By Saarthak Anand
Politics in the southern state of Tamil Nadu is getting more interesting by the day. And that is not counting the fast-unfolding sequence of events that led to movie star Rajinikanth’s decision to form a political party. Addressing a large gathering of supporters in Chennai’s Raghavendra Kalyana Mandapam on the 31st of December, the superstar put decades of speculation to rest and announced that his party would contest all the seats in the next Assembly elections.
An unforeseen political vacuum
Among the earliest to congratulate Rajinikanth was fellow Tamil superstar Kamal Haasan, who has also decided to take the political plunge. The two actors’ entry into politics has been made possible by the vacuum on the political scene in the state. Following the demise of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, no active politician in Tamil Nadu commands the kind of personality cult that the state has been accustomed to.
Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch M Karunanidhi is in his nineties, in weak health, and is no longer involved in everyday political affairs. His son M K Stalin hardly possesses the same kind of charisma and has failed to inspire the cadre of his own party. Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party has experienced divisions in the aftermath of her death, which has only intensified with the result of the by-poll in R K Nagar, Jayalalithaa’s former constituency. In what was seen as a battle for Amma’s legacy, T T V Dhinakaran—nephew of Jayalalithaa’s aide Sasikala—won by a resounding margin. This was a major setback to the ruling faction led by Chief Minister E Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O Paneerselvam. The two leaders, who have sidelined Dhinakaran, retaliated by sacking dozens of Dhinakaran sympathisers.
BJP smells an opportunity
The prevailing factionalism has also provided the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with an opportunity to make a foray into the state. Having peaked in its traditional spheres of influence in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the party needs all the seats it can get in the state. BJP’s candidate in the R K Nagar by-poll got lesser votes than the ‘None of the Above’ option.
Despite tireless efforts by BJP brass, the AIADMK has failed to solve its internal issues, and is, therefore, becoming increasingly unpopular due to poor governance. This was highlighted recently by the lack of preparation for the Ockhi cyclone, as well as the transport workers’ strike. In a significant development, former Telecom Minister A Raja, and Karunanidhi’s daughter M Kanimozhi were acquitted by a special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court in the 2G case. This could pave the way for a potential alliance between the BJP and the DMK, who have worked together in the past. Notably, in early November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an unexpected visit to the DMK supremo’s residence, more than a month before the 2G verdict was announced.
Role of the Dravidian movement
Tamil politics has long revolved around the Dravidian movement. The movement was inspired by social reformer E V Ramsamy, who encouraged the non-Brahmins—called Dravidians—to abandon the Vedic culture and revert to ancient Dravidian civilisation. Brahmins are branded by Dravidians as “outsiders” and “Aryan colonialists”, and are blamed for introducing such alien practices as the caste system.
A prominent feature of the movement was the propagation of the Tamil language. Cinema became one of the main engines for promoting Dravidian ideals. However, as the people who work in the film industry begin to spread their political wings, politics is starting to acquire an increasingly Dravidian shape.
Despite all the lingering uncertainty, it would not be presumptuous to conclude that the hegemony of Dravidian politics is going to face a strong challenge in the near future. The prevailing chaos in the two dominant parties, in addition to the emergence of two popular faces, has left the field wide open for all sorts of possible transformations. While Kamal Haasan’s focus is on clean governance and anti-corruption, Rajinikanth has added a spiritual flavour to the political discourse.
Closeness between Rajinikanth and BJP
In the past, Kamal Haasan has supported views that are contrary to the BJP’s official positions. In November, he wrote in a Tamil magazine, “You can’t say there is no Hindu terror. Earlier, Hindu extremists held dialogue; now they indulge in violence.” This was criticised by the saffron party. Rajinikanth, on the other hand, is known to be close to the BJP. While announcing his entry into the political arena, he said, “It is time for political change. We have to create a spiritual politics with no caste and religious barriers. My cornerstones would be honesty, transparency, secularity, and spiritual politics.” Tamil Nadu BJP president Tamilisai Soundarajan wasted little time in claiming that the actor would ally with her party for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. “His spiritual politics is nearer to Modi’s than to anyone else’s in Tamil Nadu or outside”, tweeted Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh(RSS) ideologue S Gurumurthy.
Rajinikanth’s notion of spiritual politics stands in stark contrast to the anti-god Dravidian politics that has been dominant in the state for the last six decades. Furthermore, Rajinikanth’s speech was laced with references to the Gita. From C N Annadurai to E V Ramasamy, M G Ramachandran, and Karunanidhi, the Dravidian movement has become ubiquitous in Tamil Nadu. This is one of the primary reasons why the saffron party has thus far been unable to make an impact in the state.
Leaders need more than a career in cinema
There is little doubt that a huge leadership void currently exists in Tamil Nadu politics. However, who will go on to fill it is far from clear. A parallel can be drawn to the early 70s when M G Ramachandran (MGR) exploded into the mainstream political sphere after he was expelled from the DMK. While the split in the DMK was expected to aid the Congress, it was MGR’s AIADMK which went on to capture the public’s attention, tapping into the anti-DMK mood. MGR’s entry was therefore much more than a split in the DMK; it led to a paradigm shift in Tamil Nadu politics.
The fresh entrants in the state’s politics would also do well to keep in mind the fate of Vijayakanth, another filmstar-turned-politician. His Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) party won a greater number of seats than the DMK in the 2011 Assembly polls. But the party’s popularity soon fizzled out, with Vijayakanth losing his own deposit in the 2016 elections.
While both Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth enjoy immense popularity, they have yet to develop a significant network or make clear their stances on many contentious issues. Rajinikanth has a strong fan-club which could be of great use in the development of his party. MGR came to power in the state in 1977 on the basis of his superstardom. However, the status he enjoys is no longer a guarantee for political success. His proximity to the BJP may turn out to be a disadvantage.
The state will soon see an addition of 37 lakh new voters, who will just turn 18 in 2019. A further 23 lakh will be added by 2021. There is widespread fury against what many in Tamil Nadu see as a North Indian attempt at hegemony. This was on display during the 2017 pro-Jallikattu protests, when numerous apolitical youth groups took to the streets across the state against a Supreme Court order to ban the indigenous sport of bull-taming. The protests were leaderless, and politicians were told to stay away. This is where the problem lies for BJP and Rajinikanth. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP is seen primarily as a party of the north and continues to be unacceptable to large sections of the public. There is a real possibility that the superstar may be tarnished with the same brush.
The rapidly evolving landscape
For Congress, the south is going to be essential in any plan for a nationwide revival. While it is currently in power in Karnataka and has a healthy presence in Kerala, the rise of Dravidian politics has left the national party as a fringe player in Tamil Nadu. DMK is usually considered to be a natural ally of India’s Grand Old Party and was a part of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. The two contested the 2016 elections as allies. BJP’s recent overtures to Karunanidhi, however, have left Congress worried. It needs to keep the DMK in the UPA fold, even as it continues to revitalise its own presence in the state.
Even the most astute political observer could be forgiven for failing to keep up with the rapidly changing political landscape in Tamil Nadu. It can, however, be safely concluded that neither of the two principal national parties is going to be able to establish a dominant stature in the state anytime soon. Tamil Nadu has had a unique disconnect with national politics, which continues to be true today. While there is certainly space for various permutations of alliances between regional and national parties, it is the local players—traditional and new—who are going to command politics in the state for some time to follow.
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