“Naa eppo varuven eppadi varuven nu yarukum theriyathu
aana varavendiya tithula correct ah varuven”
(No one knows when and how I will enter. But I will enter at the right time)
This was Rajinikanth’s legendary punchline in the 1995 blockbuster Muthu.
It is quite hard to keep count of the number of times Rajinikanth has “indicated” that he would enter politics. For the past 21 years, Tamil Nadu has, in frequent intervals, been subjected to this spectacle of its biggest cinema superstar threatening to take the plunge into public life.
And for 21 years, Tamil Nadu has remained disappointed as these “indications” usually fizzle out faster than the storms that Rajinikanth whips up on screen with a swirl of his foot to take down the villains.
On Thursday, the actor was at it again. Speaking at the conclusion of a meeting with his fans in Chennai, Rajinikanth, who is now 67 years old, asked his supporters to patiently carry on with their duties and wait for the “war” when he would galvanise them. The political system, he said, was bad. Put together, these views could mean the war is but a euphemism for elections.
His speech carried the stamp of film dialogues that helped construct his on-screen charisma. Off screen, the fact that these dialogues have never been followed with actions has made them a sort of periodic amusement which the media latches on to grab eyeballs.
But could this time be different? Have the tectonic shifts in Tamil politics after the death of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa done enough to give Rajinikanth the confidence to test his luck in politics? Can the void created by the retirement of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president M Karunanidhi provide Rajinikanth the space to float a successful political outfit?
Rajinikanth’s tryst with politics began in the 1996 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. In the run up to the polls, he had a face off with Jayalalithaa. Both their houses are located in the up market Poes Garden locality in Chennai. In 1995, the police apparently blocked the passage to Rajinikanth’s as Jayalalithaa, the then chief minister, was about to step out of her residence. The story goes that Rajinikanth had to wait in the car for close to an hour. Enraged, he got down and began to walk. A sizable crowd started following him.
A few months later, Rajinikanth slammed the poor law and order situation that prevailed in Tamil Nadu. The trigger was an attack on the residence of director Mani Ratnam, who had just released the movie Bombay at that point. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam responded by pasting posters carrying vulgar statements against Rajinikanth. This forced the actor to famously comment that even god would not be able to save Tamil Nadu if Jayalalithaa was voted back to power in 1996.
The accounts from that time are sketchy. But Rajinikanth seemed to have played a crucial role in firming up the Opposition alliance between Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Tamil Manila Congress led by the veteran and Congress rebel GK Moopanar. The TMC leader quit the Congress after Prime Minister Narasimha Rao decided to ally with the AIADMK despite protests from cadres.
The DMK alliance swept the polls. Jayalalithaa herself lost from Bargur constituency. The victory was in large part credited to Rajinikanth’s intervention. In December, at a memorial for veteran journalist Cho Ramaswamy, the actor said he was responsible for Jayalalithaa’s loss in 1996 but later buried the hatchet.
Unofficial accounts from those involved closely in the alliance talks in 1996 indicate that Moopanar wanted Rajinikanth to enter politics and take on Jayalalithaa. He even offered to make him the chief ministerial candidate. This account has not been confirmed by either side though former Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram, at a media event a few years ago, admitted that Rajinikanth had a great chance to become chief minister in 1996. Chidambaram was then with Moopanar.
Thereafter, Rajinikanth dabbled with politics on numerous times. In 2004, he took on Patali Makkal Katchi leader S Ramadoss after the latter mounted a campaign against his on-screen smoking. He said his fans would campaign against the PMK. But in an indication of his waning popularity, the PMK swept the seats it contested in.
Since then, Rajinikanth has made it a habit to deliver enigmatic dialogues about his future in politics. Each time he speaks about it, he does not rule the possibility of entering politics but would say that it was in god’s hands. Rajinikanth also lent his image to people who wanted to take advantage of his stardom. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met him just ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, which sort of created an image that the Bharatiya Janata Party had the actor’s endorsement. This the actor denied a few days later.
Rajinikanth has often been accused of taking ambiguous stands on crucial issues, something that came to the fore on Tuesday when he termed his efforts to help the Opposition in 1996 as a “political accident”. On the other side, he has also been charged of shying away from asserting himself on important issues. On Wednesday, when asked about the anniversary of the Mulliwaikal massacre, when thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils were killed on a small strip of land in 2009 during the conclusion of the civil war, Rajinikanth chose to evade the question. Unlike the other superstar Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth chose to stay clear of controversies during the Jallikattu protests in January.
At times, his non-Tamil background has been invoked to explain his reluctance to assert his opinion. Born Marathi, his family lived in Karnataka. This once made him to go on a one-day fast on the Cauvery issue. Even on Thursday, he was forced to reiterate his loyalty to Tamil Nadu, when he said that he lived 44 years of his life in the State and was a “pure Tamil”.
The biggest criticism against Rajinikanth has been that he uses people’s expectations of his entry into politics to promote his films. The question of his political foray often crops up before a movie release and dies down later. In the films, he is known to look right into the camera and deliver politically-charged dialogues. This habit goes as far back as 1980, when in the movie Billa he famously said: “En kodi parakavendiya yedathula vera yevan kodi da parakum.” How can another man’s flag fly in a place where my flag should fly?
However, what makes this time different is the larger political context prevailing in Tamil Nadu. After Jayalalithaa’s death and Karunanidhi’s retirement from active politics due to ill health, a huge void has emerged. Tamil Nadu, a State driven by personality politics, currently lacks a charismatic leader. With his existing fan base, Rajinikanth has the best chance of filling this void. Also, given his age, Rajinikanth has very little time left to continue as a hero on screen. Politics, in that sense, could be his vocation in retirement.
Hardly anything is known about the intellectual basis of his understanding of crucial social and political problems. In a State dominated by Dravidian politics, Rajinikanth’s over-emphasis on religion and spirituality, both on and off the screen, has led to speculation over whether he might eventually take refuge in the BJP. Even if he floats his own party, it could turn out to merely be a milder version of the saffron outfit.
Many in Tamil Nadu were hoping that the end of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi eras would finally put an end to the cinema-politics nexus in Tamil politics. But if Rajinikanth is indeed ready to take the plunge, it could end up entrenching this bond even further.