A year to go, Rajini sparks fly in Tamil Nadu politics

A year to go, Rajinikant sparks fly in Tamil Nadu politics

Actor-turned-politician Rajinikanth. (PTI Photo)

There is still time, 14 months to be precise, to go for the high-octane battle to capture Fort St. George, the seat of power of the Tamil Nadu government. 

But the political landscape is already experiencing heat waves, courtesy a controversial statement on the much-revered EVR Periyar by Tamil superstar Rajinikanth, who nurses high ambitions of catapulting himself into the chief minister’s chair in just one election.

After decades, the Assembly election ground in Tamil Nadu will be a crowded affair in 2021, with new players Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. The former is yet to launch his political party while the latter more or less has an organizational set-up -- competing with the Dravidian majors DMK and AIADMK who have alternatively ruled the state for 53 years since 1967.

As things stand today, the DMK alliance consists of Congress, MDMK, VCK and Left parties, while the AIADMK combine comprises of PMK, BJP, DMDK and smaller parties like Tamil Maanila Congress.

Rajinikanth, who enjoys cult status among millions of fans in Tamil Nadu, is likely to launch his party by the end of this year to face the elections due in May 2021. Though two years have passed since the dramatic announcement of his political plunge, the actor’s party hasn’t yet taken shape.

However, Rajinikanth has given ample hints that he would profess an ideology that would be in contrast with Dravidian philosophy and has promised to practise ‘spiritual politics,’ which political observers say is nothing but a soft version of the BJP’s Hindutva politics.

Ever since Rajinikanth made a controversial statement on Periyar, there have been suggestions that the next elections will be a battle of ideologies – for and against Dravidianism. Whichever way the results go, the contest will be a political potboiler for the sheer number of players if not for anything else.

“The 2021 Assembly elections are going to be complex. While it will be politically complex, electorally the contest will be simple. Tamil Nadu has always sided with one party by giving absolute majority, and I feel 2021 will be a continuation of that long tradition,” P Ramajayam, Assistant Professor, Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Bharathidasan University, Tiruchirappalli, told DH.

“The new players, be it Kamal Haasan or Rajinikanth have not registered their footprint so far. Their comments may trigger some immediate reactions but will not make a huge impact,” Ramajayam added. He also felt it would be “very difficult” for Rajinikanth to make an enduring impact in just one election, especially when he is seen just as an extension of BJP.

The Rajinikanth camp, which believes that a leadership vacuum exists in the state, wants to project the superstar as a strong leader and make the election a contest between personalities as Tamil Nadu witnessed in the past.

Though the elections are more than a year away, the principal Opposition DMK isn’t taking any chances. It has hired high-profile election strategist Prashant Kishor for its campaign. This comes even as party president MK Stalin is undertaking an overhaul of the organizational structure and injecting youth power right down to the district units.

On the other hand, the ruling AIADMK is keeping its cards close to its chest as it will wait and watch the entry of Rajinikanth since he is considered close to its ally, BJP, before getting battle-ready. Also, there is disquiet in the AIADMK camp as its jailed leader V K Sasikala, who handpicked Edappadi K Palaniswami for the top job, might walk free from jail in the next couple of months.

The uneasiness is quite evident as a majority of those in the cabinet, including Palaniswami, and MLAs owe their positions to Sasikala, though they openly rebelled against her nephew TTV Dhinakaran and chucked him out of the party. Since much water has flown down the bridge in three years – Sasikala went to jail in February 2017 – with the AIADMK getting much closer to the BJP, it remains to be seen whether her release from jail would herald any change.

However, the party, which suffered a massive defeat in the Lok Sabha polls last year, seems to have gained much of the lost ground in the past few months, as reflected in the by-election victories.

Though he hasn’t yet launched his political party and is yet to spell out his ideology, Rajinikanth’s camp is already projecting him and his yet-to-be launched outfit as the prime challenger to the DMK, in an attempt to go one up on the ruling AIADMK.

Pravin Gandhi, film director and Rajinikanth supporter, told DH that the people of Tamil Nadu have always voted for “individual personalities” like M Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa, without thinking much about their political ideologies.

“Since there is a huge leadership vacuum in the state, we feel Rajinikanth will fill the gap as people choose individual personalities. While Stalin is not as strong as his father Karunanidhi, Edappadi isn’t a mass leader. He cannot bring the AIADMK back to power. It is in this context that we feel that Rajinikanth will be the prime challenger to the DMK,” he said.

However, other political observers feel that writing the AIADMK’s political obituary is the last thing the Rajinikanth camp should be doing as they have yet to reach out to the people on how he can be an alternative to the well-entrenched party.

“The AIADMK is a cadre-based party and it would be premature to say that it will not be a major contestant in the 2021 elections. The fight will be between the two Dravidian majors DMK and AIADMK, though the ruling party will face a lot of questioning from the people on its blind support to the BJP’s policies like the Citizenship Amendment Act,” Ramajayam said.

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