After Tamil superstar Rajinikanth announced in December 2017 that he would contest the 2021 state Assembly elections, he declared that his brand of politics would be “spiritual” in nature. This suggested that he would steer away from the ideologies that dominate the debate in the state. But as the elections draw nearer, many of the actor’s positions seem to be a mere extension of those held by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been struggling to find a toehold in the southern state.

In recent months, Rajinikanth has consistently amplified the BJP’s thinking on major national issues such as the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which introduces a religion element into India’s citizenship law. Besides, the actor has not been hesitant about expressing his admiration for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah.

On its part, the BJP has been throwing its weight behind the actor whenever he comes under attack from Dravidian and Tamil nationalist groups.

Main opponents

When he announced his decision to enter politics, it was clear that Rajinikanth would face opposition from two significant ideological groups.

The first are the extreme Tamil nationalists led by the Naam Tamizhar Katchi’s Senthamizhan Seeman. They look at Rajinikanth as an outsider since he is a Maharashtrian who lived in Bengaluru before moving to Chennai. Given their position that only a true Tamil should become chief minister, he was automatically seen as a political opponent.

But though the Naam Tamizhar Katchi’s vote share has slowly grown over the last decade, it is yet to achieve major success in electoral politics. As a consequence, Rajinikanth’s most intense political battle in the 2021 elections is actually likely to be with the Dravidian parties that have ruled the state since 1967.

Already, the actor’s inner circle includes key anti-Dravidian personalities. One of his closest advisors is said to be Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue S Gurumurthy. Rajinikanth’s confidantes also include Gandhiya Makkal Katchi leader Tamilaruvi Manian, an anti-Dravidian figure who helped form a third front in Tamil Nadu in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, drawing votes away from the two Dravidian parties.

Rajinikanth has repeatedly made accusations of corruption against the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which rules Tamil Nadu in an alliance with the BJP. But his main ideological opponent is actually likely to be the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Founded on the rationalist principles of the Dravidian movement, the DMK stands in contrast to Rajinikanth “spiritual” politics.

Actor and politician Rajinikanth votes in Chennai during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on April 18, 2019. Credit: PTI

Kashmir and CAA

In recent months, the actor has reiterated the BJP’s line on key debates. For instance, days after the Centre in August revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir under the Constitution, jailed its political leaders and divided the state into two Union territories, Rajinikanth, at a public event, praised Amit Shah’s strategic acumen. He compared Modi and Amit Shah to Krishna and Arjuna from the Mahabharata and appealed to political parties not to politicise an issue that involved the nation’s security.

Last week, he accused the Opposition of trying to divide Indians on communal lines by continuing to debate to the Citizenship Amendment Act. Speaking to reporters, Rajinikanth echoed the BJP’s position that the Citizenship Amendment Act would not hurt Indian Muslims. He declared that if even one Indian Muslim is affected, he would be the first to stand up for the community.

Though he has not said it in as many words, Rajinikanth’s position on these matters adheres to the nationalist vs anti-national dichotomy that the BJP has perpetuated.

Periyar and Hinduism

While he describes his politics by using the religion-neutral term “spiritual”, Rajinikanth’s worldview is heavily anchored in Hindu imagery. He invokes a range of Hindu gurus as his inspiration, even as he speaks of social reformer Periyar EV Ramasamy in negative terms.

Last month, at 50th anniversary of the Tamil magazine Tughlaq, which was launched by his close friend Cho Ramasamy in 1970, Rajinikanth chose to recall Cho’s opposition to Periyar as an example of the editor’s courage. He said that Cho was the only one person who had dared to publish photographs of a rally in the 1970s at which Periyar had allegedly paraded images of Hindu gods naked. Cho had to face state action for this, the actor claimed, as the DMK government of the time led by M Karunanidhi confiscated copies of the magazine.

Rajinikanth’s statement sparked outrage from Periyarist groups, which accused the actor of lying about what had happened at the rally. The DMK and the AIADMK both criticised the actor for creating a needless controversy about Periyar, who is considered the tallest political figure in Tamil Nadu. However, the actor received support from the BJP, which has based its politics on opposing Periyar and painting the DMK as an anti-Hindu party. Days after Rajinikanth made his comments, a Periyar statue in Kancheepuram was also vandalised.

Unusually, Rajinikanth had set aside his image of being a political diplomat who maintains good relationships with everyone across the political spectrum. He chose not to retract his comments or apologise.

Rajinikanth greets his supporters after announcing the launch of his political party in Chennai on December 31, 2017. Credit: Reuters

Rajinikanth, IT and money lending

Over the last two weeks, another development relating to an income tax investigation into the actor’s financials has provided ammunition to claims that Rajinikanth is backed by the BJP.

A series of articles in The Hindu by Mohamed Imranullah revealed that the Income Tax department may have gone out of its way to bury an investigation into the actor’s financial situation.

According to his Income Tax filings, Rajinikanth did not act in any films between the assessment years 2002-’03 to 2004-’05. Yet, he had shown professional expenses of Rs 40.20 lakh, Rs 39.51 lakh and Rs 36.33 lakh in those years.

This led to a survey of his office in 2005. After the survey, Rajinikanth revised his claims, reducing them by 50%. He had claimed in his statements that he ran a money-lending business, charging an interest of 18% for his loans.

Not satisfied with the revisions, the IT department decided to levy penalties on him.

The cases went up to the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal, where the actor got a reprieve in 2013. However, the Income Tax department decided to appeal in the Madras High Court against these orders.

Recently, The Hindu reported that the proceedings had been closed by the department citing a decision taken by the Central Board of Direct Taxes last year “to withdraw all cases in which the recovery was less than Rs 1 crore in order to avoid long-pending litigation”.

More importantly, the department chose to levy only the minimum penalty for the misdemeanor that enabled the proceedings to be withdrawn.

Rajinikanth reacted to the media reports by stating that he was an honest taxpayer. However, Opposition groups, including the two communist parties, have used the Income Tax department’s decision to cancel the proceedings as a quid pro quo from the BJP to gain the actor’s support.