On May 31 morning, as he set out from his Poes Garden residence in Chennai to meet the people of Thoothukudi, everything appeared perfectly scripted for Rajinikanth. “I am going as an actor to meet the people and console them,” he said. “If they see an actor like me, they will be happy.” But, at Thoothukudi, things went awry for the superstar as he lost his cool, caught in the middle of angry protestors. When he returned in the evening, he looked like an inept politician.
“If you go on protesting for anything and everything, Tamil Nadu will become a graveyard,” an angry Rajinikanth told the media. “There were anti-social elements in Thoothukudi, and they were the reason for the riots. They attacked policemen in uniform. That is wrong.” Rajinikanth got upset after a young man, as a mark of protest, asked him at a Thoothukudi hospital, “Who are you?” He maintained decorum at the hospital and replied, “I am Rajinikanth. I have come from Chennai.” But, he decided to return to Chennai immediately. He had planned to meet some of the injured and hand over a compensation of Rs 2 lakh to each of them. But, it was left to officials of his fan club, the Rajini Makkal Mandram (RMM), to distribute the cheques.
Rajinikanth, who on December 31 announced that his brand of politics would be “spiritual”, is turning out to be not so different from other politicians. On May 9, Rajinikanth fans who were gathered at the sprawling YMCA grounds in Chennai for the audio launch of his latest movie, Kaala, were stunned when they found that everything was painted black. Even the cast and crew members were dressed in black to suit the theme of the movie. It was perhaps an indication of how Rajinikanth, who normally prefers saffron, is changing colours, with an eye on the chief minister's post.
In a state where cinema and politics have always been bedfellows, Rajinikanth hopes to convert his popularity into political capital. “There is no Jayalalithaa now. Kalaignar [DMK leader M. Karunanidhi], too, is silent,” said Rajinikanth recently, while unveiling a statue of former chief minister M.G. Ramachandran. “I am coming in because there is a vacuum.”
A day after the audio launch, Rajinikanth convened a leadership meeting of RMM. The group has close to 50 lakh members, who registered online through the RMM app. It has around 22 lakh members on the ground, tasked with leading a membership drive.
The RMM now has district-level and union-level office bearers. Town, panchayat and booth level appointments will follow. Unlike fellow actor Kamal Haasan, who launched his Makkal Needhi Maiam in Madurai on February 21, Rajinikanth has chosen to build the organisational machinery first, before formally launching his party.
“We have decided to start from the booth level, with the database available from the Election Commission,” said Raju Mahalingam, secretary, RMM. There are 5.5 crore voters in Tamil Nadu, and Rajinikanth is eyeing 2.5 crore of them. “We are building our organisation from scratch, so that we get the party machinery right,” said a district secretary of the RMM. He was among the 37 senior members invited by Rajinikanth to his Poes Garden residence on May 10.
After meeting them for more than an hour, Rajinikanth tweeted that they had “a very constructive meeting”. He listened to their views and spoke to them about building a strong organisation to fight the Dravidian parties. Rajinikanth is also paying special attention to the RMM's women and youth wings.
The youth wing leaders recently had a meeting with Mahalingam and Rajinikanth’s trusted lieutenant V.M. Sudhakar at the actor’s Raghavendra Kalyana Mandapam (wedding hall) in Chennai. “The youth wing members brought to our notice the problems they faced in the districts,” said Mahalingam.
While his supporters are eagerly awaiting the launch of the new party, Rajinikanth is likely to announce it only a month before the assembly elections, due in 2021. He has realised that converting his mandrams into a party is unlikely to yield quick results. So, he is planning to tap into the pro-MGR votes in the AIADMK and the pro-Karunanidhi votes in the DMK.
While unveiling an MGR statue, Rajinikanth said, “I will provide MGR rule in the state.” On May 9, he targeted Karunanidhi supporters. “It has been days since I heard that voice,” he said, referring to the DMK patriarch. “Like others, I, too, want to hear his voice.” It was clearly a message to DMK members who are unhappy with Karunanidhi's son M.K. Stalin, who now controls the party.
Rajinikanth is proceeding cautiously as he is too big a star to fail. He has asked his advisers and supporters to study the possibilities of the progression from the tinsel world to politics, by examining the careers of MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. MGR laid the foundation for his political career by starting off as the treasurer of the DMK. And, before he took the plunge, he started playing more and more popular roles in films.
In Kaala, and in his next untitled movie, Rajinikanth is playing the messiah of the oppressed, which, he hopes, will be a platform for entering politics. “This will help him win over women,” said Sundararajan, an ardent Rajini fan, who recently registered through the RMM app.
At the audio launch of Kaala, it was Rajinikanth's family members who stole the limelight. They were seated in the front row. The film is produced by Rajinikanth's son-in-law, actor Dhanush. His younger daughter, Soundarya, is also involved in the making of the film. In his speech, Dhanush clearly alluded to Rajinikanth's political entry. “He was a villain, a character artiste, a hero, style mannan [king]. He is a superstar now. Tomorrow he will be....,” he stopped mid sentence, and the fans went berserk. When Rajinikanth spoke, he praised Dhanush, indirectly endorsing his comments.
The RMM's growing popularity and Kaala's release on June 7 have clearly set the path for Rajinikanth to play a key role in Tamil Nadu politics. But, his response to the Thoothukudi protests has upset even his ardent fans. The superstar, who wants to emulate MGR, appears confused, and perhaps needs more rigorous training to master Dravidian politics.