Tamil Nadu’s state of uncertainty, which began with the death of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in December 2016, has now become the norm. We, the citizens, have left behind our temporary burst of anger to return to our old state of “this is how it is, nothing will change”. The revolt against the Supreme Court’s jallikattu ban in January last year and the protests that followed medical college aspirant S Anitha’s suicide, apparently after failing to clear the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test, in September were moments of resurgence that galvanised a large section of Tamil society. But they were short-lived and belied our hopes of becoming a strong people’s movement. Our present “government of convenience” has realised that the challenge to their legitimacy has, at least for the moment, stalled.

It is in this context that we must view Rajinikanth’s and Kamal Haasan’s entry into electoral politics. Though media agencies love surveys and display those numbers as immediate proof of what is in store, it is early days for both the actors-turned-politicians. The question that needs to be asked is: what can they tap into that transforms their larger-than-life stature into actual political gain?

Haasan has never had the maddening following Rajinikanth attracts. But after his stint as the host of the successful television show Bigg Boss (Tamil), he seems convinced that his time has come. Rajinikanth, on the other hand, has procrastinated over this decision for such a long time that his announcement in December was a relief.

Corruption, caste and spirituality

Haasan is going the anti-corruption route and, to his credit, has been bringing to the attention of the public governance matters. But is an anti-corruption platform enough? Do the people of Tamil Nadu really care so much about corruption? I am cynical and, let me just say it, I do not think people consider corruption an existential issue. We have been trained for decades by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam into believing that corruption is acceptable and not such a bad thing after all. According to many, the only difference between the two parties is that while the former will take your money and get the job done, the latter cannot be trusted to deliver. The problem, therefore, is not the demand for money; it is the execution of the service that bothers us. For those in a position of vulnerability, this is normalcy and any suggestion of corruption disappearing is unfathomable, just lip service. A businessman once told me that corruption in Tamil Nadu was one of the worst and when I asked him how he reconciled this in his mind, he did not give me the usual “no choice” reply. He said he views it as extortion and cleanses his conscience. We have been extorted by politicians for such a long time that we play the victim card to perfection. I am, therefore, convinced that the anti-corruption discourse is not enough to fight an election.

Rajinikanth too speaks of cleansing the system of corruption. But he says something more. He speaks of “politics not based on caste or cash, but on spirituality”. While he may be referring to the political exploitation of caste dynamics, he has to understand that caste is an important representative aspect of polity. We cannot sweep it under the carpet in the name of Tamil universality, because that is fraud. Caste has and needs to be an important aspect of politics if we want to get to some point of caste equality. For marginalised sections of society, political caste affirmation is necessary and needs to be encouraged. Removing caste from the political equation is dangerous and will only worsen oppression. The stranglehold of the Thevars and Gounders can be broken only if the Dalit parties of Tamil Nadu emerge as strong counters. This direct caste challenge is imperative for social and political upliftment. The misuse of caste in politics needs to be confronted but that will not happen if we remove it from conversation.

I get the feeling that Haasan too is uncomfortable with dealing with caste complexities and sees himself as casteless or beyond caste. Here lies the problem: being non-casteist does not make you casteless. Haasan may condemn caste bias and oppression but he still benefits from all the privileges his caste brings him. There needs to be an acceptance of this advantage and an awareness of the limitations it brings in understanding caste as a complex oppressive and affirmative tool. Caste has to be a vibrant, unhindered part of political discourse and Rajinikanth and Haasan need to engage openly with it. When they refuse to do that, caste degenerates into vote-bank politics.

Then there is that much debated word uttered by Rajinikanth – spiritual. In a political context, this expression is ridden with dangers. Rajinikanth may mean well when he uses this expression, denoting some kind of inner journey he believes in and postulates that society too needs to engage with it. But the spiritual creates two problems. In almost every religious framework, it is used to avoid dealing directly and frontally with societal discrimination. Worse, it places the person who proclaims his own spiritual quest on a higher pedestal. Rajinikanth is trying to use his reel-life image to build another otherworldly iconography of himself. There is also the fact that Rajinikanth has constantly associated himself with only Hindu spiritual leaders, which is of course his personal choice. But if that is the spirituality he refers to, then it becomes divisive and appropriative.

Rajinikanth fans celebrate the actor's entry into politics. (Credit: PTI)

2021 is still far off

On the street, we hear many reducing Tamilians to mere paid voters. In the December bye-elections in RK Nagar, the Assembly seat held by the late Jayalalithaa and won by sidelined All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader TTV Dhinakaran, there were rumours that voters were paid large sums of money by all the leading political parties. But is it that simple to buy us?

Money being offered is customary and voters gladly accept it. But that does not mean the vote is guaranteed. Though I am unable to unravel the real reasons for their choice in RK Nagar, one thing is clear: Tamil voters are in a state of flux. We are looking beyond the usual suspects. Come 2021, when the next Assembly elections are due, none of us really know what choices we will make. All this while we voted for symbols and personalities. Will Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan continue to keep us under their cinematic spell? If not, what electoral promises will attract us? We may not even be used to thinking in such a manner and it will take a while for us to readjust our priorities. Those who live at the bottom bear the brunt of society’s weight but have meant very little to politicians and those who occupy progressively higher positions have been convincingly brainwashed by the two major Dravidian parties. The ones right at the top, of course, have cared very little. All of us will have to change. Tamil society needs another social revolution, a reawakening that empowers every citizen. It does not look likely today, but it is a distinct possibility. But Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan may be impediments to that renewal, simply because even partial success for them will lead to our minds being once again clouded by glitter. For a new future, we need a Tamil Jignesh Mevani.

Tamil Nadu may be heading towards a multi-party coalition, a long period of partnerships, and I look forward to this. We need representations from various sections of society that counter the dominance of any one group. Tamil Nadu may then fulfil Periyar’s dream of social justice.