You have not arrived as a politician in Tamil Nadu unless you take the steps to the balcony to wave to the delirious crowds below. Rajinikanth, the actor that he is, also knows the balcony view is the best. So a la Jayalalithaa, within minutes of announcing his entry into politics, he strode to the balcony of the Raghavendra Kalyana Mandapam, the function hall in Chennai on Sunday morning. The namaskaram, the flying kisses, the whistles, the cheer, the slogans, from the world below him completed the picture.
The First Day First Show of Rajinikanth, the politician, was a sell-out.
But does it automatically convert into making Rajinikanth a hit as a politician as well? To understand what could work for the Superstar and what will not, it is important to understand the Tamil Nadu political ecosystem.
The Tamil film industry has always been closely intertwined with the political theatre of Tamil Nadu. Most of the chief ministers the state has seen - be it Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran or Jayalalithaa - have had their roots in Tamil cinema. While Karunanidhi is an ace writer, MGR and Jayalalithaa were top stars of their time. The glamour quotient always worked as a draw at the political box office, contributing to a cult personality leadership in Tamil Nadu.
But what it also meant is that so long as the MGR vs Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa vs Karunanidhi political rivalries existed, stretching from the 1970s to 2016, no third force could rear its head in the state's politics. Actor Vijaykanth was the only big actor to try his luck during this period and managed a decent 10 per cent vote-share in the 2006 elections but could not hold on to it in subsequent electoral outings.
That is where Rajinikanth now has an advantage. He would have been a political non-starter if he had dared to take on Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. But now after Jayalalithaa's demise in December 2016 and Karunanidhi not well, a political vacuum exists in Tamil Nadu. This is more so because the AIADMK post-Jayalalithaa has been a fractured unit, with different second rung leaders squabbling for the top post. The DMK, that would have hoped to take advantage, has not been able to do so yet. With disgust over the lack of governance and political corruption, Rajinikanth comes into the space like a breath of fresh air.
This is also because he has made the announcement within a week of the verdict in the RK Nagar byelection. That poll saw unprecedented abuse of the electoral system, with voters bribed by the principal players. This has induced a sense of disgust and an untainted Rajinikanth who vows not to have any truck with the corrupt politicians, is seen as an option worth considering.
Also to be noted is that Rajinikanth, by far, is the biggest star Tamil cinema has seen in the last two and a half decades. He has metamorphosed into a brand, whose name spells magic for the box office. His Kannadiga roots could be a problem area given the friction between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over river Cauvery but in terms of stature, Rajinikanth towers over everyone else. The tremendous goodwill he enjoys and the fact that he rose to the top from humble beginnings as a bus conductor, all add to his aura and appeal.
But while his crusade against corruption has many takers, his announcement that he will do "spiritual politics'' has confused most people. There is no clarity on what it really means. The imagery in the form of Hindu symbols has only added to the perception that the BJP has played a role in nudging Rajini into politics.
The BJP was the first party to come out openly in support of Rajini's decision, congratulating him for the move. Understandable because most see synergy between BJP's Hindutva politics and Rajinikanth's spiritual outlook. With the BJP at best a fringe player in Tamil Nadu politics, the saffron party is looking to ally with the actor to ride on his popularity. Having peaked in north India in 2014, the BJP needs to pick up seats in states like Tamil Nadu in 2019 to make up for the deficit.
In contrast, the other actor Kamal Haasan who announced his political plunge in September is very clearly left of centre. He has expressed his disgust with extremist elements in the Hindu faith on more than one occasion. This divergence in ideological positions makes it difficult for Kamal and Rajini to work together in politics, like they had done in films in the 1970s. Though for the record, Kamal when asked in September if he will work with Rajini, answered in the affirmative.
With Dhinakaran gaining an upper hand post-RK Nagar and the possibility of the government collapse, the bets are on imposition of President's rule and early assembly elections either later this year or next year. Which may not leave both Rajini and Kamal with much time to organise their political outfits.
One thing is clear. If 2017 was a messy year in Tamil Nadu politics, 2018 promises to be a year of the multistarrer. The question is whether either of the stars will have the staying power to light up the Tamil Nadu sky.
(The author is a noted columnist and documentary director)