The threat to the decades-long binary in Tamil Nadu politics, with the two main Dravida parties forming the nucleus of rival formations is no longer there. After years of wavering, Tamil superstar Rajinikanth had at last promised to take the plunge with his own party, beginning 2021. His mission was to 'spiritualise' politics, to cleanse it of the muck, corruption and criminality that corroded its core. Millions of his fans going under the rubric of Rajini Makkal Mandaram were to serve as the vehicle for taking his uplifting message to every nook and cranny of the State. A new beginning was to be heralded on January 1, 2021. However, two days before he was to launch the party, he shocked his fans by abandoning the long-awaited project.
Apparently, the culprit was the coronavirus pandemic. It scuppered the Rajinikanth plan to vanquish the traditional Dravidian establishment, whose one pole was led by Opposition leader M K Stalin and the other, by Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, with smaller caste-based parties serving as seasonal allies. In a three-page statement on Tuesday, the superstar apologised to his supporters, fans and the ordinary people of the State who were looking forward to his entry in politics.
On December 3, he had ended all speculation, announcing the decision to take the plunge. Significantly, the decision to renounce a career in politics came after his discharge from hospital. The 70-year-old actor had spent three days in hospital after experiencing 'severe fluctuations' in blood pressure. He said his hospitalisation was “a warning from God.” He did not want to risk illness during campaigning for his party, which would necessarily involve meeting lots of people. Nor did he want to expose his fans and supporters to the risk of the coronavirus through direct contact with people during the coming election.
Notably, another Tamil actor, Kamal Haasan, had launched his Makkal Needhi Maiam in 2018 but it failed to change the course of Tamil Nadu politics. In the Lok Sabha poll, it secured less than four per cent of the popular vote. However, there was unanimity among political pundits that Rajinikanth’s proposed party would have a much bigger impact, considering that especially after the death of J Jayalalilthaa, there was a certain vacuum in the ruling AIADMK. But Chief Minister Palaniswami surprised observers by effectively neutralising the challenge from within his own party and also by blunting the attacks from Jayalalithaa’s partner, Sasikala, who will soon be out of prison, and her nephew, TTV Dhinakaran.
The AIADMK is now set to contest the Assembly poll, due in four months, under Palaniswami’s leadership. Soon after Jayalalithaa's death, speculation was that her party, lacking a strong and charismatic leader, would fragment and lose power. But Palaniswami has turned out to be deft player, consolidating his position and even rebuffing the BJP attempt at back-seat driving by threatening Central intervention on one pretext or the other. He has kept the BJP at bay, foiling its attempt to gain a foothold in the Tamilian politics. With Rajinikanth opting out of politics, the BJP hope of piggybacking on his shoulders too lies shattered now.
On its part, the Opposition DMK is saddled with its own problems. Stalin’s estranged stepbrother, M K Alagiri, who never reconciled to Stalin’s anointment by his father M K Karunanidhi as his successor, threatens to float his own party. Alagiri enjoys influence in southern parts of the State and commands the loyalty of the DMK rank-and-file in the region. Other caste-specific parties in the electoral fray are likely to bargain hard for maximum allocation of seats by the rival DMKs.
Given the failure of Stalin to get the better of the AIDMK in the string of bypolls to the Assembly it is advantage AIADMK, especially if the BJP chooses to go with it. As for the Congress, its position remains untenable, dependent as it is on the goodwill of the DMK. Lacking a leader of its own who can win his/her own seat in Assembly or Parliament, the Congress will no longer be in a position to demand more than a small number of seats, at least not after it sank the RJD-led alliance in Bihar by its woeful performance in the recent Assembly poll. In sum, the ruling AIADMK enters the Assembly poll for retaining power on a strong wicket, especially after the unknown factor of Rajinikanth is no longer there to upset all calculations.