Tamil film superstar Rajinikanth announced on Sunday that he will launch a political party, ending months of speculation about his future, prompting a series of congratulatory messages from some of India’s biggest celebrities, and sending his fans across Tamil Nadu into a celebratory frenzy.
The 67-year-old, who had last week promised a “big announcement” on December 31, said his party would contest the next assembly elections in the state and field candidates for all 234 seats.
“I am joining politics for sure,” he said amid thunderous applause at a packed Sri Raghavendra Kalyana Mandapam in Chennai. Quoting a shloka from the Bhagwad Gita that stresses the importance of doing one’s duty and leaving the rest to God, he added: “It is the compulsion of time.”
Tamil Nadu has a long history of members of its film industry turning to politics. Three of the state’s longest-serving chief ministers over the last 60 years – M Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa – made the transition from films to administration.
The announcement comes at a time when there is intense speculation about Rajinikanth’s compatriot and rival Kamal Haasan’s foray into politics as well. Haasan was among the first to send Rajinikanth his best wishes. “I congratulate my brother Rajini for his social consciousness and his political entry. Welcome welcome,” he tweeted.
Others who welcomed the decision were Amitabh Bachchan, who called Rajinikanth a “dear friend, a colleague and a humble considerate human”, and actor Khushboo, now with the Congress, who said that Rajnikanth “believes in inclusive democracy and development”.
Neither the Congress nor the BJP offered an official reaction, but BJP spokesman GVL Narasimha Rao tweeted: “Thiru Rajinikant is undoubtedly the superstar of Tamil cinema. But, there is only one unrivalled super star in national politics in @narendramodi #Thalaivaar knows it too well.”
India’s two big national parties will see Rajinikanth’s entry as an opportunity to make inroads into a state that has so far been dominated by two Dravidian parties – the AIADMK and the DMK. The Congress has not ruled the state since the creation of Tamil Nadu in 1969, and the BJP has never managed to win a seat in the state assembly.
Tamil Nadu politics has been turned on its head since the death of former chief minister and AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa in 2016. There is bitter tussle for control within her party, and the rival DMK, which has been out of power since 2011, is struggling to regain ground following allegations of corruption against some of its top leaders.
The assembly elections are due in 2021, but some experts warn of earlier polls because of the fluid political situation. “E Palaniswami and O Panneerselvam leading the AIADMK government enjoy neither popular support nor legitimacy,” said Chennai-based political analyst Ramu Manivannan. “The government may not last more than a few months and Centre could impose president’s rule. I expect the assembly elections to take place with the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.”
In his short speech, Rajinikanth said there was a need to the change the system to fight corruption, and called on fans to join the fight by becoming his “watchdog, not cadre”.
“In the name of democracy, politicians are robbing us of our own money in our own land,” he said. “At this juncture, if I don’t enter politics, it will be a shame on me as people have showered me with so much love and affection. This is not cinema. It is reality.”
No sooner had Rajinikanth ended his speech than celebrations broke out at the venue and in different parts of the state. Sweets were distributed in buses and on trains, fans danced to songs from some of his hit films, and chants of “thalaivar” (leader) could be heard on the streets of Chennai.