The veracity of Rajinikanth’s assertion of a leadership vacuum existing in Tamil Nadu and its resulting implications demand analysis
Rajnikanth repeatedly reiterated a statement that "there is a leadership vacuum persist still in Tamil Nadu" which triggered arguments in both the DMK and the AIADMK. The leaders of both the parties responded by arguing that there is no such leadership vacuum as Edapadi Palanisamy and M K Stalin have emerged as leaders that people have recognised as discharging their respective responsibilities as Chief Minister and opposition leader. They are giving messages to the public through media that binary politics will continue. Why Rajnikanth made such a comment at this juncture is a question to be pondered over. After the Lok Sabha election, this question has not been raised as DMK won the Lok Sabha election convincingly in Tamil Nadu. The DMK media wing and the leaders have proclaimed that the electoral victory has demonstrated that people have recognized M K Stalin as a leader and this trend will continue in the next legislative assembly election also. People of Tamil Nadu have learnt the art of changing the regimes through the ballot, even the iconic leaders of Tamil Nadu politics are not exempt. DMK and the AIADMK have come to power alternatively. In the last 2016 election, J Jayalalitha broke the trend and created a record of AIADMK getting consecutive victories. It was unexpected and yet the DMK also won more than 80 seats under the leadership of M K Stalin.
Getting votes from the people in Tamil Nadu is not an easy affair. Both the DMK and the AIADMK have crossed the stage of using the caste card to corner votes for electoral victory. By liberally announcing populist schemes competitively, they have faced the election in Tamil Nadu. After a certain period, moving beyond populism, huge money has been invested to purchase votes by both the parties. Thus, competitive populism coupled with cash for votes made the smaller parties helpless in this type of competition. But they were put under the mercy of the two political giant parties. For their survival, they have to align either with the DMK or with the AIADMK. All these parties have done so with much reluctance.
Everyone in Tamil Nadu knows that the present set of leaders do not have the leadership qualities of Rajaji, K Kamaraj, C N Annadurai, M Karunanidhi, M G Ramachandran and J Jayalalitha. They were an elevated class of leaders on their own. Leaders today are not of the type that we have seen in the past. They have been brought to these positions by circumstances. They cannot be compared with those leaders of the past. Though all the leaders were from this region with strong regional bonds, they had national perspective and national recognition as well. Their influence in national politics was also high. Their contribution to national politics was unfathomable. They were not just political leaders but were also mass leaders. They had distinct leadership qualities which drew the attention of the national leaders and the masses. The Tamil population is expecting such a kind of leadership in present circumstances.
Rajnikanth's statement was thus made as people perceived that such leadership qualities do not come attached to posts and positions. Rajnikanth had fair reason to come out with this assertion at this juncture. The present AIADMK party despite being in power with the same old symbol of the two leaves has faced defeat after defeat in the elections including Lok Sabha election. Media and the opinion makers have come to the conclusion that AIADMK is in the last phase of its political life. Many have optimistically started writing and projecting that M K Stalin has emerged as a true leader.
Nevertheless, there are three important reasons which have compelled Rajnikanth to make such a statement. First, the Vellore Lok Sabha by-election. The DMK has won and yet the margin of victory has raised a question of where the vote share of the DMK and its allies had gone. The victory margin is very thin even though the consolidated Muslim vote bank went in favour of the DMK. This has raised a doubt as to whether the mood of the people has changed. Secondly, in the recent by-election, the AIADMK has snatched away both the seats of Nanguneri and Vikravandi from the Indian National Congress and the DMK respectively. Both the DMK and the AIADMK faced the by-election with the same alliance partners. If the Lok Sabha election trend continued, both the constituencies, the Indian National Congress and the DMK would have retained the seats comfortably. Thirdly, the electoral victory margin is not very thin. Huge difference in the margin of the electoral victory of the AIADMK candidates in both the constituencies created doubt about the winnability of the DMK in the next Assembly election. This change has created questions in the minds of the opinion makers.
Is the DMK taking steps to introspect as it is a well organised scientific party with cadre pack up? The reality is that some changes are taking place in the minds of the voters in Tamil Nadu. The question is whether the leaders of the present context in Tamil Nadu have the ability, skill, knowledge, perspective, commitment, passion, capacity, capability, to create new narratives in Tamil Nadu politics, as Rajaji, K Kamaraj, C N Annadurai, M Karunanidhi, M G Ramachandran and J Jayalalitha had created in the past. There is a general feeling that the present-day leaders do not have such a kind of ability. This has been reflected by Rajnikanth.
Further, one has to understand that Rajnikanth is not making senseless statements. He was closer to power circle and tested his influence many times in Tamil Nadu politics and saw the ups and downs.
In this context, he made the observation that Tamil Nadu has a leadership vacuum and not from the perspective of facing elections by the leaders of the parties. Hence, he decided to come to politics to contest in the next general election to the legislative assembly.
The writer is a former Professor and Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies, Gandhigram Rural Institute. Views expressed are strictly personal