THE symbol in the backdrop, of a lotus supporting a hand in Apana Mudra and enclosed by a cobra, reinforces the supernal persona and purity of purpose. As his legion of fans would say, there is no such thing as “Rajini Can’t”.
The sun doesn’t rise until Rajinikanth says “good morning”. One among the vast body of rib-ticklers celebrating the omnipotence of his screen avatars. Hence, social media’s take on his stepping into public life: “Politics has joined Rajinikanth”. (After all, the guy just added Facebook as a friend and uses pepper spray for eye drops.)
It’s not just that the actor’s cult status sets him apart from the current crop of actors-turned-politicians – like comparing a bobcat with a mountain lion – but that he represents the possibility of a radical shift in Tamil Nadu politics.
Rajinikanth arrives at a time when the dominant political forces in the state are in a ferment. The main Dravidian parties, DMK and AIADMK, are riven by dissension. Political one-upmanship is not the only problem. More significant is the growing disconnect of both parties from their ideological moorings. Since Independence, Tamil Nadu politics has been defined by a social justice movement based on rationalism, anti-Brahminism and atheism. A gradual ideological dilution began in the 1970s and picked up steam in the new millennium, attenuating the relevance of Periyar’s rigid anti-Hinduism.
On this stage, with impeccable timing, arrives the rudraksh-sporting, Gita-thumping Rajinikanth and his “spiritual politics”. It’s not as if Tamil society eschewed religiosity even as it embraced Dravidian politics; the proliferation of spiritual leaders in the state bore testimony to the fact that there was no revolution of rationalism. But spiritualism, unlike in the north, had no place in the political sphere and Periyar had regarded the Gita as a symbol of cultural enslavement.
Will Rajinikanth, the promised alternative to the Dravidian parties, change all that? Where will he stand on the ideological spectrum? Clearly, after long years of study and preparation, he believes that a Dravidian-Hindu identity is indeed emerging, and sub-nationalism and religiosity are no longer mutually exclusive. Doubtless, like the late J Jayalalitha before him, he will continue to pay homage to Periyar, all the while harping on spirituality.
It is believed that he enjoys the tacit support of the BJP, which could well need his backing to form a government in 2019. In the current scenario, the BJP seems unlikely to pull off its near-total sweep of the north, west and centre and has limited scope for expansion in the south and east. The public bonhomie between the uber-star and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has fuelled this perception, but Rajinikanth is likely to prefer neutrality in the short term.
The “spiritual politics” narrative may have another kind of appeal. It represents the hope factor in a state tired of being identified with corruption. It also resonates with Rajinikanth’s image, of godlike, being removed from quotidian politics, and places him on a pedestal, above all the sickening grime and venality.
Rajinikanth is known to retreat to the Himalayan foothills every now and then, for bouts of serious meditation. He is said to be a follower of ‘Mahavatar Babaji’, the immortal saint described in the seminal ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’, who disappeared in 1912 but many believe returned to earth from 1970-84 (during which time he inspired Steve Jobs). Rajinikanth celebrated his attachment to the Baba in his 2002 film of that name.
Thus, he is seen as being disinterested in power for its own sake. Such a saintly leader would, per se, be perceived as committed to public welfare. The very fact that he stayed away from politics despite pressure from his adherents for over two decades adds to the myth. The symbol in the backdrop, of a lotus supporting a hand in Apana Mudra and enclosed by a cobra, reinforces the supernal persona and purity of purpose.
Politicians and film stars share the same skill set. They must be excellent communicators, enjoy a rapport with their audience and have a certain charisma that induces people to believe in them. That’s what makes actors successful in politics. Rajinikanth, needless to say, has all this and more. If he has an Achilles Heel, it’s the fact that he is not a son of the soil. A Kannadiga by birth, Shivaji Rao Gaekwad made it big in Tollywood, a fact which comes up every time there is a dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. On the other hand, MGR was not a Tamilian either, but was born in Sri Lanka to Malayalee parents.
Like MGR (and NTR in Andhra), Rajinikanth could well dominate the politics of his state. Unlike MGR, he is a parachute politician, with no experience of administration or public service. But he is neither naive nor lacking in advisors, nor given the overlap of the political and film spheres in Tamil Nadu, stepping into unfamiliar territory. As his legion of fans would say, there is no such thing as “Rajini Can’t”.
The author is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.