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Coming soon: Thalaivar’s political debut
There is clearly a leadership vacuum in Tamil Nadu, which may help Rajnikanth cause some ripples in the State. The actor may succeed since Tamilians are waiting for a leader with charisma to save them from the abyss they are currently in, writes Kumar Chellappan
If the incidents that took place in Chennai during the past two months are any indication, it is almost certain that Rajnikanth, the Karnataka-born-Maharashtrian-turned-Tamil film actor is all set to launch a political party in Tamil Nadu. As a run up to the announcement about the formation of his political party, Rajnikanth held a series of meetings with his fans at the Raghavendra Hall, an auditorium owned by the superstar of Tamil cinema in Chennai. But what was discussed in the meetings is not known. Even reporters of 24X7 TV news channels, who had camped at the entrance of the auditorium, could only grab pictures of Rajnikanth posing for photographs with his fans who had assembled from various parts of the State and also voice bites of him addressing the gathering. He said that though Tamil Nadu has some good political leaders like MK Stalin, Anbumani Ramadoss, Thirumavalavan, and Francis Seeman, they are helpless because of the rotten system. Rajnikanth also exhorted his fans to be ready for a battle which he would launch anytime.
Before proceeding further, let’s take a reality check of the political landscape and scenario of Tamil Nadu. Till last year, Tamil Nadu politics was centred around two individuals, Jayalalithaa Jayaraman, the 68-year-old heartthrob of South Indian film fans, who led the AIADMK from 1989 till she breathed her last on December 6, 2016, and Muthuvel Karunanidhi (95), the president of the DMK since 1969. With the passing away of Jayalalithaa, the AIADMK, an offshoot of the DMK, is in a state of disarray, chaos, confusion and crisis. The Pioneer had reported much before the passing away of Jayalalithaa that the AIADMK would disintegrate much faster than it was formed by late MG Ramachandran, the matinee idol of the 1950s and 1960s, better described as the poster boy of the DMK.
The AIADMK is already split into three factions (though not officially) and there is a new claimant for Jayalalithaa’s legacy. Deepa Madhavan Patrick, a hitherto unheard of niece of Jayalalithaa, has entered the fray with a political outfit called MGR Amma Deepa Party (MAD Party). True to the acronym, people are yet to take the outfit seriously, though Deepa and her evangelist husband have asked the leaders of the other factions to fall in line and accept her leadership.
Karunanidhi — who is on his way to break the world record held by Fidel Castro of Cuba to be the longest serving leader of a political party (Castro headed the Cuban Communist Party from 1961 to 2011) — is reportedly ill and bedridden in his house at Gopalapuram in Chennai. Since October 2016, Dr Kalaignar (as he wants everybody to address him) has not been seen in public. Though on the wrong side of 90s, Karunanidhi had no qualms in announcing himself as the chief ministerial candidate of the DMK during the 2016 Assembly Elections. Since the voters of Tamil Nadu did not take any chances, the world lost an opportunity to see a 94-year-old “young” man being sworn in as the Chief Minister.
With Karunanidhi suffering from a series of ailments associated with old age, the chances of him coming out of the house with his customary speech, which begins with “En Udan Pirappukale” (Tamil for my own brothers and sisters), seem remote. There is a political vacuum in Tamil Nadu because of the exit of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi from the centrestage. Though MK Stalin, Karunanidhi’s son, has been anointed as the working president of the DMK, whether he would live up to the reputation of his illustrious father is yet to be seen. It was Stalin who led the DMK from the front during the 2016 Assembly Elections. In the closely contested bout, he could not make use of the anti-incumbency factor against Jayalalithaa, who was not in the best of her health and had lost much of her hold on the AIADMK. Remember, that 14 people, who were introduced by Jayalalithaa during her gruelling election campaign, were replaced by the all-powerful group led by VK Sasikala and her husband M Natarajan, an incident which could not have happened had Jayalalithaa been in her elements.
Well, the question is about the possibility of Rajnikanth making it big in politics and whether it would inspire superstars (there are many in Tamil films) from other language films, including Hindi, to don the role of real life action heroes. Before that one should know how late MG Ramachandran (MGR) and late Jayalalithaa made it big in politics from the studio sets in Chennai’s Kodambakkam (where most film studios were based in the 1950s and 1960s).
The DMK, the political outfit launched by CN Annadurai, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, VR Nedumchezhiyan, and K Anbazhagan, got strengthened because of its string secessionist outlook. Annadurai, the founder president of the party, was an evangelist for the secession of Tamil Nadu from the Union of India to form a separate Dravida Nadu. “We want a separate country for the Tamils,” said Annadurai during his speech in the Rajya Sabha. Though the DMK had to give up this demand following the 16th amendment of the Constitution in 1962, it should be said that neither he nor Karunanidhi were comfortable with the concept of the Union of India. It was this anti-India feeling in their mind which manifested in the form of the anti-Hindi agitation.
The DMK leaders claim that Sanskrit, Hindi and the Hindu religion itself were imposed on them by the Aryans who intruded into India through the northwest Khyber Pass. Their belief is that the Dravidians, who were the original settlers of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, were driven away to the southern region of the subcontinent by the Aryans, who later settled down in the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains. The Dravidians are physically, culturally, and mentally distinct and different from the Aryans of North India, claim the Dravidian leaders. They also claim that Tamil is the oldest language in the world and Sanskrit was formed from Tamil.
All these theories have been thrown to the dustbin by historical, archaeological and scientific research. The latest controversy is the excavation being carried out at Keezhadi in Madurai district by the Archaeological Survey of India. Hardcore Dravidians believe that the Keezhadi excavations would prove the existence of a Tamil civilisation dating back to 5,000 years and accuse the Centre of trying to derail the research at Keezhadi. “These claims and arguments are utter nonsense. The ASI is doing its work. Any kind of excavation work needs time and one cannot have a prejudiced mind on this topic,” said Sathyamoorthy, former Director General, ASI, and a widely respected archaeologist in South India.
The Dravidians were the first to make use of theatre, drama, films, novels and other forms of arts to propagate their political ideology. Anything connected with North India was portrayed as part of Aryan occupation and efforts to demolish the Tamil culture. Tamil Nadu is the only State in India which saw riots against Hindi. Though the DMK leaders spit venom against Hindi, they ensure that their children get best Hindi coaching. The ultimate dream of all Tamil actors is to act in Hindi movies, which they consider as a stepping stone to recognition.
What prompted the Dravidian leaders to go out all against Hindi had a lot to do with the failures of the Indian National Congress to address some of the basic issues in Tamil Nadu. Top leaders of the Congress were from the Brahmin community, which constituted hardly four per cent of the population. Forward communities like the Mudaliars, Vanniyars, Vellalars, and Thevars were firm in their belief that the Congress was a party for Brahmins. This, along with the practice of untouchability, turned out to be a fertile ground for the formation of a political outfit centred on the themes of secessionism and anti-India feelings.
If Sanskrit was the favourite whipping boy of the Dravidians in the 1950s and 1960s, it has been replaced by Hindi now. The other day, Tamil Nadu heard Sitaram Yechury, the ingenious CPI(M) leader, accusing the Union Government of trying to impose Hindi in non-Hindi speaking places. “This is an attempt to saffronise India. Imposition of Hindi is part of the Government’s plan to convert India into a Hindu republic,” said Yechury. Thirumavalavan, another secessionist leader, went one step further and claimed that the National Eligibility and Entrance Test and the Goods and Services Test were also part of the efforts by the Centre to destroy the plurality and diversity of India.
Well, Annadurai had a slight inclination for literature and had written some short stories. He made Karunanidhi, a school dropout with cinema dreams in his eyes, take up writing in a serious manner. Karunanidhi penned stories and dialogues for some Tamil movies made on the Dravida renaissance theme. The handsome MGR was cast as a hero in most of these movies, and Karunanidhi wrote some of the powerful political messages which he delivered through the characters played by MGR. Remember that 1950s saw the flourishing of Tamil films, which were an extension of theatres. Only very few people in Tamil Nadu could get an exposure to world cinema. Viewers believed what they saw in films. Karunanidhi and MGR became household names, thanks to these films. It was Annadurai who foresaw the potential of MGR as a vote catcher and made him the poster boy of the DMK.
The 1967 elections saw the debacle of the Congress, which had ruled Tamil Nadu till then. Even the great Kamaraj was uprooted in the Dravidian wind, which blew all over Tamil Nadu. The Congress had become a monolithic structure by that time and there were only very few leaders like Kamaraj who remained untainted of corruption, favouritism, and nepotism. The only alternative for the people was the untested and comparatively new DMK which they elected to power. But by 1969, Annadurai, the first non-Congress CM, fell prey to cancer.
The DMK was faced with a tough task of finding a successor to Annadurai. Had one gone by the yardsticks of seniority and experience, VR Nedunchezhiyan should have been the successor. But poster boy MGR cast his lot with Karunanidhi, whom he thought would be more flexible and pragmatic than the idealist Nedunchezhiyan. Remember, MGR had become a demigod all over Tamil Nadu because of his image as the fighter against evil forces, which he portrayed in films. Those were the days when MGR meant the DMK and vice versa.
Karunanidhi, who became the CM in 1969, had only one mission in life — to consolidate his position in the DMK and to promote his family members in the party hierarchy. He succeeded in sidelining MGR without the latter knowing. When Karunanidhi understood that he would not be able to bring his sons Muthu (born to Padmavathy, Karunanidhi’s first wife) and Stalin (son by Dayalu, the second wife) into politics if MGR was around, he decimated the influence of the latter in the party. But the wily MGR had seen the writing on the wall and played his cards effectively. Karunanidhi expelled MGR from the primary membership of the DMK, something which MGR wanted the former to do. It turned out to be an action of political harakiri by Karunanidhi. MGR became the living martyr of Karunanidhi’s greed for power.
“By that time Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, had felt that Karunanidhi had become too big for his shoes. The Congress had been upstaged by the DMK and there was no political future for the party so long as Karunanidhi was in power. Hence, she made use of MGR to tame Karunanidhi,” said Sam Rajappa, veteran commentator, who was a Tamil Nadu based scribe during those tumultuous days. Sam says Indira Gandhi asked P Ramamoorthy, the polit bureau member of the CPI(M), to help and guide MGR to clip the wings of Karunanidhi. “It was Ramamoorthy who drafted the memorandum submitted by MGR to the then Governor KK Shah listing the misdeeds of Karunanidhi. When I asked MGR the contents of the memorandum while he was coming out of the Raj Bhavan, he laughed and told me to ask Ramamoorthy as it was he who had drafted it,” reminiscences Sam.
The rest is history. MGR launched the AIADMK and went on to become the CM of Tamil Nadu, sending Karunanidhi into political wilderness for more than a decade. This was recounted to drive home the point that MGR was no stranger to politics. “He was not the one who lived in the ivory tower of power politics. MGR had baptism by fire in politics. Jayalalithaa, who succeeded him in politics, was cut out for the role. When MGR and Jayalalithaa made an entry into politics, there was a leadership vacuum in politics. There weren’t many chief ministerial candidates those days. And things have changed a lot over the years. The new generation does not believe in ideology or fire-spitting speeches. They want results,” said Sundar Das, a Chennai-based commentator, who followed the political careers of MGR and Jayalalithaa.
The truth is that Tamil Nadu is ridden with problems. The State is at war with all its neighbours over water. Though the Dravidian parties have been ruling the State uninterrupted for the past five decades, they have failed to address the basic issue of drinking water shortage in spite of the influence they wielded at the Centre. The DMK, which was the crucial alliance partner in the Congress-led UPA at the Centre, was more interested in pocketing money-spinning ministries than in making the Union Government resolve the eternal Cauvery River water dispute with Karnataka.
There is leadership vacuum in Tamil Nadu, which may help Rajnikanth cause some ripples in the State. The DMK is handicapped by the absence of a strategist like Karunanidhi. The AIADMK is disintegrating faster than expected as the faction leaders have declared an all out war against each other. The Congress has so many leaders but no cadre to speak about. The party is at the mercy of the DMK to piggy ride into the orbit of power. The BJP stays where it was 10 years ago. Vijaykanth, whose DMDK bagged 10 per cent of the popular votes in the first election it contested, is fretting and fuming. The father-son duo of Ramadoss and Anbumani are on the lookout for alliance partners who will help the son to become the CM of Tamil Nadu. Others are mere sidekicks. These are the ground realities in Tamil Nadu politics.
Besides Tamil Nadu, the only other State which has seen a film actor rising to the position of CM is Andhra Pradesh. NT Rama Rao, the matinee idol of Andhra Pradesh, had sufficient reasons for the launching of Telugu Desam. NTR, as he was called popularly, launched the Telugu Desam to exploit the sentiments of people in Andhra Pradesh, who felt disgraced by the action of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who appointed five CMs in five years, some sort of comic interlude. NTR had decided to enter social life once he turned 60. But by 1982, when he was 59, AP was in a state of turmoil as Gandhi played havoc with the Congress legislature party by firing CMs as per her whims and fancies. This came in handy for NTR, who also had an aura of divinity around him because of the mythological characters he played in films. Time was ripe in Andhra Pradesh as the State till then had no strong Opposition groups. The TDP was the kind of outfit for which people were waiting. NTR clicked well in the State as the people voted him to power in the Assembly Elections held in 1984 and 1994. He had three tumultuous terms as CM between 1984 and 1995.
But NTR lacked the cunningness and smartness of MGR to survive in politics. Though he did reasonably well in politics without giving rise to any scams and corruption charges, his own family members upstaged him following his 1993 marriage to Lakshmi Parvathy. Basava Tharagam, whom he had married in 1942, passed away in 1985. To escape the loneliness, he tied the knot with Lakshmi. But his children from his first wife Tharagam did not take it kindly; they plotted and executed a palace coup, resulting in NTR losing out to Chandrababu Naidu, his son-in-law.
Though Rajkumar, the Kannada matinee idol, was wooed by leaders of many political parties, the “emperor of acting” confined his activities to propagating the Kannada language. He was wise enough to understand that politics was not his cup of tea. Sivaji Ganesan, who was addressed by his fans as the pride among actors (Nadigar Thilakam), came a cropper when he launched his political outfit. Sivaji Ganesan was a more versatile actor than MGR, his contemporary, and had performed a variety of roles in nearly 300 films. Though he had a stint with the DMK, Ganesan shifted his loyalty to the Indian National Congress following differences of opinion with the DMK leadership. He was nominated as a Rajya Sabha member by Indira Gandhi. But with the death of Gandhi in 1984, his career in the Congress too came to an end. Though he joined the Janata Dal and later floated a regional outfit, Tamilaga Munnetra Munnani, his political mission ended in a fiasco.
Why Ganesan’s political career failed to take off while MGR had the same Tamil people eating from his hands is an interesting question. “MGR cultivated a well-planned image through his roles in films. He was always a do-gooder, saving damsels in distress and protecting old people. The characters he portrayed never smoked or drank. But Ganesan was acting for the sake of acting. He was an accomplished actor,” said GC Sekhar, veteran political commentator, who has followed the careers of both stars.
The question being asked is whether more superstars from other languages would switch their roles from studio floors to the hurly burly world of politics? It is doubtful — MGR, Jayalalithaa, and NTR succeeded. But what about Vijayakant? What about Chiranjeevi, the Telugu actor who launched his own political outfit, Praja Rajyam? Last heard, he had merged Praja Rajyam with the Congress and his political career died a natural death. Vijaya Shanthi, who made many heads turn with her stunning looks and created a sensation in politics, failed when it came to the war of nerves.
Rajnikanth may succeed since Tamil people are waiting for a leader with charisma to save them from the present abyss they are in. S Gurumurthy, Tamil Nadu’s leading political commentator and the RSS ideologue, is of the view that Rajnikanth could make a difference in Tamil Nadu politics. “He is to be watched out for as he has a bright future,” said Gurumurthy.
Late Cho Ramaswamy, the cultural czar of Tamil Nadu, had an important observation to make when he addressed the customary Tuglaq anniversary meeting in January 2016, the last public meeting he addressed before he breathed his last in December 2016. Anbumani Ramadoss, one of the main speakers, had said that his dream of becoming the CM would not materialise unless he acted in some Tamil movies. “I am sure Anbumani would never succeed as a filmstar. He would be a failure as an actor but I will not tell the same about some of our actors,” Cho replied to Anbumani’s observation.
What is happening is that Rajnikanth is slowly inching towards the CM’s chair (if Gurumurthy’s words are to be believed), while Anbumani’s dreams are fading into oblivion, at least for the time being. A statutory warning to those from the film world who entertain hopes of a successful career in politics — “It is a wild and uncertain terrain filled with unpredictable hairpin curves and potholes. Better be on your guards, round the clock, every second.”
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