Rajinikanth plays MGR card: Can actor win elections by selling 'alternative Thalaivar' image to AIADMK votebank?

In the very last bit of the Kaala teaser that released recently, Rajinikanth's character is seen saying, "Indha Karikaalan oda muzhu rowdy thanatha neenga pakala la, paapinga (You have not seen Karikaalan, the complete rowdy yet. You will)."

On Monday evening, Rajinikanth gave a glimpse of the killer instinct he could summon. In a speech that was both entertaining and blunt, the superstar of Tamil cinema positioned himself as the inheritor to the MGR legacy. The occasion was apt — the unveiling of a statue of the late chief minister at the MGR Educational and Research Institute in Chennai. By the time he ended his speech, he may have left many an AIADMK leader worried.

Superstar Rajinikanth addresses a gathering in Chennai on Monday. PTI

Superstar Rajinikanth addresses a gathering in Chennai on Monday. PTI

It does not need a very crafty brain to understand Rajinikanth's political strategy. It is obvious that the politician-in-the-making has done his homework and realised that the easiest way to make an immediate impact is to target the AIADMK votebank in Tamil Nadu. Since J Jayalalithaa's demise, the party has been ridden with factionalism and infighting. It is clear the present leadership of the party will not be able to retain the 41 percent vote share that it captured under Jayalalithaa in May 2016, if elections were held today.

What Rajinikanth is doing is to sell himself as an alternative Thalaivar to the AIADMK votebank, and its cadre. Admitting he has entered politics at a time when there is a political vacuum in Tamil Nadu, he made no bones about his ambition. The way to an AIADMK-ian's heart is through praise of MGR and Rajinikanth played on that psyche by emphasising how close he was to the Makkal Thilagam (People's Hero).

"No one can become another MGR. But I believe the people's rule he provided can be done by me as well,'' said Rajinikanth.

Rajinikanth not only attributed his happy marriage with Latha to MGR, he also credited him with having played a major role in ensuring the construction of his Raghavendra Mandapam in Chennai. Going back in time to 1978, when the actor was hospitalised due to a nervous breakdown, the actor said MGR, who was the chief minister then, would call up the hospital himself to enquire about the actor's health.

What the actor is doing, ironically, is trying and dismantling the political structure that was established by MGR. Winning elections, Rajinikanth's political friends would have told him, is all about taking away someone else's vote. Rajinikanth's principal target, it is obvious, is the AIADMK. He would also be banking on the fact that the religious AIADMK lot would find synergy with his God-fearing persona.

The advantage Rajinikanth has is that people cutting across party lines are his fans. By choosing to mouth platitudes about both MGR and M Karunanidhi, he is trying to wean away those admirers. By doing so, Rajinikanth is also suggesting that the present leadership of the AIADMK and even the DMK, is not of the same class it was under its previous greats.

The question is whether the MGR card will really work for Rajinikanth. It has been 30 years since MGR passed away and Jayalalithaa, despite being seen as his protege both in Kollywood and politics, worked to reduce his legacy to posters, statues and cutouts. During her reign at the AIADMK, she encouraged a personality cult around herself, with MGR only a name to be invoked to get votes from his admirers. The AIADMK of today is more of a Jayalalithaa party than one in the image of the man who established it.

But what cannot be denied is that there still exists among the older voters in rural Tamil Nadu who have seen the MGR era, a loyalty factor. These are people who voted for MGR even when he was on the hospital bed in the US, unable to speak. Rajinikanth is casting himself as a MGR favourite, to dip into this votebank.

The actor is also positioning himself as different from the rest of the unabashed political breed. In the face of criticism that his fans had plastered the entire stretch to the university with his banners and hoardings, despite a high court order against posters of living persons, Rajinikanth admitted they had crossed a limit and asked his supporters to desist from doing so in the future. The AIADMK leaders, despite the death of a youth in Coimbatore last year, had refused to fall in line.

However, for the more informed voter, a return to the MGR era comes with its attendant risks. It would imply a non-questioning electorate, that is swayed by sheer star power, blind faith and a belief that reel is real. Tamil Nadu does not have a clue to Rajinikanth's political ideology or his position on contentious issues. The keys to Fort St George cannot be handed over without a proper background check.

Then there is the BJP — the party that is suspected to be the puppeteer behind Rajinikanth. AC Shanmugam, the chancellor of the MGR Educational Institute and the person who organised the event, was the BJP candidate from Vellore in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It raises questions about whether Rajinikanth is merely a proxy for the BJP.

It is also quite likely that Rajinikanth's stories of his proximity to MGR will be contested because versions of those who were in positions of power at that time suggest the two weren't really as close as the actor made it out to be. The AIADMK is also unlikely to let him get away by portraying the present leadership as no good.

Watch this space for more 'rowdyism'... err, politics.

Published Date: Mar 06, 2018 09:21 AM | Updated Date: Mar 06, 2018 11:00 AM

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