There is a festive atmosphere all over Tamil Nadu with the bursting of crackers, breaking of coconuts, and pujas being performed all over the state. No, they are not celebrating the Tamil New Year “Puthandu”, nor has the LTTE succeeded in its separatist battle to found the first Tamil nation, Tamil Eelam, causing instantaneous celebrations.
Lest you are mistaken, this is the usual fervour surrounding the release of the latest Rajnikanth’s movie, Sivaji, after a gap of nearly two years. There are serpentine queues at all theatres and tickets are sold out for several weeks in advance. Movie-crazy audiences are buying tickets for as much as Rs3,000 on the black market to watch the superstar’s movie.
This is Rajnikanth for you, the highest paid actor whose cult status is unparalleled in India’s recent film history. The success of the 57-year-old superstar—a former bus conductor—is a phenomenon that is difficult to fathom for most people. He is so larger than life that the Badshah of Bollywood, Shahrukh Khan, pares poorly in comparison in terms of remuneration he commands, adulation he receives, super-stardom he enjoys, and a fierce fan following, equally among five-year-olds and 50-year-olds.
Rajnikanth’s political baptism started in 1996 on the eve of assembly elections in Tamil Nadu when he exhorted the masses to defeat Jayalalithaa at the height of her arrogant reign and unbridled display of wealth.
“If Jayalalithaa comes to power in the state again, even god cannot save Tamil Nadu,” Rajnikanth famously stated and contributed immensely to the success of Karunanidhi’s DMK in that election. The ‘Rajni factor’ in that election ensured that Jayalalithaa lost her own assembly seat.
Ever since, there has been much speculation about Rajnikanth’s entry into politics but the actor remained politically neutral and didn’t back either of the fronts in the subsequent elections. However, he kept political plans alive by his actions, from time to time, such as his high-profile fast in 2002 by demanding implementation of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the release of Cauvery waters. Rajnikanth is now at the pinnacle of his career. With the global release of Sivaji, political circles are once again agog with rumours that Rajnikanth is contemplating an imminent entry into politics.
The overtly political plot of the film, Rajnikanth’s role as a crusader against corruption and a Robin Hood style do-gooder and the phenomenal success of the film are keeping the political rumour mills ringing once again. Even his screen name M.G. Ravi Chandran, in the later part of the film, has added to the speculation.
For people on the outside, the movie mania of the south and the influence of films on society and politics are beyond comprehension. Many a superstar of southern cinema switched to a political career at the zenith of their film careers. M.G. Ramachandran and N.T. Rama Rao founded two vibrant regional parties, the AIADMK and the TDP in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, respectively. Although both these leaders are no more, the parties they founded are still a force to reckon with and bank heavily on the image of these yesteryear heroes to seek electoral support.
It is the epitome of this immortality that makes superstars such as Rajnikanth in Tamil Nadu and Chiranjeevi in Andhra Pradesh to harbour political aspirations and yearn for political careers.
As if he wanted to fuel speculation on his political plans, Rajnikanth arranged for separate special screenings of the movie for TDP president Chandrababu Naidu, Tamil Nadu chief minister Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. The occasion prompted Naidu to invite Rajnikanth to join the ‘Third Front’ if he pursued political ambitions.
The reported timing of Rajnikanth’s planned entry appears opportune. The Tamil voters are vexed having to choose between the two Dravidian parties, the DMK and the AIADMK. Karunanidhi is at the end of his long career and, with him, will end a major era in Tamil Nadu politics. His son M.K. Stalin—considered to be his successor—is no match in politics. After Karunanidhi hangs up his political boots, the DMK will cease to be the political power that it has been over the decades. Rajnikanth is trying to fill the vacuum to be created by Karunanidhi’s exit.
Vjayakanth, another Tamil superstar—albeit with much less clout —has already floated a regional party called DMDK and achieved a modicum of success. If Rajnikanth decides not to take the plunge until the next elections, Vijayakanth could grow in political stature and might even emerge as the second most potent political force, after the AIADMK. So, for Rajnikanth, it is now or never in politics.
Three of Tamil Nadu’s chief ministers have been stars, while another two were film script writers. Having achieved super stardom, is Rajnikanth ready to overcome his vacillation to plunge into the hurly burly of politics and endeavour to join the elite club of the stars-turned-chief ministers of Tamil Nadu or will he sit on the sidelines? The timing may never be better than now to make the move.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research and consulting firm. Your comments on this Monday column, which will alternate between the intersection of business and politics, and pure politics, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org