Superstar Rajinikanth today sprung a surprise by announcing his decision to join politics just weeks after he talked about being advised by doctors that his health may not be up to the challenge.
“I am willing to sacrifice my life for the sake of Tamil people,” the 69-year-old announced with a cinematic mix of idealism, dare, sacrifice and emotion befitting the “Thalaiva (leader)” of movies.
Even after Rajinikanth met with district secretaries of his Rajini Makkal Mandram on Monday, not many were hopeful. When he sought more time, they thought their leader was setting them up for disappointment.
But Rajinikanth has played the “will he, won’t he” game too long. Some believe it may be too late in the day, given his age and health.
Rajinikanth’s entry may shake up Tamil Nadu parties and alliances as they prepare for the Tamil Nadu polls due in five months.
The veteran is seen to be close to the BJP’s ideology. “Rajinikanth’s views are similar to the BJP’s. We would appeal to him to support us,” said BJP spokesperson Narayanan Thirupathi.
Rajinikanth has always denied leaning towards the BJP though his statements in support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies suggested otherwise.
Last year, days after the government ended special status to Jammu and Kashmir, Rajinikanth compared PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah to “Krishna and Arjuna” from the Mahabharata. In February, he backed the Citizenship Amendment Act.
While many accuse him of soft Hindutva, Rajinikanth has tried to make a clear distinction, saying his party is beyond caste, creed and religion and he will practise “spiritual” politics. His supporters say this means his party will appeal to people of all castes and religions.
At 69, can Rajinikanth pull off an NTR?
NTR or NT Rama Rao, was a mega star before he joined politics in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. He launched his political party in 1982 and months later, he became Chief Minister at the age of 59.
In Tamil Nadu, which has always seen rivals AIADMK and DMK dominating elections, and where caste plays a huge role, where does Rajinikanth stand, with his yet-to-be launched political party and a pledge to keep his politics free of caste, creed or religion?
The dominant castes in the state already have their champions — the Gounders have Chief Minister E Palanisami of the AIADMK, the Thevars have Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, the Vanniyars have Ramadoss and the scheduled castes have the VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi).
Fans do not necessarily convert into party cadre. The appeal of the ageless superstar would be as a face around which people can be mobilized. Without a larger organisational structure, he will find it hard to fight and win elections on his own.
The BJP is desperate for a face in Tamil Nadu after failing to make much impact over the years, and Rajinikanth may be what it is looking for.
The ruling AIADMK has announced that its alliance with the BJP will continue, after a recent visit to the state by Home Minister Amit Shah. The question is, whether the BJP will give more prominence to Rajinikanth in their campaign, and sideline leaders of the AIADMK.
The AIADMK’s history with Rajinikanth has been patchy. In 1996, the party lost power by a landslide after the actor commented: “If J Jayalalithaa (then Chief Minister and AIADMK chief) is voted back, even God cannot save Tamil Nadu.”
In the years after that, Jayalalithaa, a former actor who was Rajinikanth’s co-star in many films, often met with him; he was also her neighbour in Chennai’s Poes Garden. But the former Chief Minister was dead opposed to his entry into politics.
On record, the AIADMK today welcomed Rajinikanth’s announcement. Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam said: “There could be an alliance if there is an opportunity. Anything may happen in future.”
But the AIADMK is seen to be the biggest loser if Rajinikanth makes an impact. He may cut into the anti-DMK votes, which means Tamil Nadu’s ruling party will take the brunt.
Its ally BJP, however, has nothing to lose. It is believed that the party assesses better chances of gaining a foothold in Tamil Nadu by betting on the “Thalaiva”. The polls may see a direct contest between a BJP-led front and the DMK-led alliance that includes the Congress.
Rajinikanth’s political ambitions gained momentum after the 2016 death of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, which left the AIADMK adrift. In a power tussle, Jayalalithaa’s closest aide, VK Sasikala, took over the party’s control, which led to a revolt by Mr Panneerselvam. When she was jailed for corruption, she picked Mr Palanisamy as Chief Minister. Mr Palanisamy and Mr Panneerselvam later patched up.
Rajinikanth’s announcement comes weeks before Sasikala’s expected release from jail.
This will be the first Tamil Nadu election after the death of its biggest political icons – Jayalalithaa and DMK’s MK Karunanidhi. With another actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan already in the contest, the election has the makings of a political blockbuster.