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Tamil Nadu and Its Discontents

As two film stars rush in to fill a political vacuum, the future direction of the state remains uncertain.

It has been a tumultuous two years in Tamil Nadu with the death of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader and former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, as well as the gradual withdrawal of nonagenarian leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) M Karunanidhi from public life. This has created a new vacuum in the polity. In a state where the cinematic world has long been a breeding ground for possible political leaders and where the line between reel and real life has been rather thin, it surprised no one that matinee idols Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan would stake their claims to fill that political vacuum.

In the past, political contestation in Tamil Nadu has been largely limited to the two Dravidian parties with other forces, including national parties and long-established parties with specific social bases hitching themselves to either of these parties’ bandwagons during elections. The Dravidian parties also perfected a system of patronage to go along with welfare-oriented governance, that included entrenched corruption, to consolidate themselves and remain dominant. They managed to effectively subordinate parties such as the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state despite supporting them at the centre in the past. But their system of patronage—consistent even as the Dravidian parties alternated in power—has always had its discontents.

Film actor Vijayakanth’s surprise showing after his entry into politics in 2005—his party, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida
Kazhagam won close to 10% of the popular vote in assembly and Lok Sabha elections that it contested for the first time—reflected the yearning for an alternative among a substantive chunk of the electorate. Both Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan seek to emulate that performance by their compatriot a decade ago, but they are trying to do that in different ways. The former, who enjoys the image of a “superstar” and has legions of fans in the state, has forever teased the possibility of entering politics. In 1996, he had taken a public position against the AIADMK after Jayalalithaa’s first term, fanning discontent against the government’s high-handedness and corruption. But he never took the formal plunge into politics. In recent years, he has evinced a keen interest to bring a new dimension to the political milieu—banking on his “spirituality” and his popular appeal. This emphasis on personal religiosity and individual leadership had endeared him to right-wing forces in the state with fellow travellers of the BJP seeking to appropriate him for the furtherance of their cause—a futile one so far in a state with few takers for the politics of Hindutva.

Rajinikanth, however, tried to steer clear of suggesting any alliance or closeness to the BJP, limiting his foray to near-empty rhetoric on good governance and urging his fan base to aid in party-building in order to contest in all 234 constituencies in the state. He has avoided taking a public position on any issue, and has not professed any ideology. But he suggested that he wants to emulate the success of M G Ramachandran, who broke away from the DMK and built a formidable AIADMK without any ideological moorings. There is also the lingering suspicion that Rajinikanth could be the carrier of a personality cult that will yield space to the BJP.

Kamal Haasan, on the other hand, has a reputation of being a versatile actor, and is popular for playing a variety of challenging roles on screen. He does not have the same mass appeal as Rajinikanth but is respected for being an outstanding thespian. Unlike Rajinikanth, he had never shown any intention to enter the political fray until recently. Yet in the past, he has been vocal about endorsing and propagating the ideological positions of the early Dravidian and rationalist movements on atheism and progressivism. In the last year or so, as Kamal Haasan firmed up his entry into politics, he has tried to portray himself as a centrist who would adhere to the politics of pragmatism, naming his party the Makkal Neethi Maiyam (Peoples’ Justice Centre). Unlike Rajinikanth, he has clearly taken a position against communal politics, declaring his opposition to the BJP. Kamal Haasan has also been vocal on various issues—farmer distress, water sharing, environmental issues—but has steered clear of taking a steady ideological position.

All said, the key reason for the entry of these cine-artists into the political fray has been the disarray in the AIADMK following Jayalalithaa’s death and the increasing unpopularity of the ruling government. The DMK’s reliance on Karunanidhi’s extended family for leadership has also not allowed it to become the sole alternative to a fading AIADMK. For many years, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, while being personally close friends, had taken different paths to “stardom.” The former did so by the force of his personality and acting quirks, the latter by his oeuvre that appealed to the discerning viewer. In their political avatars, they mirror similar differences. It remains to be seen as to who will be successful in a state that is fast becoming a middle-income economy and is yearning for a steady political direction to hone its potential.

Updated On : 19th Mar, 2018

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