The letter D in DMK may as well stand for distraught if the pronouncements of its leader M.K. Stalin are anything to go by. “Undue importance is being given to statements made by some people to reporters standing outside the gates of his residence,” Stalin had remarked recently after Rajinikanth’s support for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act became a hot topic on Tamil news channels. True, Rajinikanth’s words—“No Indian Muslim would be affected by CAA and it is being politicised and students are being misled”—were spoken outside his Poes Garden residence. But more than the venue of his media interaction, it is the impact of the actor-politician’s words that has Stalin worried.
Rajinikanth’s support for the revamped citizenship law came at a time when the DMK was attempting to ramp up the issue through a signature campaign amid anti-CAA protests in Tamil Nadu. At the risk of being painted as a pro-BJP mouthpiece, Rajinikanth took the DMK head on for the second time within a month. Only in January he had refused to apologise for his “alleged” INSult to Periyar after recalling how the rationalist leader and his followers had denigrated Hindu gods in 1971.
Taken aback by Rajinikanth’s belligerence, the DMK had then sought to underplay the issue, while other Dravidian outfits threatened to drag Rajinikanth to court. When Stalin realised how Rajinikanth was using the controversy to indirectly paint the DMK and other Periyar supporters as anti-Hindu, he instructed the smaller Dravidian outfits to drop their offensive against the film star. “The DMK realised that keeping the Periyar controversy alive would only keep Rajinikanth in the political limelight,” says former Chennai deputy mayor Karate R. Thiagarajan. “Rajini has also become smarter by dictating the political discourse through well-timed interventions. His support for CAA was one such cleverly crafted move to test the waters.”
The Rajini factor has worried the DMK, keen to recapture power in 2021, ten years after being voted out in the state. In the absence of any charismatic leaders, Rajinikanth could emerge as its biggest challenger, the DMK fears. The party has drafted political strategist Prashant Kishore to blunt the star-power that Rajini would bring into the field. The DMK is also trying to live down its anti-Hindu image to deny Rajinikanth any advantage through his brand of “spiritual politics”. The meeting of its newly elected panchayat representatives commenced with lighting the traditional lamp—a first in DMK’s history.
“When there is a concerted move by the BJP and a few AIADMK ministers to paint us as enemies of Hindus, we have to counter them with the right messaging. That does not mean we have sacrificed our basic secular tenets,” explains a senior DMK functionary. The party needs to balance its minority votebank politics with some pro-Hindu gestures, though ostensibly it asserts that religion cannot sway votes in Dravidian Tamil Nadu.
The DMK also sought to indirectly woo actor Vijay, after he was subjected to an elaborate IT raid and taunted by state BJP leaders when Rs 70 crore in cash was seized from a financier who had bankrolled Vijay’s last big hit Bigil. DMK MPs tried to raise the issue in Parliament, while DMK leaders called the IT raids politically motivated to keep Vijay in check. Vijay has a huge phalanx of young fans and the DMK feels that roping them in would be an antidote to Rajini’s star power. Rajinikanth, meanwhile, is reportedly putting the finishing touches on his party, which he plans to launch after the Tamil New year in April. Unless he has his own party, his intentions would remain suspect and add grist to doubts that he would shirk away from taking the political plunge at the last minute.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai