COLOMBO: Tamil superstar Rajinikanth, who announced his entry into Tamil Nadu politics last Sunday, is in place to try and pave the way for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Tamil Nadu.

He could be the mascot of a new movement and political outfit directed by the BJP leaders in Delhi.

It is, therefore, not surprising that only the leadership of the BJP in Tamil Nadu welcomed Rajini’s announcement on Sunday. Both Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan and state-level BJP leader Tamilisai Soundararajan came out with public statements in support of Rajinikanth’s move. Leaders of other parties merely said that his entry will not affect them.

Earlier, in April 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it a point to call on “Rajini” at his house. On that occasion, Modi referred to the star as a “good friend” and Rajini said that he was Modi’s “well wisher”. PM Modi had visited Rajini earlier in May 2011 when the latter was in hospital for a respiratory problem and at that time, the actor had invited him to his house “to have a cup of tea.”

These meetings had set off speculation about the BJP’s wanting to use him as its local face given the cinema crazy and star-struck population of Tamil Nadu. Rajini was also close to the late Cho Ramaswamy, the best known Hindutva ideologue in Tamil Nadu.

The BJP and the Sangh Parivar, which have had no traction in the southern state because of the latter’s long history of non-religious and secular Dravidian politics, could use Rajinikanth’s popularity and his advocacy of “spiritual politics” to prepare the ground for their entry in the next couple of years, say before the 2021 State Assembly elections.

In this context, it is significant that Rajini has said that he will launch his “spiritual” party manned by “saviors” (not mundane “party cadres”) only before the next State Assembly elections.

He said he needs time to put a party together. Observers would agree that, despite Rajinikanth’s huge fan following, it is difficult to wean away Tamil voters from secular Dravidian politics and make them take to religious politics or even politics couched in religious terminology which is what Rajini is touting at the moment.

Although Tamils are intensely religious, they have scrupulously avoided mixing religion with politics in contrast to voters in North India and in some states in South India like Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. And there is no guarantee that all Rajini fans will be ready to switch their party preferences to a politico-religious outfit floated by their favorite film star.

However, in many ways, the political field in Tamil Nadu is now open to new entrants as never before. Therefore, Rajini’s entry can be considered well timed and opportune.

The ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is a sharply divided house. The faction led by the Sasikala clan (the closest to the Late revered leader J.Jayalaithaa) has staged a comeback after TTV Dinakaran won the R.K.Nagar by-election to the Tamil Nadu State Assembly convincingly. Dinakaran’s astounding performance triggered speculation about Chief Minister E.Palanisamy (EPS) and his Deputy, O.Panneerselvam (OPS), coming under pressure to yield to the demands of Dinakaran who has shown political skill and spunk sorely lacking in EPS and OPS.

The struggle between the two factions will only weaken the party further, opening up the field for other parties including the one planned by Rajini.

As for the DMK, it is still to re-invent itself to face the electorate with its ageing Supremo M.Karunanidhi in a wheelchair, and his son and heir M.K.Stalin still lacking in mass appeal. The recent court verdict in the 2G scam in favor of former DMK Union Telecom Minister A.Raja and K.Kanimozhi, daughter of Karunanidhi, was a shot in the arm for the DMK. But the party’s political standing among the people has not risen.

The DMK is struggling to define itself ideologically or even in terms of a distinct political program. It had a definitive ideology in the past, but that has lost its shine now. And like the AIADMK, the DMK too is tainted by corruption stemming from long incumbencies.

The corruption associated with the rule of the Dravidian parties since 1967 could be exploited by Rajini who has made anti-corruption campaign his USP as Narendra Modi has done in the North.

The Congress in Tamil Nadu remains what it has been since its ouster from power way back in 1967 – a party out of sync with the emotions and concerns of the Tamils.

After K.Kamaraj, the Congress in Tamil Nadu has had no local leader with mass appeal. The party is seen as being subservient to its leaders in imperial Delhi, which is an automatic disqualification in Tamil politics. Additionally, with the Congress not being in power in New Delhi now, Tamil Nadu Congressmen feel all the more handicapped.

Rajini has an alternative persona and ideology. In his films, he portrays himself as a ruffian who will fight for the common man against an oppressor. He has also made films with a Hindu spiritual content. Off screen, he has portrayed himself as a yogi, given to simplicity, meditation and spiritual retreats in the Himayalas.

If the persona he has built up appeals to the Tamil masses, who are deeply religious, Rajini could turn out to be a political success. More importantly, he will be useful as a brand ambassador for the BJP’s Hindutva ideology in Tamil Nadu politics.

Once Rajini clears the way for Hindutva using his mass appeal, the BJP/RSS and VHP could enter the state to use it, radicalize it and put Tamil Nadu in the Indian Hindutva mainstream.

However, Rajini has a few handicaps. He is not a native Tamil but a Maharashtrian from Karnataka, his real name being Shivaji Rao Gaekwad. To add to this handicap, he has not shown a genuine interest in upholding causes which have been important for the Tamils. He had been non-committal in the Cauvery river waters dispute with Karnataka and has shown little or no interest in the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. If he joined film personalities’ protests on these issues, it was only due to pressure from his peer group

MGR and Jayalalitha also had a similar handicap but they played the “Tamil card” with aplomb and convincingly too. MGR was a Malayali from Kerala, and Jayalalithaa was a Brahmin (thereby a non-Dravidian). But they were extremely successful in Tamil politics because they identified themselves fully with the Tamils’ causes and took the lead in promoting these vigorously.

On the contrary, Rajini is trying to divert the Tamils’ attention to other issues like clean politics, clean administration, spiritualism, and soft Hindutva. It is hard to tell if this new brand will replace the old in the foreseeable future.