To a state that pioneered political rhetoric, with the penmanship and delivery style of many Dravidian stalwarts like Periyar, Annadurai and Karunanidhi, Rajini brings a more informal, narrative style to his speeches.
As political speeches go, his debut on Monday was remarkable. Rajini is a superlative speaker, he can keep the audience mesmerised by his story telling. It is strange that he has never reprised the director's chair, being such a captivating narrator.
First, he begins with, "sorry." Chiding his fans for illegal banners and citing the HC order that makes it illegal, he doesn't simply request them to remove it. He apologises for inconveniencing the public and "humbly" requests his fans to remove it. The tone of that rendering douses anger and resets the viewer's mood. He well knows that the viewers are not just the few thousand at Maduravoyal but the lakhs who will see it on TV and read about it across media.
His presence there was to unveil MGR's statue at his 100th birth anniversary year, obviously he came to praise, not bury MGR. MGR’s legacy is up for grabs, but so is social justice, education, poverty alleviation, jobs, commerce and just about all aspects of governance. So, staking claim to MGR's welfare state approach is not just astute politicking but actually good for the state.
Second, he makes a slightly self-deprecating comment about whether he has earned the eligibility to unveil the statue, given postponements due to various reasons. That's it. Not a word more on how privileged or blessed he is to open the statue of "Ponmana Chemmal." One utterance. He leaves it there. No overemphasis on the deprecation, no driving that point home. The portrayal leaves the listener disarmed.
Third, an explicit marker announcing that the political section of his speech now commences. It is a deliberate call to perk up and take note.
Then as he fires salvos against the ruling AIADMK and the entire political class, he actually rings in the messages to the voting public. That he knows of the ongoing bad governance and that his duty to the people is to fix it and not relax. Even though he may have achieved the pinnacle of success, he is here traversing the rough path, at this late age. Again, the simplicity of tone guides the mood to appreciating the largeness of his heart, his service-mindedness and his readiness to sacrifice. Again, said all but once, quite explicitly, not subtly but no chest-thumping either. No allusions to rathhatin raththame.
The stage is now set for the punch dialogue. His tone gets progressively more confident and he raises the pitch until he declares assertively that he will be able to deliver the welfare state and the empathetic governance that characterised MGR's tenure. Not a welfare state but ‘the’ welfare state. It is a clear, declarative claiming of the modus operandi. At this point, he has cleverly shepherded the crowd to crescendo and turned this into an enthusiastic political stage for himself. The "Thalaiva" chants become increasingly breathless.
Not letting the moment slip away in euphoria, he takes charge of the mass mania and turns it on its rational head with a practical statement about the how he will he deliver the welfare state - by marshalling people's blessings, youth support, technology aids, competent domain experts and analytical minds to deliver good governance. Sure. Confident. If the crescendo of the first assertion didn't get the doubters, the pragmatism of the second declaration would have. After all it comes from a man who has battled all odds in is professional and personal life and risen from the bottom-most pits to reach the pinnacle. He makes you wonder about that confidence, he is nobody's fool and life's lessons have been aplenty for him. He must genuinely believe it, no? Thus stray the audience's thoughts.
After some painstaking rebuttals to that persistent, nonsensical, "why now?" and "where were you when the ice age glaciers melted?" questions, he deftly manipulates his own comment on Tamil Nadu's leadership vacuum into a missive for his party volunteers. Masterstrokes, two. The praise of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, yes. But for what? Not their statesmanship, but their ability to control their parties with absolute authority despite party personalities and their egos, differences and dissent, and hence run a tight ship. The message is loud to his party workers on the discipline he expects as their leader.
And quickly, he wrests control over public emotion again, announcing that he will take the seat vacated by these two. He praises MGR's governance, guns for Jayalalithaa's seat. He alludes to MGR's Mookambika devotion, indirectly justifying his own. And then with dead seriousness says, "god himself is on my side," and leaves hanging mid-sentence, what of mere mortals? With that, he leads a willing crowd back into their punch-drunk mood - drunk on the punch dialogue.
The marker announcing the closure of the political speech arrives now, again deliberately placed, for the audience to relax and soak in the lightness of the upcoming moments. Then the lion sets out for the hunt.
He chooses MGR's phoenix-like resurrection with Nadodi, pitted against the Himalayan talent of Sivaji, the former needing no one at all to bootstrap himself out of an all-time low, hands and legs bound and with every constraint, having directed and acted in his own film. One that created history. Then Rajini replays that powerful "fight against all odds" sentiment in recalling MGR's political war against the formidable, unparalleled M Karunanidhi and how he triumphed, even when physically wounded and barely alive.
Allegory is the name of the game, having stated the closure of straight political talk. One man against the world, like Tiananmen Square. Classic sympathy building for David.
He follows it up with a solemn talk on MGR's large-heartedness, good governance, poverty alleviation and educational welfare measures. How can you disbelieve known facts peppered with personal anecdotes? Wily telling. Not disingenuous, instead coming across as an honest raconteur.
The final appeal is to students, his live audience, urging them to stay politically aware and conscious but not get involved and distracted by politics, not even for him as a politician. Again, with the punch: not even for him. "Study with single mindedness," is his love letter to parents, having already won over the students. He then emphasises the importance of English for progress in one's life. Even after this if any parents were still cynical, his revelation that he was a 98%-er in is school days would have converted them wholly and entirely. Entrapment. The hunt is almost complete.
The final nail on the coffin is to stir every "Tamizh" heart. "Tamil can only grow when Tamilians grow." Invoking Sundar Pichai and Abdul Kalam, he says, “Focus on your growth, master English, seek success in life and Tamil will succeed with you."
His iron grip on mass psychology is on full display, and the consummate control with which he manoeuvres it. He even refers to it in his speech as a lesson learned from filmdom. That a single, isolated viewer's response to a given film is completely different than that from a collective of a full theatre. Politics is a mass game, and his uncanny grasp of public emotion, real time and as it plays out, gives him an edge.
The speech is almost the manner in which a dramatic story might be pitched to a lead actor by a director. An engaging telling full of intriguing backstories, voice over commentary and pithy advice that appeals to a variety of audiences. His talk addresses voters and detractors, students and parents, cadre of other parties and his own volunteers. There is something in it for everybody, like a family film.
He casts it wide and nets quite a catch. You can speculate if his speech is real, or just the seasoned actor acting, the politician wielding his silver tongue or the leader seeking public approval, but the end result is the same. It hits the mark. The show is stolen.
It is hard to tell if he drinks the Kool-Aid he so glibly vends; that MGR, a film star, conquered all, and vanquished the most talented of opponents, notwithstanding his many disabilities in both films and politics. Self-referential. MGR was a film star, yes, but it is a complete fallacy that his film stardom alone succeeded in politics. He spent years grooming as a politician while he was still in films. As a party member, leader, addressing meetings, building cadre, recruiting volunteers, as a spokesperson, campaigner, office bearer, treasurer, fund-raiser and writer for the party magazine. By the time he gave up films and entered politics, he was seasoned in the trade. Jayalalithaa too, cut her teeth over years before claiming leadership. There is no comparison to Rajini's situation now, he is a film star entering politics. He has to blaze his own trail, the path unchartered for ambitions his size.
Views expressed are the author's own.