Tamil Nadu is prone to cyclones these days and that could well be a metaphor for politics in the southern state that has seen several storms of various shapes and sizes since the mammoth flooding that saw the capital city of Chennai floating in 2015, months before the demise of feisty Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. Her passing in 2016 created a political vacuum that has dramatically altered political equations in the state.
The long-awaited political launch of movie superstar Rajinikanth this week after much dilly-dallying – on when, how and indeed whether he will make a promised entry into politics – is only the latest of the storms to blow over the state.
But this much can be said: Rajinikanth’s impact on Tamil Nadu’s politics may be significant, but more as a nuisance to established political groupings than as a new-age replacement that would capture Fort St George, the magnificent colonial-era seat of power close to the expansive Marina Beach.
A Post-Jayalalithaa Tamil Nadu: How Caste / Community-Based Parties & Film Stars Are Now Jostling For Coalitional Space
Much water has flown down the Cauvery since Jayalalithaa's demise – and each political episode matching the flow has only raised more questions than answers.
First up, the former movie heroine's bête noire, arch-rival DMK leader M Karunanidhi, passed away in 2018. That further deepened the political vacuum. His son MK Stalin is seen by his supporters as a natural replacement on the rebound for the incumbent AIADMK. Stalin has been working hard with grassroots campaigns on everything from farmers plight and human rights, to Tamil pride and college admissions – but is not a match for his late father, in charisma or oratorial skills.
It is not visible to those at a distance, but Tamil Nadu now has several caste or community-based parties jostling for coalitional space, alongside movie stars mixing charisma with social issues to find their place in the sun.
The Dalit-centric VCK, the Vanniyar caste-based PMK, the breakaway MDMK led by Vaiko, stunt hero Vijayakanth's DMDK, and the linguistically racial ‘Naam Thamizhar’ (We Tamils) party led by small-time actor Seeman, stand alongside communist groups. The Dravida tag is common to many – and that usually means a cocktail of some caste and Tamil pride.
To top it all, actor Kamal Haasan launched the Makkal Needhi Maiam (People's Justice Centre) to plunge into politics that promises better, clean governance.
What Rajini’s Wish To Change Everything In Tamil Nadu Politics Rests On
Rajinikanth's go-it-alone party, whose name is yet to be announced, enters this messy, chaotic universe with his charisma, dashing screen persona, and a large fan base. But his bluster in thundering "Maathuvom, Ellathayume Maathuvom" (We will change. We will change everything) – as he launched his party with a now-or-never announcement – has too many holes that need to be fixed.
His fan following is said to include people aged 5 to 80, but if the late actor Sivaji Ganesan’s disastrous entry and exit from politics is any indication, movie fan following does not necessarily result in vote largesse.
Like the late former Chief Minister MG Ramachandran (MGR), Rajini's on-screen roles as an upright saviour and his off-screen charities do evoke a social appeal. However, unlike Karunanidhi and MGR, his political appeal is not based on long-term grassroots engagement in the Dravida ideology and party politics.
Rajini’s wish to change everything in Tamil Nadu politics rests, therefore, on a large mass of young voters, higher levels of education, and a general disenchantment with parochial, corrupt Dravida parties.
It is an untested territory but sounds promising.
Can Rajinikanth Chip Away Some DMK-Bound Votes To Help BJP?
Tamil Nadu's literacy level has crossed 80 percent, and younger voters would be in the 100 percent zone. Everyone, from Hyundai to the World Bank, has been spinning jobs in the state that is now a key IT centre and often relies on migrant workers from Nepal and Odisha to do menial jobs. Engineering colleges have mushroomed in a symbol of economic prosperity in a state already known to be industrialised.
Rajini was assiduously wooed by the BJP as it tried to fill the vacuum left by Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, but under Union Home Minister Amit Shah's stewardship, the Hindutva party has continued its ties with the AIADMK led by the uncomfortable Siamese twins – EPS and OPS. Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and his deputy O Panneerselvam do not quite get along, but are in a marriage of convenience increasingly glued by the BJP.
There are those who think Rajini is BJP’s Plan B and will chip away some DMK-bound votes to help the BJP. But that is not easy.
DMK's cadre-based, committed vote base is strong. Chances seem higher for him to capture floating votes that might harm both DMK and the BJP. If that really gains traction, we are looking at a hung assembly or at least, desperate pre-election bargaining in 2021 when Tamil Nadu goes to the polls.
If Rajini Finds Allies, Things Could Get Rough For DMK & AIADMK
Rajini asserts his party will contest all 234 seats. Given that there is a range of popular young movie heroes from Vishaal and Vijay to Ajithkumar and Vijay Sethupathi, Rajini's on-screen appeal may have a limited conversion rate based on-screen antics.
Besides, he is trying a spiritual variant of politics based on love, as he himself says. Veteran Gandhian Tamilaruvi Manian is Rajinikanth's party supervisor. Rajini's own questionable health after a kidney transplant, and his age (he turns 70 later this month) are other factors that make his off-screen political entry a shadow of his on-screen stunts and style that have spawned memes, jokes, and an appreciative fan base that stretches to Japan.
Will Tamil Nadu’s voters shed decades of Dravida ideology based on caste bargains and narrow populism for a Gandhian variant in the 21st Century? It seems unlikely unless we underestimate youthful idealism in Tamil Nadu.
However, if he does go back from his 234-seat promise to find allies (say, Kamal Haasan), things could well turn difficult for the DMK and the AIADMK.
‘Crowded’ Tamil Nadu Politics: Much Depends On How Alliances Shape Up
What is clear is that Tamil Nadu’s political field is now crowded by wannabes, and a lot will depend on how alliances shape. The imminent release from jail of corruption-scarred VK Sasikala of the Amma DMK (Jayalalithaa's long-time confidante) will only add to the chaotic colours of state politics.
Entertaining days are assured for the state that is famous for mixing movies with politics.
Expect unpredictable romances and predictable fight scenes. Bring on the popcorn.
(The writer is a senior journalist who has covered economics and politics for Reuters, The Economic Times, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He tweets as @madversity. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)