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HOW has Rajnikant, one of the most apolitical of Tamil stars, become a political trump card overnight for the DMK-Moopanar Congress combine? Going by sheer numbers, the reach and influence of the superstar can be computed when you take into account that this time around there are three million new voters in Tamil Nadu in the 18-23 age group. Add to this the 20,000-odd fan clubs all over the state with a total of five lakh registered members and you have the committed Rajni votebank which is primarily youth power. But the Rajnikant phenomenon is not being driven on youth steam alone. A few months ago, not many people above 40 would consider the star their guru or his utterances pearls of wisdom. But Rajnikant has now been shaped into an anti-Jayalalitha symbol by the DMK and has become the number one vote-catcher in the state.
But when it comes to the nitty gritty of campaigning, it is the youth brigade which is working with the greatest enthusiasm. At every DMK-Moopanar Congress rally the fan-club presence is very evident. An interesting phenomenon since Rajnikant, unlike MGR, never nurtured any political ambitions and his fan clubs never dabbled in politics. Indeed, till the star was pushed on the political centrestage by circumstances rather than design, the network of fans served the purpose of simply sustaining the popularity level of Rajnikant.
Unlike the fans' associations of MGR, the Rajni fan clubs represent a highly decentralised structure. C.K. Satyanarayanan, an old friend of the star, is the president of the Federation of All World Rajni Fans' Associations but there is no general secretary or any officebearer at the central level. Satyanarayanan's basic job is to scruti-nise the applications from prospective clubs and decide on their admissibility. Fans are supposed to run their clubs on their own and are not expected to tap Rajnikant for funds.
But despite this, if you talk to any fan of the star, he will tell you what a do-gooder his idol is. There are enough stories about how Rajnikant has helped fans and their families in distress. Applications for financial aid are scrutinised before the star decides on how much help he can extend. Says Krishnan, president of the Veera Rajni Fans Association: "Our leader is both strict and generous. He helps us in crisis by paying for our children's education and things like that. At the same time he refuses to dole out money to any one of us."
The fans, though they lack any political ideology and do not have any party leanings, have been galvanised into action primarily because Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha is being looked upon as the person who has maligned their idol and therefore hurt their collective pride. The intricacies of Dravidian politics are not within the ken of interest of the average Rajni fan and even the DMK slogans many of them voice so fervently are at the bidding of their hero.
Strange as it may sound, Rajnikant's sudden metamorphosis into a political figure-head happened by accident rather than by choice. The actor had always shunned politics. In fact, he had spurned so many offers from political parties in the last few years that he was written off even by the DMK as someone wanting in political acumen and leadership qualities. And today, if the star is asked as to why he has finally entered the political arena, he points to Jayalalitha being solely responsible for it.
For, his antipathy towards the chief minister began as a figment of Jayalalitha and her sycophants' imagination. In 1991, when Rajnikant played a taming-of-the-shrew role in Mannan, the paranoid AIADMK leadership read too much meaning into the dialogues. It was perceived that the shrew in the movie was Jayalalitha and there were veiled threats from members of the ruling party. Rajnikant's fans were for a time prevented from attending the morning darshans at his residence in Poes Garden, an upmarket area where Jayalalitha also lives.
Rajnikant dismissed this as the reaction of some ruling party flunkies and at subsequent public appearances he often put this question to the Tamil Nadu chief minister: "Why are you making me into an important personality by unnecessarily needling me?" But a year later when Annamalai was released, some of the dialogues delivered by Rajnikant in the film were taken as direct attacks on Jayalalitha and there were attacks on Rajni fans by AIADMK goons.
However, the proverbial last straw was the silver jubilee function of Badshah in 1995, when Rajnikant expressed his concern over the growing bomb culture in the state and wondered why the chief minister had not said a word about the bomb attack on filmmaker Mani Ratnam. The AIADMK leadership overreacted and the impulsive chief minister chose to penalise the producer of the film, R.M. Veerappan, by sacking him from her cabinet and expelling him from the party.
BUT for this, there would perhaps have been no Rajni factor and there would not have been an army of fans to campaign for him against their number one enemy, Jayalalitha. Sources close to Rajnikant maintain that the star still nurses no political ambitions and that he has merely taken on the task of 'liberating' the people of Tamil Nadu from the 'misrule' of the AIADMK. However, there is no guarantee that this attitude will not change and that the star will not reconsider a political career.
For Rajnikant fans the election has come as a golden opportunity to display their loyalty to their star. It has also given them a chance, as many of them tell you, to act positively. Rajnikant's advice to his fans has always been that they should work for themselves and their family and not get carried away and elevate him to a demi-god status. After his return from the US, his advice has been to put in all efforts to save Tamil Nadu from Jayalalitha. While pledging his support to the DMK-Congress Moopanar combine, the actor was quick to add his now familiar refrain that he had no political ambitions of his own. Points out R. Gopal, editor of Rajni Rasigan, a fan magazine which has a circulation of 40,000: "Rajni is very clear about not using his screen charisma for selfish ends. He discourages his fans from becoming sycophants. He will never use them as a stepping stone to clamber on to any throne."
A sizeable section of his fans would have only been too happy if their hero had done an MGR. But any hurried comparison between the former chief minister and Rajnikant would be misguided. MGR worked in a sustained manner to develop his political image and screen image simultaneously till the two merged together. Even while he was an actor he was an active member of the Congress party. He switched to the DMK in 1953 and was elected to the legislative council in 1962. He became chief minister 15 years later. His fan associations were developed over the years and they grew as MGR grew as a politician.
However, if one were to gauge by the immediate effect of Rajnikant lending his support to the anti-Jayalalitha alliance, one has to admit that it is by any standards remarkable. Sun TV, quoting an opinion poll, has substantiated this. The Rajni factor has virtually changed the complexion of the electoral outcome. If the DMK-Moopanar Congress is now talking about a landslide win, then it is thanks to Rajnikant and also his loyal fan following.
Incidentally, Rajnikant is the third filmstar to create waves in Tamil politics. Like him, the other two, MGR and his protege Jayalalitha, also rode to power on Dravidian politics. The one common thread that binds the three is that they were all outsiders—MGR was a Keralite, Jayalalitha a Kannadiga and Rajnikant a Maharashtrian. The Dravidian parties usually never known to favour outsiders have strangely enough time and again, placed their destiny in non-Tamil hands.