Can Superstar Rajini and Ulaganayagan Kamal emulate MGR? 

Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan have taken the political plunge. But it remains to be seen if they can effectively transition from screen heroes to successful politicians  

Superstar Rajinikanth and Ulaganayagan Kamal Haasan are certainly living in much better times than the illustrious MG Ramachandran or MGR – the first actor in Tamil Nadu to successfully transition from the silver screen to the political arena. It is thanks to MGR that all major parties have welcomed the two actors-turned-politicians as Tamil Nadu’s saviours and future leaders. And if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has reservations about Kamal Haasan, it stems from the fact that he preens himself as a rationalist (an anathema for the Saffron party) and not because he is an actor. As for the shamanic Rajinikanth, he is of course most welcome.

What a contrast to the dismissive reception MGR received when he launched his political career in 1972! The party he started was the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK) (later renamed AIADMK with the prefix ‘All India’ added). K Kamaraj of the Congress had then described MGR and his ilk as mountebank. MGR’s parent party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which had used cinema and especially MGR’s persona as a powerful propaganda tool, suddenly scoffed at him as a filmy politician.

This opposition from the political firmament of the day naturally led to the question: How could an actor govern? Despite the unprecedented crowds at MGR’s crusade against the DMK and its corruption, no one really expected the star to survive the rough and tumble of politics. DMK leaders never tired of denigrating and dismissing the adulation MGR received as a mere manifestation of filmy glamour. They were sure that he would fail and be history in a matter of months. Ironically, the only one to welcome MGR as “Krishna” against the DMK “Kauravas” was C Rajagopalachari or Rajaji, who saw the potential in MGR to fell the mighty DMK.

The entry of the two actors is likely to bring about some change: it will increase the pressure on the two Dravidian parties to become more competitive in showing their commitment to probity in public life and good governance. And the practice of buying votes might be checked since money power alone is unlikely to win voters who are committed fans of the two stars

Even after his electoral victory in 1977, five years after he had floated his party, DMK leaders were still incredulous and could not come to terms with the MGR phenomenon. It would be several months later, in 1978, that senior leaders led by Navalar Nedunchezhian would join the MGR bandwagon. Yet, in 1980, when MGR’s AIADMK won just two of the 39 parliamentary seats, AIADMK’s leaders like Nanjil K Manoharan and others thought that MGR was “finished” and deserted him.

Given that backdrop, full credit must be given to MGR for the welcome accorded to Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. He is after all the first actor to have proved that an artist/showman/performer can not only be a political force but can also govern. In fact, the two recent star entrants into the political arena are expected to emulate MGR should either, or both, in an alliance be voted to power. They must fill the leadership vacuum caused by J Jayalalithaa’s untimely demise as well as provide the state with much-needed governance.

As for the DMK, the other major Dravidian party in the state, its patriarch Kalaignar Karunanidhi has made way for his son MK Stalin who commands the absolute loyalty of the DMK cadres and enjoys the sympathy and appreciation of a section of the public. But despite his untarnished image during his fifty years of public life and his creditable track record as Chennai’s mayor, a minister and later deputy chief minister, MK Stalin’s, time, some would now say, is yet to come.

And this reassessment comes at a time when the DMK cadres were hoping to trounce a much-weakened post-Jayalalithaa AIADMK in the 2019 general elections. Rajinikanth’s entry seems to have thrown a spanner in the works. Or has it?

Atectonic moment in Tamil Nadu politics?

Does Rajinikanth’s entry, as one BJP-sympathetic commentator put it, mark a “tectonic shift” in the Dravidian heartland just because the actor spoke of practicing “spiritual politics.” This remark was seen in some quarters as indicative of his Hindutva inclinations and this forced the superstar to later clarify that by “spiritual politics” he only meant “honest and secular politics.”

But whatever his ideological preference, one thing is very clear – Rajinikanth has decided to take the plunge to fill the political vacuum. The superstar has characterized the year after Jayalalithaa as one that has "shamed (the) people of Tamil Nadu” and “that (the) rest of the world is laughing at us.” Kamal Haasan, who has been consistently critical of the AIADMK administration post-Jayalalithaa, seems to have been egged by Rajinikanth to throw his hat in the ring and will in all likelihood echo similar views in the future.

As things stand, Tamil Nadu’s voters will have two more choices before them. Two more politicians who have cut their teeth in popular cinema to woo them with their programme and vision. Both aspiring leaders have promised clean governance and Rajinikanth has gone so far as to say that he would even quit if he cannot deliver. So far so good.

The superstar has claimed that the strength of his “thousands of fan clubs… is more than the total strength of all political parties.” The declaration is akin to MGR’s claim on October 18 1972 that members of his fans’ associations, numbering 20,000, would become loyal cadres of the ADMK. The DMK at that time had 18,000 units across the state. So MGR had come up with a higher figure to show his strength.

Like MGR’s fans, Rajinikanth’s supporters are devoted to him and will form the backbone of his new party. But there ends the resemblance between MGR and Rajinikanth. Unlike the latter, MGR was no novice to politics and was active in the DMK from 1952 to 1972. He had also carefully cultivated a screen image which would suit his later role as a political leader. Rajinikanth, on the other hand, seems to have made his entry at a time when a towering screen persona alone may not guarantee a successful public career.

Remember, despite his god like status, in 1977, a four-cornered contest saw MGR make it with only about 30 % of the votes – the lowest threshold for victory till then in the state. Since then the victory mark has hovered between 30 to 40 %.

Can Rajinikanth live up to his January 17 claim that he is ready to face the polls even if it is held in six months? Will he manage to conjure the 30 % minimum in what might be a multi-cornered contest? Even assuming that he joins hands with Kamal Haasan, will the two be considered an alternative to the two major Dravidian parties? Also, will these actors stay the course or will they end up like the other actor turned politician, Vijayakanth, who came with much promise but failed to live up to expectations? Even assuming that there is a sizeable voter base of non-committed voters who are “sick and tired” of the Dravidian parties, it remains unclear if these voters will gravitate towards Rajinikanth and/or Kamal Haasan to give them a decisive victory.

A change for the better

However, the entry of the two actors is likely to bring about some change: it will increase the pressure on the two Dravidian parties to become more competitive in showing their commitment to probity in public life and good governance. The two will have to field candidates with promise and a clean record. And the practice of buying votes might be checked since money power alone is unlikely to win voters who are committed fans of the two stars.

At another level, Rajinikanth is likely to emerge as the one tipping the scales in favour of either of the two major Dravidian parties—the AIADMK and the DMK. This is a role that the Congress and Vijayakanth had played in 2006 and 2011 respectively. In that context, any dalliance with an outside party like the BJP is likely to snuff out Rajinikanth’s emergence as a credible force in Tamil Nadu.

Rajinkanth’s attraction is that his party will be a regional outfit and would put the interests of the state over anything else much like the Dravidian parties – a luxury that national parties do not enjoy. So, it is best that Rajinikanth does what he does so well in his films – overcome the villains himself. And since the evil forces in politics he has to fight are what he calls the “system” and “corruption” one cannot but wish him well. And the same goes for Kamal Haasan.

R Kannan is the deputy head of the HirShabelle State office of the UN Mission in Somalia. He is the biographer of CN Annadurai and MG Ramachandran. He can be contacted at unkannan@gmail.com

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