One state, many possibilities

Rajinikanth, actor and now politician, announced  on December 31, 2017, that he would enter politics. The vehicle for his entry? So far, he has created a website and mobile app for registered and unregistered fan clubs (mandrams). More than 300,000 have registered on the website. These are thought to be his core supporters. His slogan? “Do good, speak good and only good will happen”. People are still waiting for his political party. It’s political aim? Defeating the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

This is why his press engagement earlier this month had his supporters agog. Everyone thought the promised party was here. But the press conference was a non-starter (more "only good will happen", "do not want to become prime minister" stuff). We now hear a political party might be launched in April.

Frankly, time is running out. Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu are due in May 2021. Kamal Haasan's Makkal Needhi Maiam and TTV Dhinakaran's Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam are already on the scene. Relations between the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), otherwise allies, are uncomfortable at best with dueling between top leaders out in the open, though both parties have said officially they don’t endorse the comments of their leader. Barely a month ago, after the BJP’s poor showing in the local body elections in Tamil Nadu, state minister D Jayakumar criticised then BJP state chief Pon Radhakrishnan for his remark that the state was a "terrorist hub" following the killing of special sub-inspector Y Wilson posted on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border by elements suspected to have links with Daesh. Jayakumar said Pon Radhakrishnan did nothing for Tamil Nadu when he was a Union minister (in the Vajpayee government). In other words, squabbling has started and the smart will start capitalising on it.

Rajinikanth has to move quickly, in the circumstances. So far he has spoken in race and nationality-neutral terms. Although he came out publicly against the critics of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), charging that it was not anti-minority, he did send a signal to CAA protestors in Chennai by agreeing to meet leader of the Islamic community. He wants his party to work towards ending corruption; and good governance. In a state where politics is dominated by pushing back Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan, Rajinikanth’s intervention will have to be more than just equivocation.

In the parallel, there’s another interesting development. L Murugan has been appointed the BJP chief in Tamil Nadu after the previous — and largely ineffectual — chief, Tamilisai Soundararajan , was appointed governor of Telangana six months ago. Murugan was vice-chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, an advocate, and was an active member of the RSS. He belongs to the Arunthathiyar community which is just 3.7 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s population, but has been politically influential. Murugan has a double disadvantage: He is a Dalit political worker in a state which has seen extremely active Dalit politics; and he is a Dalit in a party that has not been able to establish itself in a state where politics, at least superficially, has been anti-Hindu ritualism.

It is hard to assess the impact Murugan’s appointment will have in the state immediately. But it does say something for the BJP’s future political trajectory as the party sees it. Is the state ready for political campaigns by Adityanath, for example? What will be the relationship between the BJP and Rajini ?If Rajini’s political aim continues to be to defeat DMK, then his best bet is the AIADMK. But he wants to defeat the AIADMK as well.

This makes him a natural fit for the BJP. But the BJP has just appointed a chief whose political negotiating skills are as yet untested. Two things are possible: that L Murugan, despite a record of serious work, might turn out to be a figurehead with the real political decisions for the growth and development of BJP in Tamil Nadu being taken elsewhere; or the anti-DMK vote, from being split between the AIADMK and BJP, might now split three, maybe four, ways.

In the R K Nagar Assembly by-election, the BJP candidate polled even fewer votes than those who voted NOTA. In the October 2019 by-elections to two Assembly constituencies, the party did not contest.

Is Tamil Nadu approaching a post-Dravidian era in politics with Rajinikanth talking about spirituality in politics and putting his faith in doing good, speaking and expecting only good to happen, while the BJP does the ground work?

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