it [Rajini’s entrance in politics] is not going to make a tinker’s difference.” An interesting question we might search an answer for is: how successful could ‘leader’ Rajini be in Dravidian politics? Nobody really knows, and nobody would get to know this either. However, one may speculate that it was not a cakewalk for Rajinikath in his quest to dominate the political scenario of Tamil Nadu as he would have still needed to fight with the legacies of towering leaders like Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa had he chosen to stick to electoral politics.
Let’s have a brief review of the political influence of the politician who wasn’t on Dravidian society during the last three decades or more. When, in 1988, the AIADMK split into two factions, led respectively by MG Ramachandran’s wife Janaki and J Jayalalithaa, Rajinikanth supported Janaki Ramachandran. In the 1989 Assembly elections, Rajini fans worked for Janaki Ramachandran, but that didn’t work. In the next Lok Sabha elections, Rajini fans worked hard for the DMK alliance, but the alliance failed miserably.
The superstar, however, tasted real political success about a quarter of a century ago. In 1996, when GK Moopanar quit Congress to protest the high command’s decision to restore relations with the AIADMK, and formed the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), Rajini declared support to the DMK-led TMC alliance. In a televised message, Rajinikath said, “Even god cannot save Tamil Nadu if Jayalalithaa is re-elected to power.” Many believe that one-liner sealed Jayalalithaa’s fate in the 1996 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. And, who knows, that could possibly have been the optimal moment for Rajinikanth’s coronation in electoral politics. However, this success story was short-lived – Rajini supported the DMK-TMC alliance in the subsequent Lok Sabha elections in 1998, but his impact proved to be insignificant this time around when the alliance had a dismal electoral performance.
Then, Rajinikanth fasted for Cauvery water in 2002, which made him sort of a mass leader in Tamil Nadu. He openly declared support to the BJP-AIADMK alliance in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, but the alliance failed to get even a single seat in the state.
Had Rajini not heard the “warning” from “God” and withdrawn himself from electoral politics, the electoral consequence in the forthcoming Assembly elections could still have been uncertain. There was no guarantee that the popularity of the actor would have carried over to the polling booth. Yes, there is no doubt that the actor has a tired body. Although some of his fans are still urging him to take the political plunge, for the time being, however, the “Rajini myth” survives. And that might be a great source of relief for Rajini fans as well.
The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.