Take 1: Polladhavan (1980s)
Rajinikanth, a bottle of whiskey in one hand, sways through a palatial house crooning to his heroine “Edhedho nadakattum engeyo kidakattu, enakenna unakenna di” (Let anything happen anywhere, what is it to me, what is it to you?)
That line summed up the attitude to life of Shivaji Rao Gaikwad, a young Marathi man from Bangalore who, with his compelling acting style quickly set about to establish his dominance on an industry and a people who embraced him as their own. And though this love story between Rajinikanth and the Tamil people continued for three decades, bringing the “Superstar” money, fame and (what many thought) a legitimate claim to leadership of the state, his attitude summed up in those lines from Polladhavan, never changed.
On several issues, including the Kaveri water dispute with the state of his origin, Karnataka, and the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, the hero was drawn reluctantly into the vortex of politics. Though his besotted fan base saw him as the voice of Tamilians, he himself was uncomfortable in stepping outside his limited sphere of films. This discomfort obvious from his body language as he sat with other celebrities on the protest stage – a body language that clearly said “what is it to me, what is it to you?”
Take 2: The False Start (1990s)
In the aftermath of a huge corruption scandal starring the other big movie star of the state, J Jayalalitha, the reluctant Superstar is given some ill-advised counsel to voice his displeasure with her conduct. Many take this as a signal that the man has decided, at last, to enter politics. His fan base is ecstatic. Some in the fan clubs see this as their ticket to legislative office and ministership. They trumpet their loud support “Poruthathu podhum thalaiva, pongi ezhu” (Enough of waiting O leader, rise like the waves).
The move seriously backfires as Jaya comes roaring back to power. Rajini has now earned the wrath of a woman not known to forgive easily. For the next several years he keeps a low profile, in what many think, is a quid pro quo with Jaya to keep out of politics in order to earn her reluctant forgiveness.
Take 3: The Saffron figurehead (2016-2017)
As Jaya lies in her Chennai hospital bed, fighting for her life, the saffron think-tank in Delhi sits and makes its calculations. An amazing two year run with Modi at the helm has made the BJP the dominant force in most parts of the country, including the East. But the South remains unconquered, as it has been since ancient times. For the BJP and the RSS nothing could be a bigger political achievement than to break into Tamil Nadu, the last bastion of the Dravidians. Though the BJP has been able to breach the South with a quick stint in Karnataka, its hold over that state is replete with uncertainties. Its presence in the two Andhra states is through political proxies. And the mighty red bastion of Kerala has stopped the saffron surge in its tracks. So an entry into Tamil Nadu is mouth-wateringly tempting for the mandarins of Nagpur. Their eyes fall on what they believe is one of their own who has conquered the Tamil hearts.
The BJPs machinations start well before Jaya is finally laid to rest. Sharp sangh emissaries contact “orphaned” AIADMK legislators like OPS to convince them that the DMK will swallow them up if they don’t throw in their lot with the saffron party. Numbers are crunched and “irritants” like the once-powerful Sasikala are sidelined. The game plan unfolds slowly – the Superstar will be the centre piece of a grand strategy and assembled behind him will be all the elected legislators of the AIADMK. But the BJP knows one truth – to bring Rajini into the BJP would be to bring an elephant into the room. His persona is too big to hold in the sparse decision making structure of the Sangh Parivar. He must be a “controllable asset” with a party of his own, owing allegiance to the NDA.
To all neutral observers it seems that this deal has been done and dusted. The timing of Rajini’s big entrance into the political scene, the only secret.
Postscript: The story so far reads like the script of a Tamil movie, where the superstar hero takes the reins and all is well thereafter. But reality waits to give a bitter twist to the plot. As the BJP is soon to find out, Rajinikanth’s once awesome persona is now faded and old. His fan base has shrunk with large desertions to younger stars like Ajith and Vijay. And Tamil Nadu has matured immensely in the last three decades. Where once, the state went into raptures at the sight of a movie star, education and technology has made people politically suave. The Rajini story may well end up being a warning to movie stars in other parts of the country that politics is not their cup of tea.