The irony is striking – speaks for the existing and emerging contradictions in the post-Jayalalithaa, post-Karunanidhi ‘Dravidian politics’ in Tamil Nadu. Within days after declaring his decision on entering direct yet comprehensive electoral politics, though on a later date, super-star Rajinikanth did the unthinkable for those that read meanings into his ‘spiritual platform’.
On Wednesday, he called on ailing DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi at Chennai’s Gopalapuram residence of the nonagenarian ‘rationalist, atheist’. At his Sundayannouncement, Rajinikanth showed the divine or spiritual hasta-mudra that he had made famous and identifiable in his failed film ‘Baba’. And a day after calling on Karunanidhi, he courted post-announcement political controversy by calling on the head of Sri Ramakrishna Mutt at Chennai, an anathema for the ‘Dravidian political cause’.
All of it raises the question, did Rajinikanth unwittingly played into the Dravidian polity-hand, and the well-entrenched DMK competitor to his having to replace the incumbent AIADMK government leadership in the State, if his idea is to usher in ‘spiritual’ politics, through, honest, corruption-free, and ism-free political administration and politics in the State?
Until Rajinikanth’s meeting with Karunanidhi, analysts had said that by promising to enter electoral politics, he was only hoping and seeking to fill a political vacuum, reaffirmed by the twisty turn of by-election results in Jayalalithaa’s R.K. Nagar Assembly constituency. They saw shifts in the traditional voting pattern in the constituency, where ruling AIADMK rebel T.T.V. Dhinakaran swept the polls as an Independent candidate, and the DMK – opposition in the State Assembly – lost security deposit and extrapolated the same to project a cause and justification for his probable electoral relevance and possible electoral victory.
But after Rajini’s Karunanidhi meeting, they are re-phrasing their question, to ask if the Dravidian polity has overnight become extinct or could be rendered irrelevant just because one tall leader is dead and another has been rendered incapacitated? Instead, they are turning the pages of Dravidian political history to draw parallels and re-write their own script, especially updated after the R.K. Nagar by-polls, and a fortnight later, over Rajini’s announcement. The question upper-most in their mind is that, “Is the Dravidian polity at cross-roads, or is it only internal re-adjustments, as has been happening from time to time?” No one venture to talk about a vacuum again until they are clear about Rajini’s approach to politics and his evening reactions to the morning’s actions, that too initiated by others, and in this era of social media, where the message not only gets conveyed faster but also gets distorted at times.
‘Ended in a fiasco’
None explained this predicament better than Karunanidhi’s son and DMK working president, M.K. Stalin. Minutes after Rajinikanth told newsmen that he had sought Karunanidhi’s blessings for his political venture, and claimed that the latter blessed him with a nod of his head and a smile on his lip (Karunanidhi cannot speak, and coherently so), Stalin had this much to say, “This is not the first time the two are meeting. Rajinikanth is also not the first (actor) to seek his blessings for launching a new political party. Vijaykanth (now the failed leader of the initially successful DMDK) did so after starting a party.” According to Stalin, “It is Tamil culture to welcome everyone into our house with a smiling face.”
Asked specially about the politics of Rajinikanth, Stalin was even more forthright, “He has categorically said he is going to pursue ‘spiritual’ politics. A few with a motive of destroying the Dravidian movement are creating the impression that Rajinikanth is taking a political plunge at the instance of certain people… Some are creating an impression that he is to launch a party at the instigation of people who intend to decimate the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu. Let me tell, this is the land of Periyar, Anna and Karunanidhi…Such efforts in the past have ended in a fiasco.”
Stalin did not name anyone, but the reference was probably at the ruling BJP at the Centre, possibly Prime Minister Narendra Modi included, and certainly some BJP-RSS front-liners in Tamil Nadu. But saying it all just after the super-star had called on the living legend of Dravidian ideology and politics, and the DMK leader despairing after the R.K. Nagar onslaught, may have put the actor’s ‘spirituality’ agenda on its head, and brought back ‘Dravidian ideology’ to the centre-stage of contemporary Tamil Nadu’s political discourse, when it was dismissed as becoming increasingly irrelevant and replaced by high-handed administrative behaviour and political corruption, all-round.
In the few days after Rajini’s announcement, the ‘Big Two’ Dravidian players, AIADMK and DMK, also the Sasikala faction of the AIADMK, now with Dhinakaran as its public face, did not know how to handle Rajini’s ‘spirituality card’ as an ideology, and the super-star as possibly the most charismatic personality (even if of the filmi variety) in the State right now. Unwittingly it would seem, Rajinikanth himself seems to have laid out the turf for them to attack him at the very altar of Dravidian ideology’s living high priest. Even a casual observer of the 100-year Dravidian polity, starting with the Justice Party, cannot miss that, in taking on Rajinikanth’s ‘spiritual polity’, Stalin talked for all of ‘Dravidian ideology’ and polity, not just for the DMK.
Not leaving space
By design or otherwise, Stalin was once again seeking to divide the political space between the DMK and the AIADMK, without leaving out space, let alone a vacuum, for a third or even a fourth player – if one were to still take Tamil cinema’s supreme-star Kamal Haasan’s declared political intentions, now suspended when he is shooting for his upcoming movie, ‘Sabaash Naidu’ in the distant USA. It is another matter that even as Stalin has been recognised as the most recognisable of all Dravidian political leaders of his generation, and equally successful with his unprecedentedly high 98-seat tally for the DMK-led combine in the 234-seat State Assembly in 2016 Elections, R.K. Nagar has thrown up Dhinakaran’s face and claim in his own right, possibly moving away even from this shadow of his jailed and even more controversial aunt, V.K. Sasikala Natarajan.
The ruling AIADMK, officially recognised as such by the Election Commission ahead of the R.K. Nagar by-election, under the twin and at-times counter-active leadership of Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswamy and Deputy CM, O. Panneerselvam, forms the third yet distinct and powerful arm of the ‘Dravidian polity’, what with their larger numbers in the State Assembly and also the party’s general council, at least for now. Though seen as the ‘B-Team’ of the BJP at the Centre without either of them being the ‘A-Team’ in the non-existing State-level ‘combine’ (?), the AIADMK too will now be forced to take on Rajinikanth’s ‘spirituality’ plank as an extension of the BJP’s ‘Hindutva’ agenda, as Dhinakaran has started openly attacking the latter on the ‘secularism’ platform. This also owes to the fact that in R.K. Nagar, the constituency’s substantial number of ‘minority’ voters went with him after Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on Karunanidhi, just out of the blue, with social media speculation talking freely and without evidence that the BJP and DMK have struck an alliance-deal for the Lok Sabha polls in 2019.
While referring to anti-Dravidian ‘political fiascos’ of the past, Stalin was obviously not talking in the air, as it is being assumed off-hand and without knowledge or reference to contemporary history of present-day Tamil Nadu. Post-Independence, or even during the 1937 elections to the then Madras Presidency under the British Raj, some people had concluded that the emergence of Congress as the victorious electoral force meant the end of what has since been dubbed the ‘Dravidian movement’, though still identified with the Justice Party. Yet, only two decades after Independence, the unified DMK, the political offshoot of Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), in turn the exclusive-social reincarnation of the erstwhile Justice Party, stole the Congress’ thunder, and has rendered it absolutely irrelevant in the 21st century context.
In between, there had been times when the Dravidian polity was believed to be at cross-roads, or as if a vacuum had emerged in the State’s political landscape and a saviour in shining armour could retrieve the lost ground for the non-Dravidian, anti-Dravidian socio-political forces. When DMK founder and Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai died less than two years after the party had come to power in 1967, there were those who were ready to write-off the party, given especially the unsaid caste divisions within the party’s second-line and below, and the towering personality of rival Congress’ late K. Kamaraj. But Kamaraj himself would be busy with the party’s national and nation-wide turbulence, stirred by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The rest, as they say, is history.
Yes, history is something that contemporary analysts refuse to take note of, to acknowledge that it is not always the script that they write would go on uninterrupted to produce the results of their desire and design. Thus when Indira Gandhi thought that a re-unified Congress could return to power after she having helped the post-Annadurai DMK to return to power in Elections-1971, followed soon by the formation of the AIADMK, she was impeded by the Emergency of her own making, accompanied by the death of Kamaraj, and the shifting of the anti-Karunanidhi ‘non-committed’ Congress voters moving towards AIADMK and MGR, instead.
It happened again in 1989, and later in 1991 and 1996 in quick succession. In 1989, it was the post-MGR Assembly polls, in 1991 the near decimation of the DMK after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, and in 1996 it was the electoral wiping out of the ruling AIADMK under Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. If in 1971 and post-Emergency 1977 elections, the Congress still commanded a strong voter-support and still lost miserably, in 1989 and 1996, the late G.K. Moopanar as the local Congress boss and the founder of the breakaway Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), aspired electoral victory, the latter with the very same Rajini giving his ‘voice’ in support. But history has different designs, and Rajinikanth, who is now critical of the ‘Dravidian polity’, ended up supporting the DMK-TMC combine, instead.
Today, the traditional Congress vote is nowhere in sight, not even the BJP rival at the national-level, with a lot of sound and fury on the Tamil Nadu streets, has got anything out of it. The BJP’s vote-share has increased from a standard 1.5 per cent to 2.5 per cent, with an occasional 5 per cent add-on for A.B. Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, but only to slide back to the original levels without fail. While smaller parties of the PMK, MDMK, and even VCK and Puthiya Tamilagam (PT) kind are supposed to have claimed a share, only the former polled a relatively decent 5.6 per cent vote-share in the 2016 Elections, that too after projecting party leader Anbumani Ramadoss as the chief ministerial candidate and launching a penetrating campaign a full year and more earlier. As the election results showed, the incumbent AIADMK and the Opposition DMK combine added up a total of 81 per cent vote-share between them – nothing earth-shattering this – but with the narrowest of vote-share margins ever in the State, 41 – 40.
Team Rajinikanth needs to acknowledge that political play is not a pre-scripted film, where chosen players display an assigned role. In the 1970s, none expected the DMK to split, and MGR emerging as the central force of anti-DMK, anti-Karunanidhi electoral forces and votes, or Kamaraj’s untimely death, as others would have it. In 1989, none visualised the emergence of a Jayalalithaa out of her own shadows and those of MGR’s, where he himself had consigned her for years before his death or her pre-eminent emergence and unparalleled assertiveness in the aftermath of unanticipated Rajiv Gandhi assassination, or the later-day ‘Tamil hatred’ for her turning the very same voters to the DMK even after a strong propagandist in Vaiko breaking the party for a second time in as many decades after MGR and forming the MDMK, which has lost the game. Or, a well-experienced Moopanar losing the nerve to go it alone in 1996, or a Vijaykanth emerging in 2006 and vanishing only a decade later, in 2016.
That way, Rajinikanth or anyone else in their place, or both of them together, cannot over-assume the vacuum arguments of the unlettered analysts in their midst and over-shoot their plans, then they may go the way or any other before them. Else, they may not end up replacing one or both of the Dravidian majors and thus the Dravidian polity altogether, but only facilitating the other’s re-adjustment process, which had begun with Jaya’s death and Karunanidhi’s hospitalisation. It is doubtful if it would have happened if Jaya was alive or Karunanidhi was active, but their exit from the scene does not alter the ground situation, until triggered by substantive tectonic shifts, which the likes of Rajinikanth can trigger, not like in the case of earth-quakes that are self-induced and god-induced, but through careful planning, hard work, commitment, continuity and staying power. At 68, if Rajinikanth is talking entering electoral politics for the first time during Assembly polls, which is due only in 2021, four years hence, the Tamil Nadu voter will ask questions of himself. If the polls get advanced still, he will question Rajinikanth, and find answers in the otherwise inept and corrupt Dravidian polity, which would have cried wolf already.
It is not that the likes of Rajinikanth cannot succeed in the politics and elections of ‘Dravidian’ Tamil Nadu, but it cannot happen on the assumption of negativity of the voter to incumbency factors that affect only the ruling party of the day, and not the ‘other’ Dravidian major waiting for years with decades of hard work and ideological identity, which in turn has moved away from ‘spirituality-centric’ negativity to include society-centric administrative initiatives of the reservations and subsidies kind – benefiting a mass of the people, over the short, medium and long terms, and have also proved their worth and continued relevance, still.
This commentary originally appeared in The Week.