Is Rajinikanth capable of filling the political vacuum in Tamil Nadu?

Tamil Nadu is in dire need of a Numero Uno. There is nobody in sight. The era of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi is over


Raman Swamy

If nature abhors a vacuum, then what is the explanation for the void in Tamil Nadu politics? Every other state of the Indian Union has a leader, good or bad, popular or unpopular, competent or incompetent. Some states have two, three and even a dozen crouching tigers and hidden dragons waiting in the wings for the chance to leap into the limelight.

But ever since that fateful day in September 2016 when Jayalalithaa entered Chennai’s Apollo Hospital, never to be seen again – except for a 20-second video clip that mysteriously surfaced a full year after her death, purportedly showing her propped up by pillows and taking a sip of what is presumably some nutritious juice or soup -- the eight crore people of the state she had ruled over like a Queen have been leaderless, rudderless and directionless.

In theory, there have been two different men occupying the chief minister’s chair during the past 15 months. But neither of them are leaders, even in the sense that Manoharlal Khattar of Haryana is or Mehbooba Mufti of J&K is, or Rabri Devi was, on three different occasions in the past. Or, for that matter, what Anandiben Patel was for a short while and Vijay Rupani has been so far (let us wait and see if his new second stint turns out to be less faceless than the fleeting first).

Incidentally, lest we underestimate Lalu Prasad’s spouse, it may surprise many to be reminded that Rabri Devi was the de jure chief minister of India’s third largest state by population for a total span of more than seven years - first from July 1997 to February 1999, then after a month’s gap, between March 1999 to March 2000, and finally for a solid five-year tenure from March 2000 to March 2005.

Also, now that the colourful personality she has been faithfully married to for 44 years is once again behind the bars, unforeseeable twists and turns of political fortune could catapult her to power yet again, who knows? As a mother of seven daughters and two sons, and seven years of experience on her political CV, Rabri Devi is arguably as capable of running the state as anybody else, especially the untested unknowns who have been gifted power in states like Uttarakhand and Himachal.

But for sheer obscurity, lack of mass appeal and absence of leadership qualities, OPS and EPS surely take the cake. It is doubtful if many Indians outside Tamil Nadu even know their full names let alone have an instant recall of their faces. Despite having been chief minister for over 300 days, EPS is yet to make a mark as a leader, as even his capricious flock of supporters are realizing, particularly after the fall of RK Nagar and the rise of Dinakaran. As for OPS, despite having occupied the CM’s chair as a caretaker CM on a couple of occasions and somewhat more assertively for a brief couple of months a year ago, the fact that he meekly accepted a demotion to deputy designation under EPS, of all people, sends its own signal – he himself does not consider himself as ‘numero uno’ material.

Tamil Nadu is in dire need of a Numero Uno. There is nobody in sight. The era of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi is over. One is no more, the other has retired due to old age and frail health. Whether their rule was glorious or not, none can deny that in their heyday, they made an impact as mass leaders. There was a strange and eerie symmetry to the pattern in which they vanquished each other on the hustings alternatively, but during their collective three decades Tamil Nadu was ruled by modern day titans, goliaths and godzillas rolled into one.

Today, the Tamil people look with lonely eyes at Amma and Dr Kalaingar and lament – where have you gone, why have you forsaken us? Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK is a party of orphans and pretenders. Karunanidhi’s DMK is in the hands of his son MK Stalin, who has shown little evidence so far of evolving from days as Chennai mayor into a true inheritor of his father’s legacy.

For the so-called national parties – Congress and the BJP – Tamil Nadu may as well be another country, judging by their electoral irrelevance in the state. Congress has a few marginal pockets of influence but no grassroots leaders. The votes secured by the BJP candidate at the recent by-election amounted to less than the total NOTA count.

Of late, superstar Kamal Hasan and mega-superstar Rajinikanth have made tentative excursions into the political domain. Both have fan followings as matinee idols but no political support base. On Tuesday, Rajinikanth announced his intention to make up his mind about whether to take the plunge on December 31.

He is clearly still in two minds, a state of mind distinctly uncharacteristic of somebody with a Superman image. His reference to leaving the decision to God Almighty also does not sound right at a time when the last thing India needs is another believer in superstition and pseudo-religious mumbo jumbo. The latest Rajinikanth joke on the streets of Chennai is that the mega superstar was recently offered the lead role of the blockbuster “Mission Impossible 6”, due to be released in March next year. Rajini turned it down because he found the title of the film insulting. For him, everything is possible, nothing is impossible. Except, it seems, the ability to make up his mind about filling the void in Tamil Nadu politics.

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