In his most celebrated movie Baasha (1995), Rajinikanth is transformed from the ideal son into an underworld don. But he was no ordinary gangster: his actions were marked by benevolence. In Mumbai’s dark underworld, he was a Robin Hood who took from the bad guys so that he could give to the common people. He played the role of a messiah to perfection.

Sunday witnessed the birth of another avatar of Manik Baasha, this time on the stage of Tamil Nadu politics. “The last one year has brought shame to Tamil Nadu,” the superstar told a gathering of fans. “I will definitely enter politics.”

After 21 years of making convoluted statements about his political ambitions, Rajinikanth finally cleared the haze. What does his decision to enter Tamil Nadu’s electoral politics mean? His Sunday speech, laced with references to the Bhagavad Gita, made it amply clear. After 60 years of dominating Tamil Nadu politics, the Dravidian movement now stares at its biggest challenge. The next Assembly elections could very well turn out to be a fight for the very soul of Tamil Nadu, a state that remains the final frontier for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Spiritual politics

Perhaps the most crucial statement Rajinikanth made on Sunday was about the nature of politics he would like to conduct. “Ours will be spiritual politics,” he asserted.

The significance of this declaration is immense. The Dravidian movement inspired by social reformer EV Ramasamy built its popularity by ridiculing religion and spirituality. Rationalism, leader CN Annadurai declared time and again, was the bedrock of the revolution that swept post-independence Tamil Nadu. Reverence to gods went out of fashion as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam he founded rode on waves of anti-Hindi agitations to capture power in 1967.

Over these six decades, no one has dared to openly support spirituality in politics in the state. At least not make it their foundational ideal. Despite being known to be a closet believer, the charismatic MG Ramachandran never worshipped in public. His visits to temples were a closely-guarded secret. But his regime, which split from the DMK in 1972, was the first challenge to the atheistic roots of the Dravidian ideology.

This emboldened MGR’s successor, J Jayalalithaa. The leader, who died last year, was much more open about her belief. She made donations to temples, started feasts in temples with public money and even took oath in the name of God. When she was hospitalised in September, the cadres of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which is currently in power in the state, thronged places of worship to pray for her.

But even Jayalalithaa was careful when it came to articulating her politics. She was religious, but never failed to invoke the memories of the Dravidian stalwarts Periyar and Annadurai. She burnt her fingers in 2003 when she passed an anti-conversion law. A total washout for her party in next year’s Lok Sabha elections ensured that she never repeated such measures, nor formed another alliance with the BJP as she had done that year. Religion, she said, was a private affair. She took pride in being called the most popular Dravidian leader of her times.

But Rajinikanth is turning everything upside down. His speech on Sunday started with quotes from the Gita, a text that Periyar often cited as being the genesis of the caste system and hence the “moola karanam”, or the primary reason, for Tamils being culturally enslaved by the Aryans. A matter that was private for Jayalalithaa is being made public by Rajinikanth.

To the heroes of the Dravidian movement, Hindu texts represented the hegemony of Brahminism. To Rajinikanth, spirituality is everything. Though he claimed that his spirituality was beyond religion or caste, its emphatic Hindu roots are conspicuous. He has many gurus, some of whom like Raghavendra have been criticised for entrenching caste in South India.

The star has a penchant for mysticism, with his frequent visits to the Himalayas giving him the image of a yogi. But since yogis are supposed to be detached from worldly matters, Rajinikanth emphasised repeatedly on Sunday that power was not his ultimate aim.

Opponents of the Dravidian movement have tried – and failed miserably – to shatter the prevalent sympathy for rationalism and atheism and the Periyarists’ conception of social justice in Tamil Nadu. Though the majority of the state’s population is decisively religious, atheists have never been seen with suspicion, unlike in North India. This was the backbone on which the Dravidian movement survived. This is why Hindutva has found it hard to make inroads in the state.

Rajinikanth’s entry into politics could change this by making religion and spirituality mainstream political ideas. What the RSS was unable to do, Rajinikanth, if he wins the next Assembly election, could very well end up accomplishing. No organisation would be happier about this development than the RSS.

Rajini vs Kamal

For the DMK, the emergence in the political arena of both Rajinikanth and his fellow actor Kamal Haasan is a headache. It is now quite clear that the next Assembly elections, whenever they are held, will be a fight between the two superstars, both of whom have said they will float their own parties.

Unfortunately for the Opposition DMK, this battle could result in Haasan – rather than the party – being viewed as the champion rationalist. Should Haasan lose, this could end up being portrayed as a defeat of Dravidian ideology itself.

This is why the DMK may have to explore the possibility of joining hands with Haasan to take on the Rajinikanth challenge. Whether the DMK likes it or not, Rajinikanth’s popularity, which cuts across caste identities, is a real threat, especially if speculation that the BJP will put its resources behind the actor turns out to be true.

In fact, Rajinikanth’s declaration that he will concentrate on the next Assembly elections has sparked rumours that the BJP is getting ready to ditch the AIADMK government, which it had been steadfastly supporting since Jayalalithaa’s death. The ideal scenario for the BJP would be to make sure that the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections are held together, let Rajinikanth win and then strike a post-poll pact. Given the political vacuum in Tamil Nadu created by Jayalalithaa’s death and the ageing DMK president M Karunanidhi keeping away from active politics, this is a real possibility.