It was a session titled “Can Rajinikanth eclipse Amma?”, and politicians from the ideology-heavy firmament of Tamil Nadu addressed a gathering of eager listeners at the two-day the India Today South Conclave 2018, taking place in Hyderabad. While the deficit of superstar politicians was noted in the very title of the session - mourning and remembering J Jayalalithaa’s legacy - it was also about the cusp in which Tamil Nadu finds itself in at present, awaiting the entry of another matinee idol Rajinikanth and his “spiritual” brand of politics.
Attended by DMK’s young spokesperson Manuraj S, suspended and sharp-as-ever Congressman Mani Shankar Aiyar, as well as leaders of the AIADMK in V Maitreyan of the EPS-OPS camp, and V Pugazhendhi of the TTV Dhinakaran camp, this was a session that gave a brilliant insight into Tamil Nadu’s political heart and soul - the Dravidian politics of anti-caste justice.
In fact, not only Tamil Nadu, but the other four states and one union territory in southern India, including Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala and Puducherry, are admittedly standing at a cusp, faced by a politics from outside that’s being perceived as too invasive, as everyone on the panel opined. The session was moderated by India Today TV’s managing editor, Rahul Kanwal.
I don't think @superstarrajini or @ikamalhaasan will be able to become great politicians: Mani Shankar Aiyar at India Today #SouthConclave18.Watch Live at https://t.co/tj9yqTQNKX pic.twitter.com/JOv9og8uAX— India Today (@IndiaToday) January 19, 2018
DMK’s Manuraj S, in a candid and eloquent argument, said that Tamil Nadu’s future isn’t tethered to any one political superstar, whether it’s Jayalalithaa, or Rajinikanth. In fact, he said the political vacuum thrown up by the death of MGR, NTR, YSR, Annadurai, among others, always led to the question as to who will fill in those huge shoes. But, as Manuraj S, asserted, it’s the Dravidian style of politics that’s been the dominant narrative in Tamil Nadu.
He added that not just Tamil Nadu, but all southern states are faced today by a common threat represented by the BJP, and its “continued assault” on the south. He said that the BJP considers the south of India the last frontier, and its affiliates are therefore engaged in divisive politics to capture this bastion. To the question of corruption, he said that it’s disingenuous to conflate Dravidian politics with corruption, since the BJP’s Bangaru Laxman has been convicted of corruption as well. Moreover, only one chief minister - Jayalalithaa, from the Dravidian parties, has been convicted in a corruption case, so it’s not fair an allegation.
He said since its inception in the pre-independence era, Dravidian parties, such as the Justice Party was committed to social justice, bring women in the electorate, mid-day meals, reservation for Dalits, and making space for the marginalised.
Manuraj S called the BJP the “biggest threat to the Dravidian legacy”. He said whether it’s Rajinikanth or Kamal Haasan, the cinema stars need to define their political stance better. Especially of Rajinikanth, he said that “spiritual” politics remains nebulous, and is susceptible to be hijacked by those espousing sectarian politics, such as the BJP.
On 2019 Lok Sabha poll alliance, Manuraj S said that DMK would choose a party (between the BJP and the Congress) that “wouldn’t dictate terms from Nagpur, Delhi or Gorakhpur”.
For his part, Mani Shankar Aiyar made similar candid and brilliantly phrased comments on various aspects of Dravidian politics, broadly agreeing with Manuraj S of the DMK. To Rahul Kanwal’s question on whether cinema stars like Rajinikanth would sweep Tamil Tadu politics, Aiyar said, "Superb politicians take advantage of cinema to spread the message of social justice, propagate a social message, not otherwise."
Giving the example of Jayalalithaa, Karunanidhi, MGR, NTR and others, Aiyar said that most of them were long associated with Dravidian politics, and leveraged cinema to that end, in the cause of the Dravidian movement.
Aiyar added that he has seen much bigger pan-India stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, or even a Tamil star like Shivaji Ganesan, make a complete flop of themselves in politics, precisely because of their lack of connection to rooted politics. Aiyar said, Rajinikanth would have to spell out his “spiritual” politics better, else even his fan club wouldn’t be able to help him, since political loyalties of Rajini fans doesn’t automatically shift in case their celluloid idol steps into politics.
Aiyar said he never called Modi a “chaiwala”, when asked of that question yet again, and candidly admitted that his family is a little alarmed when he opens his mouth in public these days. However, he said the Congress would take him back in due time, because he’s not afraid of the “heat” in the political “kitchen”, and remains a steadfast Congressman.
Aiyar strongly defended A Raja of DMK, and said he was a man targeted unfairly by both media and the Congress party alike. On 2019, he expressed hope that a “rainbow coalition of secular forces” would defeat the BJP-led alliance, which he called an “aberration”. He said he had immense respect for the Dravidian parties and their ideological commitment to social justice, and therefore is always deferential to both the AIADMK and the DMK.
AIADMK’s V Maitreyan said: "Amma was his great star." But on the imminent entry of Rajinikanth, he said politics is a 100-metre race, but being a cinema star helps only till 10 metres, after that one needs to do the hard work. He also said the AIADMK will work in a united manner, and brushed aside allegations of corruption.
V Pugazhendhi said the RK Nagar bypoll, which was won convincingly by Dhinakaran, was itself the biggest proof as to who’s the inheritor of Jayalalithaa’s legacy. He brushed aside the allegation of “cash for votes”, a sting operation done by India Today TV, and said it was a poll conducted by the Election Commission of India, and there should be no doubt about the ECI’s integrity. He also said Rajinikanth would go back to cinema once again, since like his last ventures, this too would fizzle out.