05 January 2018 15:45:45 IST

Can a personal brand win an election?

Superstar Rajinikanth is the latest silver screen hero to take the plunge into politics

December 31, 2017 was a day for fireworks, celebrations, and popping of champagne corks in most parts of the world. However, for the political leaders in Tamil Nadu (or at least for some of them) alarm bells began ringing!

Rajinikanth, known around the world as “Superstar”, finally announced that he will launch a political party. Mind you, he has been threatening to do this for as long as I can remember, so the announcement didn’t come a moment too soon. Let’s not forget that Rajinikanth is from the South India , where there is a unique culture in which people from tinseltown make it big as political leaders; whether it was NT Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh, or MGR and Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu.

At the risk of being slaughtered, thanks to the internet, I think Rajini is perhaps a bigger brand than the doyens of old. But the question is, will his personal charisma and brand lead him to power, even as he vows to contest from all 234 assembly seats in Tamil Nadu in the forthcoming elections?

Political leaders can be brands

The world has seen several political brands, be it Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Gandhi, John F Kennedy or more recently, Narendra Modi, they all had strong brand associations. Lincoln stood for equality of blacks; Churchill was stubborn and refused to give up; Gandhi stood for non-violence, and so on.

Rajinikanth’s strongest association is his ‘style’, which may or may not cut much ice with the political masses. But I am sure he has the following to cause some disquiet amongst his opponents. He has to refine his positioning and offering, which has a greater relevance for voters.

Promise, big promise, effectively worded is what moves the masses. Remember “blood, sweat and tears?” “ Garibi hatao ”, that Indira Gandhi used to great effect, “Labour isn’t working” which swept Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party to power, or “ achche din aane wale hain ” that ensured a Modi landslide (even if there is no talk of that now).

Similarly, if Rajini is to follow in the footsteps of MGR and Jayalalithaa, he has to craft his own positioning that will be a much lower common denominator than the spiritualism plank that he has taken to launch his party. I am sure the king of punch dialogues that Tamil Nadu loves will come up with his own slogan for the future of his party.

The time is right

Successful brands always seem to gauge a gap in the market. There is a crying need for them; and that’s where Tamil Nadu is right now. With the passing of Jayalalithaa and the continuing illness of M Karunanidhi, there seems to be a complete void in leadership.

The people of the south India, particularly in Tamil Nadu, seem to strongly believe that they need film heroes and heroines to save them! What bigger hero than the ‘Baasha’ to save the people of Tamil Nadu?

It is also in the same breath that we need to speak of another film star — Kamal Haasan, who has also started a political party, perhaps only on Twitter. But I am sure he realises the opportunity and the gaping void in Tamil Nadu politics that is yearning for leadership and direction.

What of the future?

I am hardly a soothsayer and we all know the hazards of making forward-looking statements, particularly in the stormwaters that Indian politics can be. Merely launching a new party or great credentials may not be enough. Rajini has to demonstrate that he understands politics as well as he understands films. He needs to find a position that is better crafted than the interesting platform of spiritualism. He needs to have a proper team, as fans might give you loyalty but they are yet unproven in politics or administrative capability. Rajinikanth needs a strong promise that will click with the people who may be disillusioned with the Dravidian clique and the fact that Tamil Nadu is no longer the dominant state it was. Clearly, the Dravidian oligopoly is not working.

Tamil pride and anti-Hindi as clarion calls have outlived their usefulness. Sadly, the Tamilian psyche seems to believe that giving and accepting bribes is okay as long as the job is done. However difficult this may be, Rajini must change the passive acceptance of wrongdoing which is rapidly dragging the state down.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

It is too convenient to expect dramatic things to happen overnight. But given the increasing discontent in the state, and the disenchantment of the people, perhaps the time is right for personal branding to come to the fore.

Maybe Rajini can take a leaf out of MGR’s book. MGR would never drink or smoke in movies and women always wooed him! Every Tamilian completely believed the screen persona of MGR and thought that he could do no wrong and eventually voted him to power. Rajini has similar credentials. He is a decent guy, God-fearing and free of controversies. More than anything else, he is a leader with a large following.That might tilt the balance, just .

So let’s wait to see what the people of Tamil Nadu have to say about the latest personal brand in politics.