06 January 2018 10:56:57 IST

A long-time ‘deskie’, Baskar has spent much of his journalism career on the editorial desk. A keen follower of economic and political matters, he likes to view economic issues from a political economy lens as he believes the economic structure of a society is deeply embedded in its political and social ethos. Apart from writing the PolitEco column for BLoC, Baskar writes book reviews and articles on politics, economics and sports for the BL web edition. Reading and watching films are his other interests, though the choice of books and films are rather eclectic.  A keen follower of sports, especially his beloved Tottenham Hotspur FC, Baskar is an avid long-distance runner.  He hopes to learn music some day!

The Thalaivaa makes his entry

Can superstar Rajinikanth change the course of Tamil Nadu politics?

The ‘will-he-won’t-he’ question looming over Tamil Nadu politics was answered unequivocally by Superstar Rajinikanth on the last day of 2017. His announcement of starting a political party and contesting in all the 234 Assembly seats in the next State elections, whenever that happens, sent his fans into a state of delirium.

The ease with which yet another cinema star has made his entry into Tamil Nadu politics has created both euphoria among his fans and dismay among others.

Rajinikanth’s last brush with politics was in 1996, when he was the catalyst for bringing together the now-defunct Tamil Maanila Congress and the DMK for defeating Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK.

At that time, he thundered that if Jayalalithaa came back to power, even God can’t save Tamil Nadu! But after that brief foray, Rajinikanth shied away from taking the plunge and went back to something he is good at — churning out blockbusters.

So what prompted him to take the plunge now? The political vacuum after the demise of Jayalalithaa and the retreat of Karunanidhi due to ill health must certainly have been the overriding factor.

The political turmoil

The AIADMK has been going through a bitter factional fight between Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam on one side and TTV Dhinakaran on the other.

But curiously, the DMK has been unable to take advantage of this turmoil as seen by the results of the RK Nagar by-elections — marred by allegations of widespread voter-bribery. Most observers are baffled that the anti-AIADMK votes did not coalesce towards the DMK. The voters still don’t seem to be enthused by Stalin’s leadership qualities.

It is this political vacuum that Rajinikanth is hoping to fill.

Unique politics

Tamil Nadu’s political trajectory has been unique compared with other States. The State’s politics has always played to a different drum beat, sometimes almost in complete contrast with that of the rest of nation. Tamil Nadu was the first State where regional parties took roots. Its politics has uniquely combined Tamil identity, language, sub-nationalism and ‘populist-welfarist’ economics.

It’s been more than 50 years since a national party won an election in Tamil Nadu. The Congress had high hopes of forming a government in the 1989 elections when the AIADMK was going through a similar churn after the death of MG Ramachandran. The late Rajiv Gandhi, who was then the Prime Minister, addressed several political rallies in the State but it was the DMK that got the voters’ confidence.

Since then, the Congress has always played second fiddle to the Dravidian parties. For the BJP, which is the most powerful and dominant party in the country now holding power in 19 States, including in the North-East, Tamil Nadu poses a unique challenge. The party has been eyeing a foothold this State since the demise of Jayalalithaa. There have been murmurs of the Saffron party piggybacking on Rajinikanth’s popularity, though there has been no word on this from either parties so far.

‘Spiritual politics’

Senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar dismissed this possibility in a recent column. His argument is that Rajinikanth’s fans belong to all religions and he would not risk alienating his Muslim and Christian fans by allying with the BJP.

Though Rajinikanth has not made his ideology or his policy stance clear at the moment, his comment on wanting to create a ‘spiritual politics’ ( aanmiga arasiyal ) has evoked much comment — both positive and negative. The critics say this remark refers to a dangerous tilt towards communal politics, while others choose to take a more allegorical view, saying it refers to ‘clean’ and ethical politics.

But given the moribund state of affairs in Tamil Nadu, Rajinikanth certainly has his task cut out. For a State that prides itself on its industrial progress and urbanisation, investments have been languishing for a few years now, with investors preferring neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

Corruption, or to use a more fancy term ‘rent-seeking’, is at a historical high, leading to disturbingly high levels of cynicism and apathy from the people.

The personality cult

Dravidian politics, despite its anti-castetist, egalitarian and welfarist ethos, has ironically been susceptible to the politics of personality cult. The fallout of this has been the spawning of leaders with an authoritarian streak and rampant corruption. In fact, the current political morass in the State is a result of the late Jayalalithaa’s ‘Amma image’ and her reluctance to groom a second rung of leadership.

Rajinikanth’s image is in sync with this politics of the personality cult, which is what is worrying for many observers.

Democratic politics is as much about style and spectacle as it is about substance. Though Rajinikanth will bring in large doses of style and spectacle to Tamil Nadu politics, whether there will be a matching amount of substance is the million-dollar question.

Only ‘Thalaivaa’ can provide the answers.