Tamil Nadu, the Indian State closest to Sri Lanka, is gripped by a great deal of political excitement these days. Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly elections are due in May 2021. All political parties active in the State – from the ruling All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (AIADMK/ADMK) to the chief opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) – are gearing up in election mode to face polls next year. Polls will be held on the first past the post winner system to 234 Constituencies. One more MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) will be nominated to represent the Anglo-Indian community.
The advent of a general election always leads to much enthusiasm and anticipation. The forthcoming election however has been enlivened further by an additional factor. The leading Tamil actor Rajinikanth known as “Superstar” has indicated that he would be forming a new political party in January 2021 to face the hustings in May. Rajinikanth has said that the name of the party and its official launch date in January would be announced on 31 December this year. Since Rajinikanth would be celebrating his 70th birth anniversary on 12 December there is speculation that the popular actor may reveal more details about his future political plans on that red letter day ahead of 31 December.
In keeping with current times where many political leaders and politicians resort to Twitter to make important announcements, the aspiring politician Rajinikanth too made his intention of launching a new party known to the world through tweets. On Thursday 3 December Rajinikanth posted a tweet at the auspicious time of 12.12. In that Tamil language tweet Rajinikanth said: “In the upcoming elections, we will achieve a big victory with the support of the people. A Spiritual politics will emerge in Tamil Nadu that will bring transparency, honesty… a politics with no corruption and one that is free of caste and religious bias.” He further said that “miracles would happen”.
Thereafter media personnel began flocking to the actor’s residence in the upmarket area of Poes Garden in Theynampettai (Teynampet), Chennai. Some hours later Rajinikanth was compelled to conduct an impromptu press conference. It was held in the exterior of his house because of the very large gathering. In that media meet Rajinikanth was very emotional. Rajini – as he is known widely – told journalists that political change was very necessary in Tamil Nadu and that he would only be an instrument of the people to bring about that change. “Political change is very important and the need of the hour. If it doesn’t happen now, it won’t happen ever. Everything needs to be changed.”
He went on to say: “I am just a small instrument. If I win, it is people’s victory. If I lose, it is the people’s loss. I request people to be with me.” Responding to queries about his personal health, the soon-to-be-septuagenarian superstar said: “Everybody knows that I have had a kidney transplant. The natural (body’s) immunity needs to be reduced to enable the body to accept a new organ. However, the body needs immunity to fight COVID-19. This is a big problem. Doctors advised that it was dangerous to meet people and campaign… But then, when I was ill in Singapore, I came back alive because of the prayers of the people. I will be more than happy now if I lose my life for the people. That is why I have decided to take the political party plunge.”
Associated with Rajinikanth at the media conference was the well-known political activist Thamilaruvi Manian and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Tamil Nadu State Intellectual Cell President R. Arjunamoorthy. Rajinikanth said Thamilaruvi Manan would oversee party matters as a “Maetpaarvaiyaalar” (Supervisor) while Arjunamoorthy would be the lynchpin for party activities as an “Orunginaippaalar” (Coordinator).
Arjunamoorthy has supposedly terminated his links with the BJP after he teamed up with Rajini. His personal relationship with several top BJP leaders at both State and National level continues. The maverick Thamilaruvi Manian who has flirted with several political parties in the past has been functioning as a propagandist for Rajinikanth since 2017. He heads an outfit called the ‘Gandhiya Makkal Iyakkam’ (Gandhian People’s Movement) also.
Rajinikanth’s Key Objective
The key objective of Rajinikanth in launching a new political party is political change in Tamil Nadu. Since 1967 the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu has been ruled by political parties subscribing to what is termed as Dravidian ideology.
‘Dravidianism’ in essence espouses economic development, social justice, equality, elimination of caste discrimination, women emancipation, rationalism, secularism, greater cooperation among South Indian states and a Tamil national consciousness.
For more than five decades, no Indian party, neither national nor regional, has been able to rule Tamil Nadu in recent times. Even the Congress party of the Gandhis and Nehrus which ruled in Tamil Nadu for 20 years after Independence from 1947 to 1967 has been unable to regain power in the State for the past 53 years. The ‘Dravidian’ political ideology has been ruling the roost in Tamil Nadu. Either the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) or its alternative the All India Anna-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (AIADMK) have been enjoying power in the State. Currently the AIADMK is in the saddle but the DMK is strongly tipped to do well in 2021.
It appears therefore that Rajinikanth’s underlying motive in his avowed intention of ushering in change is to dislodge the ‘Dravidan’ parties from the seat of power. This has led to much speculation about Rajinikanth being a witting or unwitting instrument of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Although India is ruled by the BJP with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, the Hindu nationalist party has not made an impact in Tamil Nadu. The so-called “Modi wave” is yet to engulf the Dravidian State. As such many suspect Rajinikanth is being used by the BJP to dent ‘Dravidianism’ in Tamil Nadu and accuse the actor of being a Trojan horse.
Rajinikanth’s Political Importance
The political importance of Rajinikanth is so great in Tamil Nadu that the State’s foremost English newspaper ‘The Hindu’ – much respected nationally and internationally – thought it fit to pen an Editorial on the topic. Here is ‘The Hindu’ Editorial of 5 December titled ‘Star turn: On Rajinikanth’s party’:
“Veteran Tamil actor, Rajinikanth, added expectations to years of suspense over his plan of forming a political party, by his tweet on Thursday, that he will launch the party in January. After his announcement in December 2017 that he would form a political party in time to contest in all 234 Assembly constituencies of Tamil Nadu in 2021, his tweets, brief observations and curt replies to journalists’ queries, in the last three years, did not present any coherent view about his policies and programmes. On many occasions, he was seen to be a supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). On a few other occasions,” he sought to distance himself from the party. Mr. Rajinikanth, who has been talking of “spiritual politics”, has, however, chosen to mention, in the tweet, secularism as one of the guiding principles of his new organisation.:
“ Regardless of the eventual outcome of Mr. Rajinikanth’s political project, his move has the potential of facilitating the emergence of a credible third force in the State, where all attempts, since 1977, have ended in failure. At a time when the composition of the coalitions headed by the two big parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is considered a settled matter, Mr. Rajinikanth’s entry might now provide greater room for smaller parties to negotiate into an alliance. Without doubt, there exists a vote share of 10% to 15%, which can be called independent of the influence of the two principal players, going by the data of votes secured by non-AIADMK and non-DMK formations in the last four decades. Mr. Rajinikanth may be tempted to corner the support of this vote bank, but this vote bank is not homogeneous, but one of diverse social, economic, and political composition.”
“Very much like M.G. Ramachandran, M. Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, Mr. Rajinikanth is banking heavily on the intangible asset of charisma. Even some of his poorly made films have made money because of a huge fan following. But this is no guarantor of success in elections in Tamil Nadu. Also, Mr. Edappadi K. Palaniswami’s no-nonsense functioning, as Chief Minister, coupled with his relatively low profile, has helped the AIADMK recover some of the lost ground. The DMK’s M.K. Stalin passed his first major test, post-Karunanidhi, by registering a landslide victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in the State. Notwithstanding all the challenges that he may have to face, Mr. Rajinikanth, by stitching up the right combination of political forces and declaring adherence to long-cherished ideals of the State such as a development-oriented all-inclusive approach, welfarism and social justice, can possibly provide a stiff fight to the established players.”
The Hindu Editorial refers to Rajinikanth’s charisma and compares him to M.G. Ramachandran, M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa. All three of them were former Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers with a cinematic background. While MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa (both from AIADMK) were popular actors, Karunanidhi (from DMK) was a leading screenplay dialogue writer. So huge was Karunanidhi’s appeal that his name used to be displayed at the start when film credits were shown on screen. Viewed against that backdrop, it is very likely that the charismatic appeal of Rajinikanth will help him to do well in electoral politics as in the case of MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa.
Rajinikanth’s Family Background
As stated earlier Rajinikanth will be a septuagenarian on 12 December. Yet the “Superstar,” as he is known, is still the single most popular mass figure among actors in Tamil cinema. Interestingly enough, Rajinikanth, though the most popular actor in Tamil cinema, is ethnically not a Tamil. He is not even a South Indian though born in Bangalore, now known as Bengaluru. Rajinikanth is a Maratha whose family hails from Mavadi Kadepathar in the State of Maharashtra. His given name is Shivaji Rao Gaekwad.
The Gaekwads are of Kshatriya warrior clan lineage. His family moved to Bangalore/Bengaluru in the southern state of Karnataka during the British period. It is now being said that Rajini’s police constable father Ramoji Rao Gaekwad was born in Naachikkuppam near Krishnagiri and that Rajini’s mother Ramabhai was born in a border area of Coimbatore. Both Krishnagiri and Coimbatore are in Tamil Nadu State. It is doubtful whether these claims are correct or simply ‘alternate facts’ aiming to create a ‘Tamil Nadu background’ to the actor for political purposes.
Rajini’s given name at birth Shivaji Rao was derived from the legendary Maratha warrior-king ‘Chatrapathi Shivaji’. Shivaji Rao Gaekwad was born in Bangalore on 12 December 1950. He dropped out of school after completing his secondary education (SSLC) and after doing several odd jobs became a bus conductor. He began acting in Kannada stage plays as a hobby and made quite an impression.
Rajinikanth’s Acting Journey
Encouraged by colleagues and friends he enrolled at the MGR Government Film and Television Training Institute in Madras now known as Chennai in 1973 for a two year course in acting. He passed out in 1975 and was soon provided a major break by renowned Tamil Film Director K. Balachander, who gave him three minor roles in three consecutive films. Shivaji Rao, renamed as Rajinikanth by the Director, made his film debut playing a very small but significant role in Balachander’s ‘Abhoorva Raagangal’ (Rare Melodies) in 1975.
Balachander continued to give Rajinikanth roles in the Tamil and Telugu films directed by him. Other filmmakers too followed suit. In the early stages Rajinikanth played somewhat negative parts. But gradually he began getting positive roles. Soon he started playing lead roles.
Rajini’s actor journey was from villain to anti-hero to hero. Rajinikanth began captivating film goers with his smart appearance, stylish movements, novel mannerisms, rapid manner of dialogue delivery and a striking penchant for uttering punchy one-liners. His stock began to rise from 1980 onwards and very soon the ex-bus conductor’s movies began breaking box-office records. He was dubbed the “Superstar” of Tamil cinema. An interesting aspect of Rajinikanth’s personality is that unlike most cinema stars he does not wear make-up or appear to be young looking in real life. He does not try to lighten his dark tone skin or wear a wig to hide his increasing baldness. He does not even dye his grey hair or beard. Despite exposing his “real looks” as opposed to his “reel looks” publicly the superstar continues to retain his charismatic hold on his adoring masses.
Rajinikanth has in a career spanning more than four decades acted in 167 films. He is currently acting in his 168th film ‘Annaathey’. Over 100 of Rajini’s films were in Tamil but the dusky demi-god has acted in Hindi, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam movies also. Rajinikanth has acted in one English film, ‘Bloodstone’. Most of his films have been money spinners running to packed houses for weeks and weeks. He is arguably the highest paid actor in Indian filmdom and is reportedly paid over Indian Rs. 60 crore and a share of the profits for a film. Rajinikanth is married to Latha Rangachchaary, a Tamil Brahmin Iyengar woman. They have two daughters, Aishwarya and Soundarya, and three grandchildren.
Rajinikanth’s Religious Beliefs
Rajinikanth is a devout Hindu and a follower of the philosophy propounded by the miracle-working scholarly Saint Shree Ragavendhra Swami. Not only has Rajini named the wedding hall he owns in Chennai as ‘Ragavendhra Kalyana Mandapam,’ but has also acted as the holy man in his 100th film ‘Sri Ragavendhrar’ released in 1985.
Moreover, Rajinikanth has a custom of withdrawing frequently to the Himalayas and engaging in meditation. He is also a devotee of Shree Sabarimalai Aiyappan hill temple in Kerala. Rajinikanth has never hesitated to speak publicly about his religious and spiritual beliefs. He has also been supportive of the Modi Government at times. This in turn has created an impression – unfairly perhaps – that Rajinikanth is a kindred soul of the ultra-Hindu rightist ‘Hindutva’ school of thought.
Rajinikanth’s 2017 Announcement
The current media hype over Rajinikanth’s political plunge may create an impression that the actor is announcing his entry into politics for the first time. That is not so. Rajinikanth’s ‘official’ announcement about entering politics was made three years ago on 31 December 2017. What happened then evokes a sense of déjà vu in the current context.
On 31 December 2017, office-bearer representatives of Rajinikanth’s fan club network were summoned for an important meeting at the wedding hall owned by the actor in T’nagar Chennai – Ragavendhra Kalyana Mandapam. Rajinikanth walked on stage clad in his customary white kurta and pyjama. The hall reverberated with applause, cheers, whistles and shouts of “Thalaivaa” (Leader). Rajini started speaking and within a few minutes came the historic announcement: “Naan Arasiyalukku Varuvathu Uruthi” (My entry into politics is certain). His announcement speech of 2017 translated from Tamil is given below:
“To those of you who are giving me life, people of Tamil Nadu, friends in the media, those who are watching me on TV, my love and wishes to you.First, I don’t know how to praise my fans. All of you have been disciplined, without disturbing anyone. This discipline is enough, we can achieve anything”.
“I am not scared of entering politics, I am scared of the media.Even big shots tremble with fear while facing the media, but I am still a baby, imagine how it is for me? Whenever I enter or leave my home, they shove their mics and ask me questions. If I say anything, it becomes a debate.”
“Now, I will come to the point.“Karmanye Vaadhika-raste, Maa Phaleshu Kadachana,” Krishna told Arjuna in Kurukshetra (Mahabharata). “You do your duty, I will take care of the rest. Go to war, if you win you will rule. If you die, you will die a hero.If you don’t go to war, they will call you a coward.I have already finished everything. I just have to shoot the arrow.”
“My entry into politics is certain. (“Naan Arasiyalukku Varuvadhu Urudhi.)This is the compulsion of the times.In the upcoming state assembly polls, I will start my own political party, and contest in all the 234 constituencies in Tamil Nadu. Before that, the local body elections will be held. But there isn’t enough time, so we will not contest in that. As for Parliamentary elections, I will decide when the time comes.”
“I am not entering politics for money or fame. You have given that to me beyond my dreams, a 1000 times over. If I wanted political status, I could have taken the throne in 1996 itself. I refused it, saying I don’t want it. When I did not desire power at 45, do you think I would when I am 65? If I did, am I not a mad man. Will I be eligible to call myself a spiritual person?
“So, if not for political power, then what else?Politics has become very rotten. Democracy has decayed. The political events of Tamil Nadu in the past year has made every person in Tamil Nadu hang their head in shame. People from every other state are laughing at us.”
Rajinikanth’s “Spiritual Politics”
“At this point, if I don’t take decisive action, the guilt that I did not even attempt to do something good in a democratic manner for the people who have given me life, will haunt me till my death. It has to be changed, everything has to be changed. The time for political change has come. System has to be changed. We need truthful, honest, principled, transparent politics, not influenced by caste or religion, we need a spiritual politics(Aanmeeha Arasiyal). That is my goal, my desire and my aim.”
“I cannot do it alone. All Tamil people have to come together and support me.I know this is not easy, to contest elections and win. It s like diving into the deep seas for pearls.Only if we have the grace of God, the love, trust, respect and support of people, can we achieve this. I am fully confident that we will get the grace of God and the support of people.”
“In olden days, when Kings go to war and win, they plunder the coffers of the enemy. The commanders and soldiers will loot the people. Today, in the name of democracy people are being looted by politicians. They come to power and cheat people in several ways. Kings used to plunder foreign countries, here our politicians plunder our own country.This has to be changed, it has to be changed democratically.”
“The party worker is the most important part of any party. It is the party worker who becomes an MLA or MP or CM. But I won’t call them party workers. I don’t want party workers (Katchi Thondargal), I want “Kaavalarhal”(protectors). I want protectors who ensure that if we come to power, the people get what they are entitled to. I want protectors who do not go to MLA, MPs or officers out of self-interest. I want protectors who hold party workers, leaders and officers accountable, when we come to power.”
“I will be the people’s representative who will keep the protectors in check. I will be the representative of the people, who will select the right person for the right position at the right time. We need an army or protectors for this, and we need to create it.I have several thousand fan clubs, in village and cities all across the state. The unregistered ones are twice as many. We need to get the unregistered clubs registered, and unite them all together. This is an important task, and our first task.”
“This is not cinema, this is politics. It is not enough if we change, we need to bring others on board, including youngsters, women and children. Every corner of the state should have our club. This is our first task. Then we have to prepare for the democratic challenge with discipline and decorum.Till then, let’s not talk politics, this includes me. Don’t criticise other political leaders and parties until then. Don’t get into political activism. There are others who are there for that. There are already people in the political lake, and they have to swim otherwise they will drown. We know how to swim, but let’s not swim on the ground. When we get into the pond, we will swim.”
“We will prepare our army, and right before the state elections, we will launch the party, tell the people our plan of action, tell them what we can do and what we can’t, and if we cannot do what we promised, we will resign within 3 years.Truth, hard work and progress is our motto. My principle is to think good, speak good, do good, and good things will happen.Our army will be there in the next state assembly elections.Long Live Tamil Nadu, may the Tamil people progress.Jai Hind.”
It could be seen therefore that Rajinikanth is adhering in 2020 December to what he pledged in December 2017. He is launching a party to contest all seats in Tamil Nadu at the next election. He wants change. He wants to change the system. He wants to replace the current scheme of politics with “Aanmeeha Arasiyal” (spiritual politics). It is unclear as to what Rajinikanth means by spiritual politics. Some of his critics say “Aanmeeha Arasiyal” is another form of Hindutva. The first political party to hail and welcome Rajinikanth’s political party launch was – quite unsurprisingly – the BJP.
Rajinikanth’s Fan Club Network
A unique feature of the relationship between the movie stars of the Indian south and their fans is the proliferation of fan clubs (Rasikar Mandrangal). These clubs would hold special poojas in temples whenever a new movie of their matinee idol was released. Milk would be poured on cut-outs of actors and camphor lit. The clubs hold annual conventions and also participate in social service projects.
“Superstar” Rajinikanth too has an enormous fan club network. So immense was it that the actor stopped sanctioning and ‘officially’ registering fan clubs since 1996-’97. At that time there were over 50,000 fan clubs with a minimum membership of at least 25 each. Though Rajinikanth stopped sanctioning fan clubs since 1997 that has not deterred his rasikas from continuing to form fan clubs. This has resulted in thousands of ‘unofficial’ Rajinikanth fan clubs with millions of members being set up in the past two decades.
The official and unofficial fan clubs together comprise a formidable force. Rajinikanth’s first task after announcing his political entry was the formal regularisation of these fan clubs both official and unofficial into one entity called ‘Rajini Makkal Mandram’ (Rajini Peoples Forum). New entrants were invited to apply. A secretary and staff to coordinate his fan clubs had already been set up This staff was further enhanced and functions broad based. A web site was started in the name of Rajini Makkal Mandram to register new members.It was said that the new membership numbers exceeded a million in the first week itself.
Rajinikanth streamlining and developing his fan clubs into a single co-ordinated entity indicated that the superstar was emulating former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran (MGR) who transformed his fan clubs into party branches when he started his own political party the AIADMK in 1972.
What happened next was rather perplexing. Although the Rajini Peoples Forum was a roaring success with millions of members being organised into a structured entity, Rajinikanth did not follow it up effectively. He kept procrastinating indecisively while the Rajini Peoples Forum seemed to be in a state of virtual limbo. When factionalism raised its head within the Forum, Rajini sacked operatives en masse. At one point all activity reached a standstill but the Forum was not dissolved. When the Rajini Peoples Forum was de-activated, there came a stage where most people thought that Rajinikanth would never ever enter active politics as announced in 2017.
Rajinikanth’s Political Plunge
Finally after much dilly-dallying, oodles of guessing games and perceived vacillation the superstar took the plunge on 3 December and confirmed that he would form a new party in January 2021 to contest elections in May. The name, organisational structure, ideology, political objectives and game plan for the elections would become clearer on 31 December this year. It is only then that an incisive analysis of Rajinikanth’s political course and the future of his political party could be made.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an enhanced version of an article written for the “Political Pulse” Column appearing in the “Daily FT” of December 9th 2020. It can be accessed here: