Will Rajinikanth's Charisma and Style Work in Politics, Too?

Commentators feel the choice of Rajinikanth's office-bearers – including BJP's Arjuna Murthy – is indicative of what the actor has to offer.

Ending over two decades of suspense, actor Rajinikanth on December 3 said that his political party would be launched in January 2021 and a formal announcement would be made on December 31. Tamil Nadu is headed for assembly elections in May 2021.

Rajinikanth had disclosed his intention to take the political plunge on December 31, 2017 – a year after J. Jayalalithaa’s death, and when M. Karunanidhi was ailing.

Since 1996, when he first spoke against the Jayalalithaa regime – stating that even the gods cannot save Tamil Nadu if she was re-elected – Rajinikanth’s fans have been hoping that he would soon join politics. In 1996, AIADMK faced a humiliating defeat – even Jayalalithaa was defeated in Bargur constituency by a not so well known DMK candidate, E.G. Sugavanam.

While a combination of factors including what later became famous as ‘Rajini voice’ led to the outcome, fans have since been persuading the actor to make his political debut. Finally, in 2017, Rajinikanth made the announcement that there was a “vacuum in the state”.

M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa

The demise of M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa, who had alternatively ruled Tamil Nadu for decades, has left a political vacuum in the state. Photo: Wikipedia.

For more reasons than one, the 2021 state assembly elections will be more challenging than before. For one, the vacuum that Rajinikanth has been talking about. This will the first time in several decades that the state will face a major election without the two towering personalities who had redefined the Tamil polity – Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. For both the AIADMK and DMK, this election will be a testing ground for new leadership.

In Edappadi Palanisami and M.K. Stalin as the successors of the AIADMK and DMK respectively, it looks like the state is finally moving away from personality-oriented politics.  In both leaders, the state is very likely to have found its first chief minister in many years from a non-film background (though Stalin has done a couple of films and television serials, cinema has never been his forte).

A political vacuum

It is perhaps this that has emboldened actors like Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth to take the political plunge. They may have thought that with their film charisma, they could make it big politically, more so in the absence of two towering political personalities. Kamal Haasan, for instance, has not betrayed the intention of testing political waters till this ‘vacuum’ emerged.

But in terms of charisma and popularity, Rajinikanth is evidently better placed than Kamal Haasan. While the latter, like Sivaji Ganesan (who incidentally tried and failed in politics) experimented with a wide variety of challenging but ‘politically unhelpful’ roles in cinema, the former like M. G. Ramachandran has used cinema to carefully cultivate a pro-people image. Film after film, Rajnikanth has portrayed himself as a common man who stands against power, evil, and sides with the people. It is this image-building that Rajinikanth supporters hope will come in handy for his political aspirations.

Also read: Rajinikanth Will ‘Launch a Political Party in January 2021, Contest Tamil Nadu Elections’

But while Kamal Haasan has been actively pursuing his political aspirations – including his party Makkal Neethi Maiyam contesting the Lok Sabha election in 2019 – Rajinikanth had kept his fans waiting till December 3.

After explicitly announcing his decision to join politics in 2017, Rajinikanth went back and forth – once even saying that there should be a “revolution” among the public seeking his entry into politics.  When a letter purportedly written by him stated that he has had a kidney transplant four years ago and was medically advised against meeting people or traveling was doing rounds last month, Rajinikanth denied writing the letter but admitted that the contents were true. More recently, when Rajinikanth had met the office-bearers of his Rajini Makkal Mandram, he supposedly told them that there was no point in gaining “just 15% of the votes”.

“He, perhaps, wants to something like an MGR, who has had a 30% vote share. But we should also remember that MGR worked hard for five years before that,” says Priyan, a senior journalist and political analyst.

Thol Thirumavalavan, leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi says that the period when MGR and Jayalalithaa came into politics was “different”.

“Rajinikanth is banking on his charisma as a film actor and entering politics. It is an entirely different ballgame today. We will have to wait and watch how far will his charisma help,” he says.

Rajinikanth, however, appeared composed and confident when he met the press after the announcement on December 3. “If I win, it’s people’s victory. If I lose, it’s people’s defeat,” he said.

Earlier he had tweeted, “In the forthcoming assembly elections, with the huge support of the people, there will be straightforward, honest, transparent, corrupt-free, secular spiritual politics happening in Tamil Nadu. A miracle, a wonder will happen.”

Also read: Is Rajinikanth Really the Change Tamil Nadu’s Politics Needs?

Hashtags in Tamil that meant “Change, we will change everything” and “If not now, never” have accompanied the announcement that his party will be launched in January 2021.

While DMK leader Kanimozhi told journalists that only elections can decide the outcome of his political entry, the AIADMK has been far more welcoming of Rajinikanth’s move. Deputy chief minister O. Paneerselvam even suggested a possible alliance with the actor in the upcoming elections.

The BJP factor

In the press meet on December 3 convened to announce his political entry, Rajinikanth was flanked by Thamizharuvi Manian, who Rajinikanth said will supervise the party activities, and Arjuna Murthy, who will be the party’s chief coordinator.

It later emerged that Arjuna Murthy had served as the president of the intellectual wing of Tamil Nadu BJP till very recently. Soon after he joined Rajinikanth, the state BJP issued a statement that he was being relieved from all his responsibilities and primary membership in the party.

Rajinikanth fans

Fans of actor-turned-politician Rajinikanth gather outside the venue of his meeting with senior functionaries of Rajini Makkal Mandram (RMM) to decide on a political plunge in Chennai on November 30, 2020. Photo: PTI/ R Senthil Kumar.

However, leaders and commentators feel the choice of Rajinikanth office-bearers is indicative of what the actor has to offer.

“What was the pressure to bring a BJP leader as an office-bearer?” asks Thirumavalavan. “He speaks about spiritual politics which means that Rajinikanth wants to be identified as a right-wing leader. Rajnikanth has, of course, said that he cannot be ‘saffronised’, but by bringing in a BJP office-bearer, he has made it evident that he will be acting as another face of the BJP in the State,” he adds.

Thirumavalvan says since the BJP has found Tamil Nadu a tough nut to crack, it is roping in Rajinikanth.

Also read: Rajinikanth Distances Himself From BJP

Since his 2017 announcement on entering politics, Rajinikanth has been vocal on many issues. Observers point out that on most of these issues, Rajinikanth had toed the BJP line. But his decision to not meet Union home minister Amit Shah on his recent visit to Chennai again set the tongues wagging.

“He was still probably thinking of keeping a distance from the BJP. He might have had a plan in place and could have possibly communicated it to the BJP,” feels Priyan.

But the journalist also points out that there are more players now for the forthcoming elections. “Both AIADMK and DMK, as of now, have stitched tough alliances. Naam Thamizhar will increase their vote share in the assembly election. Kamal Haasan is also trying hard. Also, booth level infrastructure is very important to face a massive election, which is an added advantage for the Dravidian parties.”

Rajinikanth, sources say, might not directly contest the elections, even if the party does. “He wants to identify the right alternatives for the Dravidian majors. He wants to make promising change agents as leaders by offering them a platform and guidance,” a source close to the actor’s circle says.

Whether Rajinikanth’s style and charisma will have a serious political impact or end up like yet another film-style stunt is anybody’s guess.

Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.