'Thalaiva' Rajinikanth's Big Debut With "Secular, Spiritual Politics"
Rajinikanth is one of India's highest paid actors and enjoys cult-like following across India
It's now or never, Rajinikanth said dramatically as he announced finally today, after years of suspense, that he would join politics. "I am ready to sacrifice my life for the Tamil people," he declared passionately, not sounding unlike the larger-than-life action heroes he has played in his movies.
The 69-year-old superstar will announce his party on New Year's Eve and launch it in January, five months before the Tamil Nadu election. "Wonderful and amazing things will happen!" he promised without stating explicitly that he would contest the polls.
One of India's highest paid actors, Rajinikanth said with "huge support from people" his party would bring "honest, transparent, corruption-free, caste-less, secular and spiritual politics" in the state.
With this, the former bus conductor moves from a cameo in politics to a lead role.
In October, Rajinikanth seemed reluctant to jump in after a leaked letter seemed to indicate that doctors had advised him to stay away from politics, given his health after a renal transplant, which made him vulnerable to Covid.
The actor enjoys cult-like following across India, especially the south, where he is popular as the "Thalaivar" (leader).
His movies are a big festival in Tamil Nadu, with fans praying for him, many getting haircuts like his latest character and some even pouring milk on his giant posters.
Rajnikanth was a bus conductor in Bengaluru before he moved into acting in 1973, going on to build a vast repertoire of films in Mumbai as well as the south. Few stars can match the devotion that fans lavish on him.
But can it translate to votes?
Rajinikanth proved his political impact in 1996 when the ruling AIADMK's defeat in the Tamil Nadu polls was ascribed to one statement by him. ""If J Jayalalithaa (then Chief Minister and AIADMK chief) is voted back, even God cannot save Tamil Nadu," he had said.
Rajinikanth said in 2017 that he wanted to enter politics to bring "change in Tamil Nadu". His fans celebrated, but had to wait as the actor weighed in on various subjects without actively joining politics.
He launched his own movement, Rajini Makkal Mandram (RMM), but was perceived to be waffling over taking a gamble on politics and elections.
Rajinikanth has long contested talk about his political leanings.
In 1995, when he met with then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, there was talk about him joining the Congress.
In 2004, just before the national election, the actor pledged support to the AIADMK-BJP alliance but it flopped in Tamil Nadu.
Last year, he announced he would not contest the national election and that his outfit would not support any party.
Rajinikanth's move has well-known precedents in the south. Actor-turned-politician NT Rama Rao launched his political party in 1982 and became Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister in 1983. The difference is that Mr Rao, popularly known as "NTR", was just 60. Rajinikanth is 70 and not in the best of health, those close to him say quoting doctors.