This could have been one of the many jokes that the actor’s name and reputation of a strongman have spawned in the last few years. But perhaps it isn’t. Tamil Nadu is abuzz with speculation that the veteran actor has decided to throw his hat into the political ring.
Unconfirmed reports said he would soon meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If he does join politics, as he hinted recently, Tamil Nadu politics may see a new alignment. Frenzied fans who had gathered in Chennai at a meeting with their hero last week erupted in joy when Rajini asked them to prepare for “war", taking it as a signal that he would join politics.
Known for its galaxy of actor-turned-politicians, Tamil Nadu seems to be getting ready to welcome more star power. And Rajinikanth’s hold over cinema and fans is legion, with his July 2016 film Kabali earning around Rs650 crore.
His remarks are also well-timed, coming in the midst of a political vacuum created by the death of J Jayalalithaa and the absence in the public domain of the ailing nonagenarian DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi. Rajini’s fans believe their ‘Thalaivar’ or leader can fill that void. Known for his crisp punchlines and inimitable dialogue delivery style, Rajinikanth delivered at the meet what could virtually be a box office hit in real life, with a spate of statements on politics.
He also asserted his Tamil identity, the bedrock of Dravidian politics. With his loaded statement on Monday that he had no political ambitions but would nevertheless show the door to all “money-minded people" if he did make the plunge, the actor seems to have touched a chord with the common man on corruption. The system was “rotten", he said, despite the presence of “efficient" leaders such as the DMK’s M K Stalin and the PMK’s Anbumani Ramadoss.
However, not all political leaders are as excited about Rajini’s possible political move as his fans. “Tamil Nadu does not need an actor but an educated person," former Union health minister Ramadoss of the PMK said.
Rajini at the session with fans had also asked them to prepare the ground for a war, saying they would have to assemble when the battle was fought. In the olden days, he said, kings seldom maintained standing armies but the men turned up when duty called, he said. “When war comes they will come to the rescue of their motherland. I have a profession, work, duty and so do you. Go to your places, do your duty, take care of your vocation. Let us face the war when it comes," he roared, sending his fans into a frenzy.
And when the actor, who enjoys a demi-God status among his fans, brought up the sensitive topic of his linguistic identity, he more or less sounded the war bugle. A man of Marathi roots originally from Karnataka, Rajinikanth proclaimed himself as a true-blue Tamilian. “Even though I am from Karnataka, still you have accepted me and you have made me into a Tamilian. I am a pure Tamil now.
“Naan pachai Tamizhan (I am a pure Tamil)... if you ask me to get out and throw me away, I will land only in the Himalayas and not in any other state," he said. It was often asked if Rajinikanth was Tamil, he said, and then provided his fans — and the state — with the answer. “I am 67 years old. For 23 years I was in Karnataka and 44 in Tamil Nadu. I grew up with you. I may have come here as a Kannadiga or Marathi from Karnataka but you gave me love, support, name, fame and prosperity and you have made me a Tamil," he said amidst loud cheers.
The actor’s roots often come to the fore in political discussions when rivalry between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu peaks, such as during the dispute over the Cauvery River, which often divides the people of the two states. There has often been speculation about the actor taking up a political career — ever since he made a political debut of sorts when he asked the people not to vote for Jayalalithaa in 1996.
“Even God can’t save Tamil Nadu if AIADMK was elected again," he said. Jayalalithaa lost the assembly elections, and the DMK-TMC registering a landslide victory. In the ensuing political developments, he backed the DMK-TMC (Tamil Maanila Congress, led by the late G K Moopanar) combine, which also cashed in on the severe anti-incumbency sentiments against the ruling AIADMK. The combine could not keep the momentum on as the AIADMK staged a comeback in the 1998 Parliamentary polls.
In the meantime, the actor continued to drop hints about a political entry. His film Baba (2002), for instance, dealt with the protagonist’s transformation from a carefree atheist to a believer, as he came in touch with a wily politician. In the film, Rajini batted for a clean politician and, soon after the man was killed, he was shown approaching the people, hinting he would lead them. Yet, whenever his fans asked him to be more active in politics, he either remained silent or distanced himself from the topic.
Tamil cinema has always had close links with politics, with matinee idols such as the late M G Ramachandran (MGR) and Jayalalithaa, besides script writer M Karunanidhi, having gone on to rule the state. Ramachandran, in particular, converted his huge popularity into a springboard for his political launch, which was as successful as his cinema career.
Rajini fans are eagerly waiting to see if their ‘Thalaivar’ will do an encore like MGR. Or like the cigarette that he flicks in the air in a trademark style, the frenzied talk will just end up in smoke. PTI