There's a Tamil idiom that is apt for the Bharatiya Janata Party's planned grand entry into Tamil Nadu politics: "... like riding a terracotta horse into a river."
As if sailing the murky waters of the Cauvery were not trouble enough for Home Minister Amit Shah's plotting moves in alliance with the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the remote possibility of a blessing from aging and ailing movie star Rajinikanth has fallen flat – unless there is a trick somewhere resembling the climax of a Rajini blockbuster.
For now, the superstar's statement, that he is dropping the idea of floating his own political party – a 180-degree turn from his grand announcement weeks ago – is resembling an anti-climax.
Right-wing, BJP-loving analysts still see the superstar signalling support for the BJP like he did for AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa in 1996.
What Right Wing Ideologues Wished For
But things have come a long way since Gurumurthy, the RSS ideologue, announced his wish in 2018 that Rajnikanth, in fact, would be aiding the Hindutva party. The BJP has been doing all sorts of things to make headway in Tamil Nadu – including Shah's announcement of mega infrastructure projects on stage with Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and conducting a Vel Yatra (Spear Roadshow) to co-opt the popular Tamil deity Murugan into the Hindu pantheon, in an act of political symbolism.
Gurumurthy, who now edits the respected Tamil political weekly Thuglak, was hinting at and hoping as recent as earlier this month, in a Republic TV interview, that Rajini's 'spiritual' politics would in some way help the BJP. He is still sticking to his hopes. It looks more like wishful thinking now.
Rajini’s Mystical Devotion
After playing political hide-and-seek for years, Rajini unveiled the intention of a party and even announced that he would not align his outfit with any of the Dravidian parties as he planned a new "spiritual" entry into politics.
Given that he is a devout Hindu, one would have thought he was just right for the BJP, but nothing is that easy. For one, Rajini's devotion is the mystical, not militant variety, relying on austerity and charity rather than cultural bombast.
Secondly, he owes his success to Tamilians, the bulk of whom have been supporting Dravidian parties for at least five decades now – gaining on everything from atheist rationalism championed by the late Periyar EV Ramaswamy Naicker to quotas in colleges and government jobs for backward castes.
It was not going to be easy anyway for Rajini’s promise of good, clean politics. Add to this the fact that unlike late super MG Ramachandran, who founded the AIADMK, he has no ideologically rooted image in grassroot politics. Movie glamour has its limits.
Rajini's non-starter plan involved introducing largely unknown nice guys into his stillborn politics. But, given that he has reasonably cordial relations with fellow actor Kamal Haasan, there was room for speculation that Kamal's Makkal Neethi Maiam (People's Justice Centre) and Rajini could see eye-to-eye in bringing together their respective fan clubs with the idea of ushering in a new kind of politics in increasingly educated Tamil Nadu.
There is still a possibility that Rajini shows a tilt towards Kamal because his fan club base is unlikely to be given any mileage in the overcrowded bandwagons of the arch-rivals, MK Stalin's DMK and the rival AIADMK. Haasan has clearly signalled he is open to collaborating with Rajini.
On the face of it, Rajini's hasty exit from electoral politics after a grandiose announcement that his party would contest all 234 Assembly seats in Tamil Nadu is on account of his difficult health.
But there is also the fact that the BJP has cast its lot with the AIADMK, leaving Rajini with no prospect of joining a non-Dravidian party (Congress and DMK are already in an alliance).
But wait. Things are so fluid in Tamil Nadu, you can never tell.
On 21 November, Palaniswami announced the BJP-AIADMK alliance would continue in Assembly elections due in 2021. However, this week, the AIADMK sent out signals that the BJP would have to play second fiddle to the AIADMK and carefully negotiate any issue on power-sharing under the Dravidian party's leadership.
Fissures within the AIADMK between Chief Minister Palaniswami and his deputy O Panneerselvam make any long-term prediction difficult.
What all this implies is that the BJP is in no position to commandeer any alliance, as it seems to have done in Bihar with Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United). Rajini was an imagined trump card that has proved to be one that isn't. As the Tamil proverb goes, he is a terracotta horse.
It is not easy to predict the flow of political alliances in the emerging scenario in Tamil Nadu. If the AIADMK splits and Rajini emerges more as a star campaigner than a seat grabber, there is an outside chance of the BJP being a strong broker.
For now, that seems quite unlikely. Shah's pet projection of his party being truly national may be right for naive Delhi news anchors, but ground realities are different south of the Vindhyas.
(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. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)