Rajinikanth has touched a raw nerve in Tamil Nadu politics with his reference to Periyar's denigration of Hindu gods.
With Rajinikanth it is really difficult to know whether he unwittingly lands himself in controversies or whether there is some well thought out intent behind his statements. Or, is it that expectations are so high about the actor that whatever he says is discussed threadbare to gauge his intentions; in the unending guessing game on Rajinikanth that is played out in Tamil Nadu.
Rajinikanth, in an effort to be pleasing to everyone, is on a perpetual balancing act. He says something, goes out and says something else, and then clarifies it, which in turn causes more confusion. It all gives the impression that he can't stick his neck out.
What he really meant to say is for some political commentators who claim a special friendship with him to interpret him and they say there is nothing 'saffron' about him. He is just a good friend of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah and admires their commitment and energy. They also say he sees Rahul Gandhi in a positive light and that was the reason why during the Congress leader’s resignation, he said Rahul should stay and "prove he can do it". What it really means is that he could go either way, and it will all be decided during the polls, and that all options are open and on the table.
Rajinikanth is now in the eye of a storm for his statement referring to Dravida Kazhagam leader Periyar. Periyar is considered a Dravidian icon beyond reproach in Tamil Nadu, and any criticism of him is enough for Dravidian parties to close ranks.
Periyar is not new to Rajinikanth. His 2002 film Baba, which is considered to be the nearest to any philosophical/ideological statement by Rajinikanth, also has a reference to Periyar. In it, Rajini plays an atheist who finds he is a reincarnation of a great saint from the Himalayas. The film has a lyric with a reference to Periyar becoming Rajaji. "It’s a miracle how Periyar turned into Rajaji", meaning an atheist has turned into a believer.
Rajinikanth's 2002 film Baba is also has a reference to Periyar.
Dravida Kazhagam took objection to the song even before the film was released and Rajinikanth was quick to regret and said the words would be blanked out in the movie. But that was almost 18 years ago, and Rajini has grown in stature and political ambition.
Now, Rajinikanth has touched a raw nerve in Tamil Nadu politics with his reference to Periyar's denigration of Hindu gods. His fans are overjoyed that their star is finally taking a stand and is sticking his neck out, rather than buckling under pressure. Rajini is now being seen by his fans as strong, and not the weakling that they feared he would turn out to be.
Periyar is seen as an icon of OBC political assertion. Any attempt to deride him will be seen as an attempt to undermine the gains made by OBCs even beyond Tamil Nadu. (Illustration: Shaym)
The DMK combine which should have naturally come to the rescue of Periyar and criticise Rajinikanth, are fairly muted in their response. They are hoping that the controversy would go away, as they are not in a mood to go out and support Periyar or recall his strident atheism, which they think could now irritate their voters. While the DMK has some atheistic undercurrents, these are undercurrents at best and party leaders and their families are active in religious events and festivals. Nowadays, they go out of their way to prevent them from being branded as anti-Hindu.
Despite Periyar's narrative of atheism and anti-Brahminism being the bedrock of parties like DMK, the parties would prefer to avoid references to Periyar's explicit atheist antics. They would prefer to focus on the social justice aspect of Periyar and how his anti-Brahmin movement led to an empowerment of the backward castes and Dalits in the state.
The AIADMK is surprisingly more strident in its criticism of Rajinikanth. Some important ministers have come out against Rajinikanth, with the 'he does not know what he is talking about' kind of criticism, while some junior ministers begged to differ. They fear Rajinikanth is angling for the soft Hindutva plank of Jayalalitha. They would not want to let it go. State Congress leaders have cautioned him on unwittingly being sucked into a sectarian agenda.
Effigies of Rajinikanth were burnt in Tamil Nadu and protesters laid siege to his house. The protests were led by the splinter groups of the Dravidar Kazhagam, which do not contest the polls. This time around they are politically with the DMK combine and would drag the issue as far as it would help push Rajinikanth into a corner, to paint him as someone who is opposed to the aspirations of the backward castes of Tamil Nadu. But beyond that, they too might be unwilling to brazen it out on Periyar's strident atheism.
The intricate dance between the BJP and Rajinikanth, which has been going on for years has also reached a tipping point. He has been making contradictory noises for long, seemingly friendly with the BJP and yet telling his audiences that he does not want a 'saffron tinge' on him. With the 'Periyar denigrating Hindu gods' reference, Rajinikanth's die is cast. There is no way to get off the tiger.
If he had recanted or apologised or had avoided the media glare, Rajinikanth could as well have said goodbye to politics.
As of now, it looks like Rajini has won the first round, with his refusal to apologise.
However, it is just a minor skirmish, the battle is yet to begin. And in the next round, his rivals will decide on what issue they want to fight on.