By promising to rule like MGR, was Rajinikanth simply playing to the gallery or was he displaying his political illiteracy?

With his rugged looks and dark skin, Rajinikanth could have been a non-starter in Tamil cinema. Till he arrived, the heroes of Tamil cinema were fair, sophisticated and spoke impeccably. Rajinikanth was none of this. He was dark and raw. But there was something about the actor that worked like magic. Four decades later, it is still difficult to comprehend this magic. From carelessly lighting a cigarette to flipping his hair, Rajinikanth developed a set of mannerisms that sent the audiences into a tizzy. He managed to convert his disadvantages into advantages. His dialect was different, but he made people fall in love with it. Even as a villain, he uttered punch dialogues.  It is difficult to pinpoint what exactly worked for him. But soon, they had a name – style. Rajinikanth became synonymous with style. Everything he did was associated with ‘style’. 

On March 5, after unveiling a statue of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and AIADMK founder MG Ramachandran, in what was significantly his first public meeting after announcing his decision to enter politics, Rajinikanth tried to demonstrate this ‘style’.

His forty-minute speech had many elements of his cinematic style. There was an assertion in his tone, a certainty in his voice, finality in his message.

But hidden behind this veil of style and assertion, was a demonstration of certain political illiteracy. The inherent contradiction in Rajinikanth’s speech was revealed in his declaration to “rule like MGR” if he were voted to power. There are two questions to be raised here – one is about how governance like that delivered by MGR will be an alternative to Dravidian politics, and the other and more important one is on MGR’s rule itself. 

“Who told him that MGR delivered good governance?” asked Seeman of Naam Thamizhar Katchi.

In his seminal work The Image Trap published in 1992, MSS Pandian deconstructs the myth of MGR’s governance. “A detailed study of the means by which the Tamil Nadu state raised its resources and the manner in which it expended them, in fact, demonstrates clearly that the AIADMK government under MGR taxed the poor (and the middle classes) to profit the rich, especially the rural rich” writes Pandian.

“It (AIADMK government under MGR) exhibited great callousness and insensitivity to the problems of the poor, even in other policy matters. First between 1977 and 1985, the Central government had allotted Rs 26.70 lakhs to the Tamil Nadu government for rehabilitation of bonded labourers. The AIADMK government not only failed to spend as large an amount as Rs 17.04 lakhs but also returned Rs 3.68 lakhs as not required. Second the AIADMK government had not revised the minimum wages of farm labourers since 1983. This is despite the insistence of the union government on revision, once every two years” Pandian further writes.

For Rajinikanth on March 5, invoking the name of MGR and his style of functioning could perhaps be another populist measure aimed at garnering instant accolades.   

The speech had another quintessential Rajini cinema factor. Rajinikanth appeared like he was addressing only the male students. “You have to be more careful about choosing your friends than your wife” he said.  The university where he was addressing doesn’t enrol girls? That March 5 also happened to be the birth anniversary of Anitha, the Dalit student who committed suicide last year after failing the NEET, is a bitter irony.

For a politically keen observer, Rajinikanth’s speech of course leaves a lot to be desired. From his understanding of MGR’s style of governance to his not-so-clear criticism of the Dravidian movement, Rajinikanth has effectively betrayed his political illiteracy even if he had claimed otherwise. Or rather, deliberately chose to play to the gallery - which, of course seem to have fetched him the desired results. Wowing the audiences just as he would have done in a ‘mass movie’, Rajinikanth seems to have scored the first victory. It doesn’t matter that he is yet to launch his party.

But whether getting votes will be as easy as selling cinema tickets remains to be seen.

Views expressed are author's own