Can Rajini recreate MGR and Jayalalithaa’s political success stories in Tamil Nadu?

“In politics, what you do matters. It doesn’t matter if you have a large fan base,” said one expert.
Can Rajini recreate MGR and Jayalalithaa’s political success stories in Tamil Nadu?
Can Rajini recreate MGR and Jayalalithaa’s political success stories in Tamil Nadu?
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“My entry into politics is certain.”

With these words, Rajinikanth answered the million dollar question on Sunday, that many in Tamil Nadu have been asking for several decades now. In a state that has seen a symbiotic relationship between cinema and politics, neither the question nor the answer come as a surprise, really.

But has Rajini made his political entry a tad too late? Will he be as effective in the political arena, like his predecessors MGR and Jayalalithaa?

No, says journalist Kavitha Muralidharan, to the question of whether Rajini can chart an MGR-esque course.

Not like MGR, not like Jayalalithaa either

“With MGR, throughout his film career, he chose films that would help him build a political career. And he started from scratch and then came to the top. That has not happened with Rajinikanth,” Kavitha says.

As for Jayalalithaa, senior journalist Maalan says, “By the time Jayalalithaa joined politics, she had almost quit films. She also had the blessing and support of MGR’s fans. She converted that to political strength.”

“But look at film stars who have entered after MGR,” Maalan says. “They have not been able to make inroads despite their popularity – like Bhagyaraj, T Rajender... Even Sivaji Ganesan was not accepted as a political leader here.”

“Only Vijayakanth succeeded to some extent,” says political analyst Gnaani. “And that’s because Vijayakanth’s political message was being an alternative to the DMK and the AIADMK,” he says.

A reluctant politician?

But surely the star power, the familiarity, and the status of a demi-god matters? Gnaani disagrees. “In politics, what you do matters. It doesn’t matter if you have a large fan base. Sivaji Ganesan was a much more accomplished actor, but when it came to politics, he could not deliver anything. Only MGR delivered.”

And whether Rajini can deliver, observers say, is still unclear – especially since Rajini is seen as a ‘reluctant politician.’

“He has always been silent on many issues that have politically affected Tamil Nadu. His real interest in coming to politics is unclear,” says Kavitha. “He has also not been very active or vocal even within the film world. There have been issues within Tamil cinema that have not been addressed and he’s always remained aloof,” she adds.

Missed the 1996 bus?

Many believe that Rajini’s entry into politics is too late. “I think he lost the momentum in 1996. If he had come in then, it would have been different,” says Kavitha. “But that moment is gone. There might be some initial sensation, but I don’t think that’s going to last,” she predicts.

She adds that a fan base does not always equal a voter base. “Rajinikanth fans are in their late 40s or early 50s. He has failed to capture the imagination of the young voters in the state,” she says.

Gnaani however points out, “While a fan base doesn’t automatically turn into a voter base but it is useful in creating a party structure. You need a party structure for delivery. At the booth level, you need a committee everywhere. That party structure can be provided by a fan base.”

Can Rajini be the next demi god politician?

And being Rajinikanth does come with its own advantages, Maalan points out.

“Rajinikanth’s advantage is the lack of a charismatic leader in the Dravidian front. After the arrest of Sasikala and the vulgar display of money by both factions of the AIADMK, there is a resentment towards the present government. He may take advantage of that,” he says.

Ideology politics

Maalan also adds that Rajini may be able to give some credibility to the non-Dravidian, nationalist ideology that the BJP is finding difficult to sell in Tamil Nadu.

“The Congress was the only national party in Tamil Nadu and when it became weaker, the (gap) was not filled up by any other national parties. Thus, Dravidian politics took over the government and have been projecting themselves as the guardians and champions of the Tamil cause,” Maalan says.

“But now, almost all ideologies have become irrelevant in electoral politics. Game of electoral politics is being played with caste, coalition arrangements, money power, ground work, etc. Rajinikanth will be able set a discourse on national versus Dravidian politics,” he adds.

But these exact factors could also flip on him, Maalan cautions. While it is apparent that Rajinikanth’s ideologies may be more of a natural fit to the BJP at the Centre, if he does choose to ally with them, this presents a direct contradiction with the Tamil voter.

Gnaani agrees. “In Tamil Nadu, Dravidian movement stands for social justice. No political party in Tamil Nadu can speak against reservation and get a mandate. No party can go against the interest of the Tamil language. No political party can say Tamil Nadu should have compulsory Hindi,” he says.

“BJP may think Rajini is very suitable for them and a popular back to ride on – but for that Rajini has to first join BJP. His fans don’t want him to join another political party. His fans want him to float his own political party. If Rajini joins BJP, most Rajini fans would desert him, because his fans are drawn from different political ideologies,” he adds.

On the other hand, he may not be able to make a dent independently either, says senior journalist Ramakrishnan. “I’m not sure he’ll make a big dent as an independent political entity. The DMK and the AIADMK have been the principal political forces in the state and they will remain so for many years to come,” he says.

As Maalan says, “If you want to win in electoral politics in Tamil Nadu, it is not enough to be a hero, you need to have a villain. There was MGR vs Karunanidhi, Karunanidhi vs Jayalalithaa...”

So will there be a Rajinikanth vs Kamal Haasan in the coming years? Only time – and the two actor-politicians – can tell.

Elections 2023

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