Tamil cinema superstar Rajinikanth to enter Indian politics

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 December, 2017, 4:27pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 December, 2017, 10:25pm

Rajinikanth, the wildly popular Indian cinema icon who inspires almost godlike adulation in some parts of the country, announced his entry into politics on Sunday, calling it his duty.

The 67-year-old actor’s announcement ended a wait of almost two decades for many of his fans, especially in southern Tamil Nadu state where he is intensely revered and referred to simply as “The Superstar”.

“I will form my own political party and contest from all 234 seats in the next [state] assembly election,” he said in a hall packed with supporters in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s capital.

He said his objective is to change the system and bring good governance to Tamil Nadu. He called for a political change and appealed to his fans to bring all sections of society into the fold.

“I do not want cadres. I want watchdogs,” New Delhi Television channel quoted Rajinikanth as saying.

The state, home to 72 million people, has been reeling from political instability after the death last December of its charismatic chief minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram, also a former film star.

Born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, Rajinikanth famously worked as a bus conductor in the southern Indian city of Bangalore before heading to Chennai in 1973 to pursue his dream of acting.

He started in small roles as a villain in Tamil cinema and worked his way up, landing roles in Bollywood, the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai.

He rose to become the biggest star in the history of Tamil-language cinema. Many of his 175-plus films since 1975 have broken box office records.

The Indian government honoured him with top national awards – the Padma Bhushan in 2000, and the Padma Vibhushan in 2016 – for his contributions to the arts. At the 45th International Film Festival of India in 2014, he was given the Centenary Award for Indian Film Personality of the Year.

India’s junior finance minister Pon Radhakrishnan, who is also a parliamentarian from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Tamil Nadu, congratulated Rajinikanth on Twitter.

One of Bollywood’s biggest stars, Amitabh Bachchan also had warm words.

“My dear friend, my colleague and a humble considerate human, Rajinikanth, announces his decision to enter politics... my best wishes to him for his success,” Bachchan told more than 32 million Twitter followers.

Bachchan also tried his hand in politics as a member of India’s parliament representing the Congress party, in support of his friend and prime minister at the time Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s. He resigned after three years following allegations he accepted bribes during a weapons deal. He was later cleared of any wrongdoing.

Rajinikanth is widely credited for almost single-handedly defeating a state government in 1996 by asking his fans to vote it out days before the election.

“I am not doing it for any post or money or fame as I have enough,” he said on Sunday.

Many fans let off firecrackers, danced to drums and shouted slogans for Rajinikanth outside the venue after the announcement.

The entire state of Tamil Nadu goes into a frenzy every time a new Rajinikanth film is released. Many companies give their employees the day off, expecting low attendance.

Fans cut their hair to look like Rajinikanth’s character, and some even get his face tattooed on their bodies to mark the release of a film.

In Chennai, many fans hand out confectionery and even pour milk over giant posters advertising his films – a tradition derived from the ritual bathing of Hindu idols in milk.

Rajinikanth enters the political scene at a time when Modi’s party is trying to make inroads into the state, which has been ruled for five decades by the two Dravidian parties, both of which claim anti-caste social justice and secularism as their core ideology.

Modi’s BJP did not win a seat in Tamil Nadu’s 2016 elections. The next state election is due in 2021.

“I’ll push for spiritual politics without caste or religious leanings,” Rajinikanth said. “If I come to power and am not able to deliver in three years, I’ll resign. Democracy is in a state of distress in the state.”

Rajinikanth often plays larger-than-life characters that project him as a saviour of the masses.

But opponents say politics would be different.

Subramanian Swamy, a BJP leader, dismissed Rajinikanth’s entry into politics as “media hype”.

Tamil Nadu, a state of more than 70 million people, is sometimes called the “Detroit of Asia”. It is home to factories of companies including BMW, Daimler, Hyundai, Ford, Nissan and Renault.

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Reuters