Enter Rajinikanth: Is TN ready for ‘spiritual politics’?

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Superstar Rajinikanth’s plunge into active politics on December 31, 2017, is the single most important development in the affairs of state in Tamil Nadu in recent years. The death of the then Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa, on December 5, 2016, left a vacuum which has proved hard to fill. The ruling AIADMK, the party that MGR founded and Jayalalithaa led after him, is riven by feuding factions. In the run-up to the arrest of VK Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s confidante and aide, a sordid drama of political intrigue and chicanery unfolded on the vacated political centre stage of the southern state.

Clearly, the people of Tamil Nadu are fed up. They desperately need a change. The veteran DMK supremo and five-time chief minister, M Karunanidhi, is not only 93 and wheelchair bound, but not in the best of health. M Stalin, his anointed successor and third son from second wife, Dayalu Ammal, hasn’t quite won the hearts of the Tamil masses. “Thalaiva” — literally, headman, but colloquially the equivalent of boss — as Rajnikanth is popularly known — couldn’t have chosen a better moment to throw his hat into the ring. On the eve of his declaration, he alluded to the Bhagavad Gita, “In Kurukshetra, Krishna told Arjun, ‘Put in your efforts. I will take care of the rest. … Our army will participate in the upcoming democratic war.”

While some parties, such as the BJP, have welcomed Rajni’s announcement, others, such as DMK, criticised it. The latter’s reaction is predictable: Rajini’s entry represents the biggest threat yet to Dravidian politics, which has dominated the state for over half a century. Indeed, for a Dravidian politician, quoting from the Gita would be unthinkable. But the rise of these parties owes much to their shrewd exploitation of the most popular form of entertainment, cinema. Since the epochal election of 1967 which brought CN Annadurai to power, all the major political figures in Tamil Nadu politics have been connected with the film industry. If Rajini becomes Tamil Nadu’s next CM, no one should be surprised. DMK sowed the wind; now they have to reap the whirlwind.

But what are Thalaiva’s chances? One way to estimate them is to consider the clout of his 50000-plus fan associations. If each association brings in 2000 votes, the superstar has an assured 10 million votes under his belt, arguably more than enough to swing an election in his favour. No wonder, one of his first acts as a politician was to announce a website to register all his fans. The latter, on their part, are also keen to cash in on their idol’s popularity in terms of political patronage and benefits of office. We shouldn’t be surprised if Rajini tests the waters in the upcoming Karnataka assembly elections in 2018 itself. His popularity in Bengaluru, his hometown, is immense.

Rajni has clarified that he is not power hungry; no doubt, he had many opportunities earlier, but desisted from entering politics. Why now? As he put it, “The politics of our country is rotten. Democracy has fallen apart. The political events that happened in Tamil Nadu in the last year have made everyone hang their heads in shame. Tamil Nadu has been made a laughing stock by the people in other states. If I don’t make this decision now, I will feel guilty until my last breath.” He is sure that “we need to usher in change.” He has also spelled out the nature of the change: “We need a spiritual approach to politics. … The need of the hour … is an honest and transparent system of governance to uproot corruption and practise ‘spiritual politics.’”

The idea of “spiritual politics” immediately brings to mind the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi. Bapu wished to purify politics from the very start. In one of his earliest speeches on returning to India in 1915, he appealed to his audience, “You and I have to act on the political platform from a spiritual side and if this is done we should conquer the conquerors.” During his visit to England in 1931 for the Round Table conference, Gandhi reiterated, “although to all appearances my mission is political….its roots are — if I may use the term — spiritual….I claim that at least my politics are not divorced from morality, from spirituality, from religion.” Needless to say, Gandhi’s dharmik politics struck a sympathetic chord in the Indian masses. Will Rajini’s appeal draw a similar response in Tamil Nadu? Gandhi had famously said, “politics encircles us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out…”

If he were to succeed, therefore, Thalaiva would do well to avoid the errors of judgement and costly failures of his charismatic predecessors.

The author is a poet and professor at JNU. Views expressed are personal.