The Asian Voice

Will popular actor Rajnikanth make it in politics? The Statesman columnist

Indian cinema icon Rajnikanth announced his formal entry into Tamil Nadu's tumultuos politics on Dec 31, 2017.
Indian cinema icon Rajnikanth announced his formal entry into Tamil Nadu's tumultuos politics on Dec 31, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

In his commentary, the paper says the actor will soon realise that being a hero in movies is very different, and difficult, from being one in real life.

Ever since the perceived degeneration of politics into a virtual cesspool, as Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan called the profession after a brief period of entry and exit, Indians in general have been fascinated by the idea of a knight in shining armour wielding a broom to cleanse the Augean stables.

Indeed, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) - the ruling party in Delhi state - chose the broom as its election symbol to denote its intention of sweeping away the accumulated crime and corruption in politics and society before realising that the task was beyond its capability.

Now, another warrior has appeared with the promise to do what others have failed to do.

But, irrespective of whether Rajnikanth succeeds or not, it may be worthwhile to understand how some of the others who journeyed from the reel world to the real one fared in their endeavour.

The most spectacular performance among them was by Andhra Pradesh's film star-turned-politician, N.T. Rama Rao, who swept the seemingly well-entrenched Congress out of power in the state in 1983 by invoking Telugu pride after then chief minister, T. Anjaiah, was publicly ill-treated by prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Rajnikanth, in contrast, has been rather timid.

For a start, he took a long time to make up his mind to test the waters and finally did so when he convinced himself that the political vacuum in Tamil Nadu caused by former chief minister Jayalalitha's death and M. Karunanidhi's (also a former chief minister) retirement from active politics have left the field wide open for him (and another aging film star, Kamal Haasan) to try their luck in a new venture.

However, his first few statements after taking the plunge have shown that the hype accompanying his entry is unwarranted, for he is a typical representative of the naïve commoner (like popular yoga guru Baba Ramdev who also once toyed with the idea of entering politics) who believes that a fan following in his present profession is enough to make an impression in a new one.

The belief apparently is that the general dissatisfaction with the run-of-the-mill politician has left enough scope for a new entrant to make a mark.

To an extent, there is something to be said for such an attitude because, as could be seen in the initial success of the untested Arvind Kejriwal in 2015 when he comprehensively routed the hugely successful Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) of the previous year's general election in the Delhi assembly polls.

Rajnikanth probably wants to replicate that particular showing of the AAP leader based on the popular faith in the ability of an untainted novice who is not burdened by the presence of power brokers in his party (as Rajiv Gandhi said about the Congress in 1985) to undertake the task of spring-cleaning the "system".

Aware of this mood, Rajnikanth has said that he intends to change the system. But this very assertion underlines his inexperience and naivety, for he does not appear to know what exactly he wants to do.

Does he intend to bypass the entrenched bureaucracy which is usually held responsible for obstructing the administration's sympathetic outreach to the average person ?

Or does he want an even closer political supervision of the officials than what is currently prevalent although such an approach can have a stifling effect on officialdom by curbing initiative ? Or does he want all the politicians in his party to be first-timers in the profession like himself ? Is this his dream of a brave new world ?

However, even more problematic is Rajnikanth's wish to introduce an element of spirituality in governance.

To the cynic, the comment smacks of an ideological proximity to the BJP, which is never shy of mixing politics with religion, especially that of the Hindus, with its pitch for the Ram temple and the imposition of dietary and other fetishes of orthodox Hinduism.

It is this suspicion of Rajnikanth's closeness to the saffron dispensation which made a commentator describe the film star as the BJP's Trojan horse for enabling the essentially north Indian party to secure a foothold in Tamil Nadu.

As of now, the BJP has been banking on the AIADMK to make its presence felt in the state. This relationship goes back to the time when Jayalalitha was a partner in Atal Behari Vajpayee's government.

But considering that the AIADMK is currently at sixes and sevens in the aftermath of Jayalalitha's death, enabling the little known T.T.V. Dinakaran to notch up an impressive election success on the basis of being the nephew of Sasikala, Jayalalitha's longtime companion, the BJP will be glad to use Rajnikanth as a crutch to hobble into Tamil politics.

It is not impossible that disillusioned with both the AIADMK (that was affiliated to Jayalalitha) and the DMK (affiliated to Karunanidhi), which have ruled the roost for half a century, the people of Tamil Nadu will give Rajnikanth a chance just as the people of Delhi reposed their faith in Kejriwal rather than in the established parties.

But the outcome may be no different from what it has been in the national capital, where the previously voluble Kejriwal has currently fallen silent probably because of the realisation that he has squandered a golden opportunity to embark on a successful political career if only because he simply didn't have it in himself to be a "leader".

Rajnikanth, too, may realise that a hero in politics has to be vastly different from the one in films because his role entails a hard grind in building up an organisation along with possessing the intellectual calibre to grasp the intricate and ever-changing social and economic realities and countering the inevitable barbs and jibes from the opponents.

It is a job which is vastly different from the one where the script is written and the storyline is known.

The writer is a former assistant editor with the paper and contributes regularly on current affairs. The Statesman is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media.