Tamil superstars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan have been talking politics for years, but when the opportunity for action comes tantalisingly close, both seem to be seduced more by the arc light than the more difficult but alluring world of real politics.
There cannot be a better time for them to take the real plunge than now for two reasons: one, there is a huge vacuum left behind by former chief ministers and adversarial doyens of Dravidian politics — J Jayalalithaaa and M Karunanidhi; and two, the 2019 Lok Sabha election that will decide the future of secular India, and the by-elections to 20 assembly constituencies that will decide the future of Tamil Nadu, are just round the corner.
But, instead of preparing their long promised political debuts, both are busy perpetuating their movie careers.
If the people of Tamil Nadu and elsewhere thought that Rajini's last blockbuster Kaala, in which he played a Dravidian-Ambedkarite do-gooder gangster taking on casteist and communal politics, was his launch vehicle because he indeed made some follow up political noises, they are mistaken. Instead of preparing for 2019 elections, he is busy with a science-fiction spectacle, curiously titled 2.0, and another movie, Petta, with a new generation director. Reportedly he has also signed up for yet another movie with another top south Indian director. Evidently, what keeps Rajini busy is back-to-back movies and not his avowed welfarist, "corruption-free" and "spiritual" politics.
Looks like both think that politics is role-play, probably a skill that they picked up and embodied in their decades long acting careers.
The case is almost the same with Haasan too. Although compared to Rajini he is a step ahead because he has announced the name and flag of his party and has undertaken short tours of the state, what really keeps him busy are still films. After the recently released Vishwaroopam-2, he is getting ready to shoot the second part of Indian, a vigilante flick that made a lot of money more than two decades ago. Sources close to him say that after Indian, he is also planning to do a sequel to his iconic Thevarmagan, made in 1992.
Given that Tamil movies take a long time to complete and demand considerable time and energy of the actors, and since both Rajini and Haasan are still heavily invested in movies, their politics can at best be a part-time indulgence. They are not even straddling two worlds, but are firmly rooted in the tinsel world rather than in politics. Looks like both think that politics is role-play, probably a skill that they picked up and embodied in their decades long acting careers.
What's disappointing is that both had formally announced their respective entries into politics, but have done precious little in taking their decisions forward even at the most opportune time now. Rajinikanth in December last had said that his (yet-to-be-announced) outfit would contest in all the assembly constituencies, while Haasan launched his political party a couple of months later. All that Rajini has done politically since then was to launch a dos and don'ts booklet for his supporters, while Haasan has met with some political leaders and Chief Ministers across the country. Of course, Haasan announced on Monday that his party may contest the assembly by-elections necessitated by the disqualification of 18 MLAs and deaths of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. But that's far from political strategy or hardcore politics because there's no sign of a thriving political party that could win elections.
Among the two, the one who has made more definitive strides is certainly Haasan, but he is yet to achieve any worthwhile traction either with the electorate or the public at large. He still doesn't have a convincing political ideology, that too in a state dominated by either Dravidianism or caste loyalty. His political ideas are still fluid and sometimes even contradictory. He also hasn't been able to make any headway in terms of attracting big names except some retired officers, journalists and fans. Even his industry doesn't seem to have taken him seriously.
However, what they fail to realise is that unlike movies, politics is real, it doesn't work in fits and starts, and there are more flops than hits when movie stars try to become politicians.
Worse still, Rajini's politics is still indeterminate. For somebody who's been teasing the public with his cryptic political punchlines for more than two decades, he still looks far from ready. In early 2017, when he met with his fans after a gap of ten years and spoke about preparing the ground for the plunge, he really sounded more affirmative than ever arousing considerable excitement. Still, he took several more months for the next step, when in December he announced that he would indeed enter politics. It was followed by a highly political Kaala and its aftermath that made his political entry look really imminent, but he became busy with movies yet again. He still doesn't have a party or leaders except a confederation of fan clubs titled Rajini Makkal Manram (RMM) and its foot soldiers. He and his supporters probably think that his fan-based welfare infrastructure could be converted into a party infrastructure overnight on demand, but in real life it doesn't work that way. Building a political party takes time unless there's an extraordinarily spontaneous socio-political ferment that brings forth a leader and a party as it happened in the case of NT Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh in 1982 or Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi in 2013.
Whether it's Rajini or Haasan, leveraging the fanbase for electoral politics is not a bad idea because it has indeed worked in Tamil Nadu in the past. However, what they fail to realise is that unlike movies, politics is real, it doesn't work in fits and starts, and there are more flops than hits when movie stars try to become politicians. Since both of them are not riding a popular socio-political wave, despite a conducive climate, it's not easy to scale up in a short period. The only exception in recent years was Kejriwal, but he was remarkably tireless and fearless.
The other option for both is to ally with existing parties, but that requires strategy, which both lack, the ability to play a minor role. Nobody knows what Rajini's plans are because going back to the BJP, which many believed he had always been sympathetic with, after Kaala will crash-land him. Given the tenuous situation that the ruling AIADMK is in, siding with them will make him unpopular too. That leaves him with the only option of allying with the DMK, where he cannot be kingsize because they already have a king in MK Stalin.
Haasan has indicated he wants to keep away from both the AIADMK and the DMK — because his party Makkal Neethi Maiyam (People's Justice Party) is against corruption — and form a third alternative along with the Congress, little realising that together the Dravidian parties account for about 72% of the state's vote-share while the Congress has less than 7%. The leadership crisis, the split following the conviction of Sasikala, poor governance record and corruption charges have certainly dented the reputation of AIADMK that's presently sitting on a 42% vote-share, but that doesn't open up enough space for a third alternative because DMK, along with its allies such as the Congress, is still the next best bet. But Haasan wants to play solo. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the necessary resources including hard work.
In other words, if both Rajini and Haasan are serious about creating an alternative space for themselves, they have to be together and kick up a social ferment at once to retrofit their political parties. In Kejriwal's case, he was gifted one by the then ruling UPA and Anna Hazare which he formalised and institutionalised. The people's discontent came first and the party later, but in their case, the political announcement came first. Now, they have to work backward to complete the story.
But when? It's high time they realised they cannot have the cake and eat it too.