Every time Rajinikanth makes an announcement about the possibility of entering politics, there is an artificial buzz pressed by his fan club and the popular Tamil media. These two groups, along with his film publicity team, have long made a business out of the star’s career in Tamil cinema.
But despite the attempts to portray parallels between him and the popular cine idol-turned-political MG Ramachandran, Rajinikanth is neither an icon that Tamil society looks up to nor a phenomenon like MGR. This sudden aura of indispensability around Rajnikanth has been engineered by the desperate Bharatiya Janata Party in Tamil Nadu because of the party’s lack of a political identity and the fact that it has been unable to make common cause with the people and issues in Tamil Nadu politics.
Speculation about the actor’s political future mounted again on Friday as he was admitted to hospital in Hyderabad with fluctuations in his blood pressure.
How is Rajnikanth different?
Rajinikanth is neither charismatic nor creative enough to address and offer solutions to the challenges facing the state. He has long been hobnobbing with political leaders, cashing on his cinematic outreach. When it comes to imposing stardom on the innocent movie-going public, political parties in Tamil Nadu are colour-blind to the lights of Tamil cinema world and unmindful of the black-and-white realities of the pitiful lives of the millions.
This was evident in the MGR phenomenon nurtured in the 1950s by CN Annadurai, the founding leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The bitter truth of this experiment was first tasted by none other than M Karunanidhi who was part of Anna’s key team that disseminated the image of MGR among the public. But then, Anna and the Dravidian movement had found a cause. The conventional, struggling actor was transformed into a phenomenon, sidelining Karunanidhi.
Today, there are actors and actresses in every party. More than three-quarters of them consider themselves as potential chief ministers of Tamil Nadu as though they only need to change the makeup kit to start functioning as the chief minister. How is Rajinikanth different from them?
Rajinikanth is the end source to serve the BJP’s aim of bringing down the Dravidian parties and draw the curtain to the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu.
Countering Dravidian movement
Neither Rajinikanth nor his handlers have any understanding of the rational, political, historical and philosophical foundations of the Dravidian movement. The BJP believes that Rajinikanth will serve as an antidote to the atheist stream of Dravidian movement through the confused spiritualism that he uses to market his films and for media publicity.
Rajnikanth has rarely found a common cause with the issues in Tamil Nadu politics. Instead, the actor gained an immense hold on popular imagination by playing the eccentric anti-hero who became a hero. Using this garb, the BJP hopes he will tear down the enviable success story of the Dravidian movement and the uninterrupted rule of Dravidian parties for over five decades.
The BJP hopes to script the screenplay, direction instructions and dialogue to halt the march of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which hopes to assume to power after ten years. The irony is that Rajinikanth is more likely to cut into the vote share of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam with which the BJP has an alliance to contest the next elections.
In the process, the BJP will disable and dismantle its hapless ally, the AIADMK, just as it has done to Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal (United) in Bihar.
But the BJP’s understanding of Rajinikanth’s popular influence and its vote bank assessment are exaggerated.
To being with, the actor’s hardcore fans are mostly in the age group of 55 and above and his popularity among women within the same age group is less than noticeable. Younger men and women have grown up watching different actors of a different era.
In addition, despite the huge success of Rajinikanth’s films in small towns and rural areas, his rural outreach is less than significant. There are clear reasons why his popular appeal will not translate into votes.
It is too absurd, not simply ambitious, to even compare him with MGR. MGR was discovered by the Dravidian cause and he was part of the conscious design and decision of the leadership. Rajinikanth, however, is no more than a guaranteed commercial capital investment in the cinema industry even if his films fail repeatedly among the audience. There is enough money to rotate him back as an inevitable factor. In the process, cinema industry and the popular media need more myths to keep him commercially alive.
In the same vein, the BJP without any roots in state politics wants to make a political phenomenon out of him for its own interests. In one way or other, Rajnikanth has been a prisoner of his own desires. He must prepare himself to be propelled by political ploys if he breaks his own record and actually becomes clear about his decision to join electoral politics.
Difference between the reel and real life
There are growing signs of another actor, Kamal Hasan, becoming more active in courting Rajinikanth as an ally to float a third front. This is a measured call from Kamal Hasan. Rajnikanth, as usual, is receiving the signals too cautiously and uncertainly.
To be sure, there is only a small chance of these two coming together. Kamal Hasan and Rajinikanth are competitors in the cinema industry with well-defined guidelines on conflict and co-operation. Even if they have the same handler, this arrangement cannot be sustained in politics. They are unlikely to suffer each other’s greatness, strengths and weaknesses.
If we mistake the fans and the public that surrounds them as voters, there are several other cinema actors and actresses who draw crowds that are as larger or even larger when they appear in public.
There is a clear difference between the reel and real life. The demands of politics are far greater. The political strength of a leader comes from continuous engagement and identification with the people and issues in state politics. Rajinikanth certainly understands the demands of political life but experiences a sense of urgency thrust upon him.
There are trappings that he sees, yet wants to travel the path of his innate desires. He is crossing the stage of being a prisoner of desires to the stage of being a prisoner of circumstances. The BJP, at this stage, will not let him go free or far.
Rajinikanth must, at least, stick like water on the leaves of lotus leaf if he and cinema business have to survive. He is ready to step into an arena that he does not belong and even the BJP cannot guarantee the outcome of its own strategy. In all probability, there is an element of realism to a cinema superstar becoming a political pawn in the crafty game of politics.
Ramu Manivannan is a Professor and Head of the Department of Politics & Public Administration at the University of Madras.