"Even God cannot save Tamil Nadu if Jayalalithaa comes back to power," were Rajinikanth's thundering words in 1996. That played a significant part in propelling the DMK-TMC alliance to power in Tamil Nadu that year, swaddling Jayalalithaa in ignominy. That was also the inception point of what became not just a state-wide but national fixation over guessing when the actor would turn to politics.
In Kabali, released in 2016, Rajinikanth, playing the title role of a veteran don, asks one of the villains after bashing him, to convey a message to his bosses.
"Naan Vanthutenu sollu. Thirumbi Vanthutenu. 25 varushathuku munnadi eppadi ponaro Kabali Appadiye thirumbi vanthutaannu solu" (Tell them I have returned. And I am back in the same form that I had 25 years ago when I left).
Now do your math. With Rajinikanth announcing he will launch a political party in January, he could well be saying the Kabali punch dialogue to the politicians on the Tamil Nadu stage. "I have returned, just the same, no difference from 25 years ago when I left."
Except that 2021 is so very different from 1996 when Rajinikanth first played footsie with the idea of politics. He turns 70 next week, and cannot be expected to take the strain of a hectic election campaign schedule. The announcement today of his political premiere came even as there have been reports on pressure being exerted on him to become a formal politician.
It has been a long time coming. Every time a movie arrived with him in it, invariably with blockbusters status, his fans, whose devotion to him is legend, would read political meaning into the catchy dialogues. Rajini never made any clear moves to dispel the assumption that he would choose politics, perhaps because it bode well for the box office and he was keeping his options open.
I am reminded of the birthday party scene in Rajinikanth's 1999 superhit Padayappa. Rajinikanth's character is nudged by two guests at the party - a politician and an industrialist - to join politics. Impatient to get on with the evening, Rajini asks, "Shall we start the party?" The politician falls at his feet, screaming "Thalaiva", thrilled that Rajini had finally agreed to his request. At which point, an exasperated Rajini says, "I only asked if we can start the birthday party."
Rajinikanth is more than conscious of what he is getting into. After all, his friends Amitabh Bachchan and Chiranjeevi, who can both claim been-there-done-that, have warned him against getting into the cesspool of Indian politics.
"Political change is the need of the hour. It is now or never. It is time to change the fate of Tamil Nadu," Rajinikanth said, announcing his plans in Chennai today.
But the route to political power isn't clear. In March this year, the actor said he will not contest the state election next year, claiming he had no thirst for power. Will that mean that he will endorse another candidate for Chief Minister, for whom he will seek support from his fans, ever-obliging thus far? And if so, who is this lucky presumptive Chief Minister?
Then there's the other half of that equation: who is Rajinikanth's target voter? Unlike conventional politicians who woo the Thevars, the Gounders, the Vanniyars (which are OBCs and backward castes), and the Scheduled Castes, the superstar does not appeal to a particular caste or swathe of castes but to a wide range of people. Can he consolidate their political support or even that of a sub-sect? Rajini Mania is also a somewhat foreign concept to the young voter in her teens or 20s - she does not connect to Rajini the same way someone middle-aged would. If his connect with young people were as strong as with older age groups, his more recent films Petta and Darbar would have been blockbusters like a Baasha and a Muthu.
Whose vote will he cut into? Most people in Tamil Nadu see Rajinikanth as being close to the Prime Minister and therefore the BJP. The party has also welcomed his entry into politics. There is no clarity if he will be part of the AIADMK-BJP axis.
If Rajini contests alone, he could go the Vijaykanth way. The actor's DMDK in 2006 secured 8.5 per cent of the vote but won only one seat. A Third Front consisting of Vaiko and the Left parties had been propped up in 2016 to cut into the anti-AIADMK vote, and it played its part in ensuring Jayalalithaa returned to power. But here, Rajini is more likely to hurt the NDA than damage the DMK-led alliance. One reason is because his spiritual politics is identified as being more in sync with the BJP and it is therefore the NDA vote that he may eat into. The DMK is an atheist party and its voter is unlikely to vote for a Rajini.
The ultimate casting coup of course will be if Rajini and Kamal Haasan, who formed his party in February 2018, join hands. But it will be a banner headline at best and is unlikely to set the Cauvery on fire. Especially with the ideological differences between the two friends. The duo have shared screen space, and sharing the political stage will keep the limelight on them, but keeping promises of utopian corruption-free politics and change is still chasing the rainbow.
(Uma Sudhir is Executive Editor, NDTV)
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