Rajinikanth takes the plunge, but what will his political avatar look like?
After a week-long wait, Tamil film star Rajinikanth announced on New Year's Eve that he plans to float a political party and contest the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. However, while the superstar has finally decided to take the political plunge, his announcement has raised more questions than it has provided answers.
In his announcement, Rajini said his party will be in place well before the next Assembly elections, and that it will contest all 234 seats in Tamil Nadu. However, what is still unclear is whether this means that he is going to go it alone. More importantly, how does he intend to fund this party, what sort of party does he intend to run, and will he actually manage to transmute his film stardom into political success?
Bypassing local body elections
If the political situation in the state remains stable, then the next polls would be in 2021. But the present EPS government is already in the minority, and is only clinging to power by virtue of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who needs time to get the BJP ready to do battle in the southern state. With the political future of Tamil Nadu balancing on a knife edge, what will happen to Rajini's plans if elections come sooner than he expects?
Local body elections in Tamil Nadu are long overdue, and the issue is currently before the courts. Despite no time frame as to when they will be held, Rajini has already stated that his party will not contest the local body elections because of a paucity of time. In fact, he said he will only take a call on the 2019 Lok Sabha polls closer to the actual event.
His decision to bypass the local body polls, which would directly connect the party with the people at the grassroots level, seems like an opportunity missed. Instead, Rajini has asked supporters to form party units at the village level. Till the elections, these units will not talk politics, but rather concentrate on building up grassroots-level support for the party.
Clean politics or a BJP satellite?
The most welcome feature of Rajini's entry into politics is that he is not after fame or fortune, something he has already attained in the film world. If he sticks to that promise, it may see him function as a party boss, like Sonia Gandhi, and pick the right candidates, not necessarily from among his fans.
By saying he is entering politics to stem the rot in the system, something that was evident in the bitter power struggle in the AIAMDK after the passing of late CM J Jayalalitha, Rajini seems poised to campaign on a plank of clean governance.
Rajini has not spelled out how he plans to fund the party. His rival Kamal Haasan, who is also planning to enter politics, has said he will raise funds from the people as AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal has done. Kamal is set to launch his Whistler Blower App, while Rajini says his fans will serve as watchdogs of the people against corruption.
However, in a state like Tamil Nadu, money power in politics is such a big factor that several Election Commissioners like T S Krishnamoorthi have said they have not seen such note-for-vote electioneering even in Bihar. In fact, the recently concluded RK Nagar by-election once again showed the Election Commission’s failure to stop the AIADMK and the TTV Dinakaran-led breakaway faction from bribing voters.
Rajini has never spent any money for any public cause. He need not bribe voters. But to run a party costs crores of rupees. Is he ready to spend out of his own pocket? Who is going to bankroll him? Will he helped by the BJP?
While he has said that he would shun politics based on caste or religion, Rajini has stated that he will practice “spiritual politics”. Given that he has met with PM Modi on multiple occasions, it remains to be seen whether his “spiritual politics” mean that he will function as a satellite of the BJP.
Interestingly, while his credo is “Do good, be good”, none of this really sheds any light on what the party's policies will be.
In the past, Rajini has refrained from taking a clear stance on issues vital to Tamil Nadu’s interests like the Cauvery situation. When the entire Tamil film fraternity went on a fast in 2003 to demand Karnataka release water to Tamil Nadu as per the tribunal’s order, Rajini did not join. Instead, He went on a separate fast, saying the only solution was interlinking of rivers, and pledged Rs one crore if the project was launched. Given that the project was never launched as it needs the consent of both the concerned states, this pledge remains a token gesture. If they agree on water sharing, there may not be any need for inter-linking either.
In fact, Rajini announced that the party's policies and programmes will be announced only at the time of formally launching the party. What exactly these will be is vital to the success of the party.
Will Rajini succeed?
Tamil Nadu has a history of screen idols-turned-politicians. However, AIADMK founder and matinee idol MGR didn't just succeed at politics overnight. He became a political figurehead because he lived up to the carefully constructed image created on screen as pro-poor by splurging money on charity. Beside this, MGR had a long association with the DMK, even doing field work for the party, and serving as an MLC and MLA, before forming the AIADMK in 1973. His party only came to power a further four years later in 1977.
Likewise, his protege, Jayalalithaa, entered politics as AIADMK propaganda secretary in 1983, and only came to power in 1991 after a bitter struggle to gain control of a party that split after MGR’s passing in 1987. Since then, her stormy political career was marked by ups and downs. However, her fighting spirit and political acumen allowed her to stay in power.
Now 68, and at the fag end of his cinema career, Rajini has finally chosen to serve the people. However, he is not in the pink of health nor does he have the political pedigree of MGR or Jayalalithaa. Will he have the stamina to tour the state and the ability to connect with the people like MGR and Jayalalithaa did?
There also remain question marks about his identity. True, the people have accepted whoever has made Tamil Nadu their home, as they did with MGR and Jayalalithaa.. Millions of his fans see Rajini as a Tamil by adoption and not as a Kannadiga. However, fringe groups have already started a campaign demanding that Tamil Nadu should be ruled by only Tamils, saying that nowhere else in the country can you see a non-native becoming Chief Minister. This, though, may not affect Rajini, since he has said he has no desire to become Chief Minister.
After 50 years of rule by Dravidian parties, people, especially the educated middle class, are looking for a change. If Rajini promises an alternative to the Kazhagams in alliance with the BJP, he can still make a mark. More so if Assembly elections are held along with the next Lok Sabha polls in 2019, since the people generally vote for an alliance led by a national party.