Tamil superstar Rajinikanth's possible entry into politics has been the longest running trailer of an imaginary blockbuster in Tamil Nadu. Unveiled in 1995, it's been running for 22 years, teasing the public imagination every now and then without delivering on the original promise, however cryptic it had been.
He's at it again, repeating almost all the lines he had said more than two decades ago, yet not clearly spelling out if he is really close to taking the plunge. Every time he appeared tantalisingly close to entering politics, he would make it absolutely obscure, but not without some obvious hints that his options were open. On Monday, when he spoke to his fans, after a long gap of nearly ten years, he yet again said the same things that he had been saying all along, but with an added element - that if he ever got into politics, he wouldn't allow people who want to make money anywhere near him.
To some political observers and fans, this extra clause is an indication that he is ready now. The question before them is if he would join hands with an existing political party or start his own.
Unsurprisingly, this too is a 22 year old question and had been answered. In a rare interview on Doordarshan in 1995, he had said that he would never join a political outfit, and if it came to that, he would set up his own party. On Monday, however, he didn't go that far.
Although there's nothing new in Rajini's new political teaser, its context gives it a new meaning. Unlike in the past, particularly in 1996 when he directly took on a hugely unpopular J. Jayalalithaa who was seeking a second term as the chief minister, there's a huge leadership vacuum in Tamil Nadu. With Jayalalithaa gone and her rancorous rival M Karunanidhi of DMK practically out of active politics, the battlefield in the state suddenly looks empty. The DMK's new patriarch MK Stalin is a formidable leader indeed, but not as big as Karunanidhi, that too without a matching opponent.
This is a new opportunity that never existed for the past quarter-century during which the actor periodically made politically loaded statements — called punchlines in Tamil movie parlance — both on and off screen. The closest he was to any political possibility was in 1996 with those famous words that "even gods can't save Tamil Nadu if Jayalalithaa came back to power".
He was much younger, slowing down in his movie career which was otherwise prolific, and the entire state was behind him. Still, he didn't take the plunge possibly because of two reasons: one, he was uncertain or risk-averse as he is even now; and two, the field was still dominated by Jaya and Karunanidhi. His critics, however, would say that he was never serious and was using politics to promote his movies.
With both Jaya and Karunanidhi absent, Rajini now has a concrete possibility with minimal risk. If he's really serious, this is the time to make the decision. But will he?
"Only god can decide what I will do next, I am just an instrument in his hands; but if I do come to politics I will not entertain bad people."
Unfortunately, it's the same old cryptic reply: "Only god can decide what I will do next, I am just an instrument in his hands; but if I do come to politics I will not entertain bad people," which means, he may or may not get into politics.
However, reviving contact with his fans and even spending a few days with them after a very long time, and his open proximity to the national leadership of the BJP do offer some substance to interpret. He is probably taking stock of the strength of his fanbase as a statewide socio-political infrastructure, that once helped dislodge Jayalalithaa, and making it battle-ready. In his speech, he did refer to the strength of his supporters.
The most excited is the Sangh camp. RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy found an instant connect with what the actor said. "I think Rajini is making well thought out statements. It evokes memories of a time when, as newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had hit out at corruption and said 'Na khaoonga, na khaane doonga (Won't take bribes, won't let anyone else take bribes)," Gurumurthy told News18. BJP state president Tamilisai Soundararajan said that she welcomed his advice "to the youngsters not to drink or smoke and his remarks to keep out money-minded persons."
As in the past, it's still a story of ifs and buts. If Rajini indeeds gets into politics, will he play solo or be a catalyst for the BJP?
Another leader and Union minister of state Pon Radhakrishnan also expressed happiness that "his friend and superstar has emerged as a guiding force for his fans."
As in the past, it's still a story of ifs and buts. If Rajini indeeds gets into politics, will he play solo or be a catalyst for the BJP? Going by his extremely cautious nature, his chances of playing alone are remote because, as many movie stars across India have learned the hard way, politics is tough and requires tremendous hard work and resources, particularly if one has to set up a new party and sustain it. NT Rama Rao (NTR) may have done it in Andhra Pradesh in 1982 under similar circumstances of a leadership vacuum, but he was remarkably tireless after his sudden plunge. Does Rajini really have it in him to emulate somebody like NTR?
Does Rajini really have it in him to emulate somebody like NTR?
A better and safer option — the one that suits the actor's political and personal temperament that's been in public display for two decades — is to be a convenient fellow-traveller. If he indeed chooses this option, it cannot be for anybody else but the BJP because it's the only national winner around. In 1995, he did show some proximity to the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and even mentioned that a meeting he had with him was not just out of courtesy, but had "some political significance"; but he soon distanced himself from the Congress as it began to lose grip.
With the BJP, he has been more consistent as it kept gaining strength, and its leaders, particularly at then national level, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have been very fond of him.
The BJP desperately wants to get a foothold in Tamil Nadu and the actor is their only short cut. On his part, Rajini has taken the first step by reconnecting with his fanbase and rekindling the dormant public interest. It's likely that the BJP would call on the allure of not only Rajini, but also Jaya. Rajini has already expressed his regret of opposing her in 1996 by terming it as a political accident and the BJP is covertly backing the AIADMK faction led by O Panneerselvam that claims to be the true legacy-holder of Jaya. If all goes well, it will be a BJP plus Jaya-legacy backed by Rajini.