At this time last year there was extensive speculation about the succession in Tamil Nadu after the death of chief minister J. Jayalalithaa in December 2016. The cupboard seemed bare, apart from the DMK under Stalin and the fumbling nonentities of the ruling party then led by O. Panneer Selvam. The picture is radically different today, with two Tamil cinema superstars and a “Prince of Smiles” throwing their hats in the ring. T. T. V. Dhinakaran, nephew of jailed Jayalalithaa aide V. K. Sasikala, is high on the intoxication of victory in the recent R. K. Nagar by-election, held by the late chief minister, AIADMK’s only leader. But there is far greater interest in the electoral prospects of Kamal Hassan and especially Rajinikanth, the reigning colossus of Tamil cinema.

The intimate, indeed, inextricable, connection between politics and cinema in the state needs no emphasis. The two go together in a way that made the candidature of Rajini almost inevitable in the scheme of things. In any case, his prospects of joining the circus have been debated for a long time, more than 20 years. Rajinikanth is a cult figure with almost mythical status and a fan following in the millions organised in thousands of fan clubs across the state and other parts of the south. As a political phenomenon he is clearly untried but the potential cannot be denied. The same is true, to a lesser degree, of Kamal Hassan; he’s always come across as more human.

He threw in his hat somewhat unexpectedly a couple of months ago and his position is clearer than some regional politicians. At this point he identifies the Bharatiya Janata Party as an adversary and so has placed himself as a possible third front. That is not saying much, true, but none of the parties including the DMK has said even that. Rajini has not spoken yet, except in movie dialogue generalities, but the BJP is wooing him energetically as they need a strong face to mount any sort of challenge to the Dravidian parties. In that sense Kamal Hassan's position is different. Beyond that there is little clarity, although corruption is the principal enemy and the state's interests sacrosanct.

If all this sounds a bit vague Rajinikanth’s position is positively mystical. He intends to practise “spiritual politics” and root out corruption, as he always does in the movies. Precisely what role he has in mind is not stated, whether Sivaji the Boss, Thalapati or even the grizzled immortal in Muthu. He is always for the people, though maybe not of them. The people need saving and that calls for a full-time superhero, not a mortal.

He intends to practise “spiritual politics” and root out corruption, as he always does in the movies. Precisely what role he has in mind is not stated, whether Sivaji the BossThalapati or even the grizzled immortal in Muthu.  

The subtext is remarkable for its opacity. There is nothing about how the state's various problems of governance, finance or faltering utilities such as power and public transport will be addressed. Corruption is easy to talk about because we all see it but less easy to eliminate as everyone has a vested interest in it. What is the chance that it will simply vanish if we vote for one superstar or other when even a clear government directive to operate auto-rickshaws by meter is violated every day in every part of the state? It requires a special kind of magic to work that trick.

There is even less said about how either intends to run government, but given the norm the best we can expect is a benevolent, all-powerful leader, the kind of sterile paternalism that encourages placemen and destroys internal debate and the possibility of self-dependent, grassroots leaders. The damage such a regime can do is sometimes irreversible. This state knows it only too well from the previous government, where no one but Jayalalithaa counted for anything. In an act of childish spite that is hard to equal she virtually destroyed the Anna Memorial Library simply because it was set up by her bête noire M. Karunanidhi. Her mentor M.G. Ramachandran’s governments were as bad, at the mercy of the whims of an erratic autocrat, with powerful officials reduced to fawning lickspittles. Superstars seem to be cursed with a tendency to authoritarianism bordering on the megalomaniacal. Both MGR and his successor were outstanding examples; a practitioner of “spiritual politics” might be even more convinced of his rectitude.

It is perhaps a little early to hyperventilate about the perils of dictatorship posed by these two, but given the public preference for demagogues and their own formidable, though varying, mass appeal the prospect of seeing one of them in the CM’s chair can be nothing less than discouraging.