When superstar Rajinikanth refused to apologise for his remarks on social reformer and Dravidian icon Periyar in January 2020, the BJP and the Sangh were overjoyed. RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy "thanked" Rajinikanth for "exposing anti-national DMK". BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy said that "the time has come to liberate Tamil Nadu from fascist DMK".
The BJP and RSS saw Rajinikanth as a useful weapon in its battle against Periyar’s ideology that lies at the core of Dravidian politics. Periyar's atheism and anti-Brahmanism have been the biggest obstacle for Hindutva in Tamil Nadu.
However, the Rajinikanth political saga seems to have ended in an anticlimax for the BJP. On Tuesday, 29 December, the superstar announced that he won’t be forming a party or entering politics and cited health reasons for his decision.
Even from the point of view of the 2021 Assembly elections, this is a blow for the BJP. There were hopes that Rajinikanth would form a party and wean away a chunk of the anti-incumbency votes that would have gone to the DMK-led alliance.
But the bigger reason is Rajinikanth’s utility in the ideological war against the influence of Periyar’s thought in Tamil Nadu politics.
Why is Rajinikanth so important in the context of Periyar’s ideology?
Let’s cut back to January 2020 when Rajinikanth made the remarks about Periyar which sparked a row.
Rajinikanth’s Remarks on Periyar
This was at a function commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Tamil magazine Thuglak. At the function, the actor claimed that Periyar had taken out a rally in 1971 at Salem in which “effigies of Ram and Sita were paraded without clothes and garlanded with footwear”. He went on to say that no publication except Cho Ramaswamy's Thuglak carried those pictures.
With these remarks, Rajinikanth had broken the consensus of Dravidian politics that Periyar is beyond criticism. His refusal to apologise even after being requested to do so, further emboldened the BJP and the RSS.
S Gurumurthy even claimed that Tamil Nadu had changed a great deal since 1971 and that people no longer wanted disrespect towards Hindu deities.
The DMK was guarded in its criticism of Rajinikanth, with MK Stalin politely urging him to reconsider his remarks. The main criticism came from the Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi who held protests against Rajinikanth.
This wasn't the first time Rajinikanth found himself on the opposing side of Periyar's ideology.
In his 2002 film Baba, Rajinikanth's character is shown to transform from an atheist to a believer. The lyrics in one of the songs were seen as critical of Periyar's ideology, leading to protests and had to be withdrawn.
Therefore, it isn't surprising that the RSS, Gurumurthy in particular, cultivated Rajinikanth. They thought that given his mass popularity, Rajinikanth could help them challenge Dravidian hegemony over Tamil Nadu's politics.
In that sense, his importance in the BJP-RSS scheme of things was more than that of smaller parties like the PMK and the DMDK who come from the Dravidian strand.
However, less than a year after his stand on Periyar, Rajinikanth has declined to join politics.
Limits of Rajinikanth’s Political Appeal
Though his health is said to be the main reason for this decision, it is also true that Rajinikanth didn't quite capture people's imagination as a politician in the last three years since he announced his political plans in 2017.
According to CVoter founder Yashwant Deshmukh, support for Rajinikanth was always between 5-10 percent in all the surveys done by his agency.
Rajinikanth's supporters may have hoped for the kind of groundswell that brought NT Rama Rao to power in Andhra Pradesh in 1983, just a year after he formed the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). But it became clear that there isn't enough of a political space in Tamil Nadu and his own reluctance also didn’t help matters.
The limits of Rajinikanth's political appeal were also realised during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. A few months before the elections, he said that PM Narendra Modi is stronger than 10 people against him.
Despite this endorsement, the BJP failed to win a single seat in Tamil Nadu and its ally AIADMK could win just one. The DMK-led alliance swept the polls even amidst a national Modi wave.
With four months to go for the polls, Rajinikanth has also taken a practical decision not to venture into the political battlefield.
Where Does That Leave BJP?
S Gurumurthy still remains optimistic. Soon after Rajinikanth’s announcement, the RSS ideologue tweeted that “1996 could repeat”.
Before the 1996 polls, Rajinikanth had said that "even God can't save Tamil Nadu if AIADMK returns to power". The DMK-Tamil Maanila Congress alliance won a thumping majority and the AIADMK was reduced to just four seats.
However, while Rajinikanth's statement may have helped, it is also true that Jayalalithaa was hugely unpopular then and would have lost anyway.
The superstar may still make some kind of gesture of support to the BJP but this is unlikely to have a very dramatic impact in the elections. Many of Rajinikanth’s fans are those who may have voted for him had he stood for elections, but would prefer a Dravidian party to the BJP in the actor’s absence.
With Rajinikanth out of the political scene, the BJP’s dependence on the AIADMK and smaller parties, like the PMK, may increase.
And as for the RSS, the ideological battle against Periyar’s would now have to be fought largely through the BJP, which recently defended Manusmriti in the state.
With just four months to go for the elections and no formidable third force in sight, as of now, it is an advantage for the DMK, which is well placed to consolidate much of the anti-incumbency votes. Who knows, Gurumurthy may be right and there could be a repeat of 1996 in a very different way from what he means.