The Rajinikanth factor in Tamil Nadu polls

After years of flirting with politics and dropping hints about his own political ambitions, Rajinikanth, Tamil cinema’s biggest living icon – he remains that, although he has competition from some of the younger actors — has finally announced that he will launch his own political party in January. Timed with the state assembly elections scheduled for next summer, his entry will create a new dynamic in a state where the line between art, stardom and politics has always been blurred.

The Dravidian political movement saw a range of figures — CN Annadurai and M Karunanidhi, both established writers; MG Ramachandran, the tallest Tamil actor of his time; Jayalalithaa, the Karnataka-born Brahmin actor who built on MGR’s legacy — who straddled these diverse worlds. In recent times, Kamal Haasan and Vijayakanth have made unsuccessful forays into the political theatre. But, Rajnikanth’s cult following places him in a different category. The issue, however, for the new entrant is that that there are certain entrenched patterns and players within state politics, hard to challenge and harder to displace.

How he navigates the cross currents of deep identity-based resentment against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state with his own perceived proximity to the party with which he is widely expected to ally; how he builds a new party organisation to take on the well-oiled machines of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam; how he distinguishes himself in what is already a crowded political landscape with a range of smaller players catering to diverse sub-castes; and how he delivers a message of bringing change will be the key determinants of his political future.

But there is little doubt that irrespective of whether he succeeds or not, Rajinikanth’s entry will shape the nature of politics in an important state that sends 39 MPs to the Lok Sabha.

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