Tamil film superstar Rajinikanth has finally announced his big bang debut in politics. He has registered his party named MakkalSevaiKatchi, and election symbol of Autorikshaw is allotted to him. After all deliberations and run over with J. Jayalalitha in 1996 elections, now Rajinikanth is decided to contest elections. The national media, especially the English and Hindi media, has covered this development with a lot of enthusiasm. This entry of Rajinikanth in politics has attracted attention from normal citizens outside Tamil Nadu, who are not fully informed about the contours and nuances of Tamil Nadu politics.
This is not the first time that a film superstar has forayed in the good, bad, ugly world of politics. Tamil Nadu has seen Tamil superstars MG Ramachandran, his protégé J. Jayalalitha, and Kamal Hassan venturing in politics. In the neighbouring state, Andhra Pradesh NT Rama Rao had a big bang entry in politics by contesting elections and becoming Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. This has also created a perception in people living outside or not connected with Tamil Nadu on whether Rajinikanth can repeat what MG Ramachandran or NT Rama Rao did.
At this juncture, it is interesting to understand whether Rajinikanth can make a significant impact in Tamil Nadu politics. At this juncture, it is pertinent to know that Tamil Nadu elections are heavily impacted by caste-based politics. At the same time, nearly 70-75% of the electorate is firmly entrenched with either of the two Dravidian parties, viz. DMK and ADMK. The election result mainly depends on where most of this balance 25-30% of the electorate swings.
Before deliberating on the impact of Rajinikanth in 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections, it is essential to assess the strength and strongholds of castes and parties. Major caste groups that back two major Dravidian parties are Thevars, Gounders, Nadars, and Vanniyars. These four communities collectively account for around 50% of the population in the state. Thevars are a martial community in Tamil Nadu. They account for approximately 10-11% of the state's population and influence victory by holding sway on 40-45 seats out of total 264 seats. Gounders are a landholding community that has ventured from agriculture into industry, government jobs like police, judiciary, and administration. They have a nearly equal share in population as Thevars and dominate 50-55 seats. Vanniyars are a group of backward communities comprising of Pallar, Paraiyar, Chakliyar, and Arunthiyar. They are a large social group comprising of around 14-15% of the population and influence over around 60-65 seats. Last comes the Nadar community. Nadars were a backward community in the past. But the community is very enterprising, and today they hold an influential position in Tamil Nadu's economy with control over banking, trading, manufacturing, and service sectors. They account for around 10-12% of the vote share in the state and can influence around 20-25 seats. If we put all these 4 major communities together, they impact the 170 – 185 seats. This is approximately 75% of the total seats in the state assembly. Beyond these 4 major caste groups, various smaller groups are attached to either of these two Dravidian parties.
This brings everyone to the moot question – can Rajinikanth's debut in the good, bad, ugly world of politics become a blockbuster or will it be a flop? If precedents are used as indicators for the electoral and political success of a superstar, then the analysis would not be perfect. There are two reasons for the same. First – when MG Ramachandran became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, he was in politics for more than 20 years and a legislator for nearly 10 years. Along with this, he created his political party – AIADMK by vertically splitting an existing party that was in power – i.e. DMK. In other words, he has experience in politics along with an existing party infrastructure and cadre. This is how he could easily make it very big in politics when he launched his party. Second – when NT Rama Rao got elected, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) was just one year old. However, it is worth noting that there was no credible opposition in the state. At the same time, NT Rama Rao spends one full year in growing the base of the party.
Now if these two precedents are compared with Rajinikanth's current status in Tamil Nadu, it is evident that Rajinikanth lacks the experience of MG Ramachandran and party cadre and infrastructure of MG Ramachandran and NT Rama Rao. The party is launched hardly six months before the assembly elections
Now if these two precedents are compared with Rajinikanth's current status in Tamil Nadu, it is evident that Rajinikanth lacks the experience of MG Ramachandran and party cadre and infrastructure of MG Ramachandran and NT Rama Rao. Party is launched hardly six months before the assembly elections. Can superstar and celebrity status help Rajinikanth in winning elections? This is again, doubtful. Kamal Haasan launched his political party - MakkalNeedhiMaiam in February 2018. In 2019 General Elections, the party could not manage to do anything significant. The party lost deposits in nearly all the seats it contested. DMK had a clean sweep in the election-winning all seats. This is despite Kamal Haasan being a superstar with a huge fan following. In such a situation, whether Rajinikanth's superstar status can help in winning votes is a big question. While Rajinikanth is a superstar, the number of films done by him has reduced significantly in the last 10 years, compared to his stature in the 1990s. Those who believe he can make an impact like 1996 could face disappointment. Many believe that Rajinikanth is too late to venture in politics, given his age and reduced popularity. Many believe that the best period for Rajinikanth to enter politics was in the 1990s and 2000s. He has delayed his entry, and this may not augur well for him.
Only saving grace for Rajinikanth could come from how he manages to stitch an alliance with key leaders of various communities aligned with either of the two major Dravidian parties. This will result in how many votes he can pull out from these two parties. At the same time, simmering issues in DMK and ADMK would help Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, if those issues within the parties are not adequately managed during ticket distribution and election campaign.
To sum up, Rajinikanth's debut in politics is the talk in the town right now. Will he win more than 10% vote share and a respectable number of seats in elections, that only time will tell. Elections are nearly 6 – 7 months away, and this is a very long time in politics to change everything. These 6 – 7 months will show how good Rajinikanth is in his political manoeuvres and stunts he can put up to make him a superstar in political theatre.
(The writer is a Chartered Accountant and Financial Consultant)