It looked as if the BJP was hoping to use Rajinikanth to press their seat-bargain with the AIADMK.
Now with the Rajini bait gone, the question now is not how much the BJP would settle for, but how much the AIADMK would be ready to offer, notes N Sathiya Moorthy.
With the not-so-unanticipated exit of superstar Rajinikanth from the political scene in Tamil Nadu even before he had named his promised party, the chances are that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre, which is seen as pressuring him to enter the electoral scene, may have to eat humble pie at the hands of the AIADMK leader of the National Democratic Alliance coalition in the state, ahead of the assembly polls, due in May 2021.
The speculation is that even AIADMK Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami's delayed assertion against a post-poll coalition government (if the alliance came to power), and also the preceding meeting with state BJP chief L Murugan calling on him, may have had to do with Rajini's impending decision.
That Rajini may reconsider his earlier announcement of naming the party and its symbol on New Year Eve, and follow it up with a former launch in January, possibly in the auspicious Tamil month of Thai, beginning with the harvest festival of Pongal, in mid-January, had become known when he ended up being hospitalised in Hyderabad, where he was shooting for his next film, Annaththe, produced by the DMK's Maran family, with fluctuating blood pressure.
As has been reported, some members of the film's crew had tested positive for Covid, forcing Rajini, with an acknowledged compromised kidney, to go into self-quarantine, followed by hospitalisation for his BP condition.
Though Rajini had tested negative for Covid, the possibility of the BP flucturation having to do with his kidney condition could not be ruled out, according to some medical doctors, who are, however, not privy to his medical records.
As Rajini indicated in a three-page long statement in Tamil on Tuesday, announcing his latest decision, he did not want to sound chivalrous by saying he will join politics despite his severe health concerns and that he did not want to 'make a victim' of his supporters now.
A fair assessment this, and a fairer confession, one cannot expect. That his concern for the health of his own fans for decades, who hoped to stand by him through his political travel, was if paramount concern for him, the super-star had indicated at every turn.
'Therefore, I inform with great regret I am unable to come to politics by floating a political party. Only I know the pain behind making this announcement,' Rajini added in this statement.
Yet, he declared that he will serve people in whatever ways he can without entering electoral politics. Again, not to be unexpected from the 70-year-old human who had promised to promote 'aanmiha arasiyal', or the kind of 'spiritual politics', indicated more with honesty and integrity in public life than saffronisation of the BJP kind, as his critics and even more that of the BJP-RSS Sangh Parivar had been targeting throughout.
Independent of the fact that it will take time for the message to sink in, in hard-core Rajini fans, who had been preparing for the D-day for three long years since he announced his decision to enter direct politics on New Year Eve 2017, questions on the electoral impact of his decisions have begun doing the rounds.
The first and foremost is naturally about what it means for the AIADMK-led BJP-NDA alliance in the state, as at least the BJP has been clamouring to name the combine all along.
The AIADMK has always been nonchalant about acknowledging as such, just as the rival DMK had named the Congress-UPA in the assembly polls of 2006 as the Democratic Progressive Alliance. The Congress, though upset, did not contest it, but the fact was the the incumbent J Jayalalithaa government under the AIADMK flag was defeated, after all.
For the AIADMK, it is not only about asserting its leadership position of the alliance, which alone, party insiders say, will help them win the assembly polls.
Apart from internal assessments that have reportedly shown them that the BJP was an electoral burden, as happened in last year's parliamentary polls, the very idea of giving too much importance to the national ally with less than three per cent proven vote-share in the state, can cause heartburn in AIADMK cadres.
The logic is simple. The more seats that the AIADMK gives the BJP, the more risks that they are taking.
In context, they quote the late DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi as to how they lost the 2016 assembly election, by allocating 41 seats in a total of 234 to the national Congress ally, of which, the party could win only eight.
Added to that is the 'burden' of the BJP's anti-incumbency, which in the absence of any overt appeal for the 'Modi magic' of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the rest of the country, hit the AIADMK very badly in the state.
Even in EPS' Gounder-community strong western region, otherwise a traditional AIADMK stronghold since MGR launched the party in 1972, the alliance fared very badly.
In Coimbatore city, where BJP veteran C P Radhakrishnan should have won by five lakh votes, going by previous figures, he lost by a three lakh vote margin, to a CPI-M candidate.
In Karur, a Congress novice of sorts, Jothimani, defeated AIADMK senior and former Lok Sabha deputy speaker M Thambidurai by a four lakh vote margin.
The AIADMK strategists have attributed it to the bad hit that the textile, hosiery, plantation and SMEs in the region had taken, no thanks, to Modi's demonetisation, GST and now, Covid management.
Citing state government officials, a Tamil media report has since claimed that there were about 2.5 lakh returnee-employees from overseas, post-Covid, and that is going to make the state economy almost irretrievable despite the EPS government's claims to the contrary.
Incidentally, the state government took out full front-page advertisements across all daily newspapers on Tuesday morning, without possibly knowing about Rajinikanth's statement. The ad mixed the Centre's statistics with media assessments, to claim that the state under EPS was first in almost all sectors, starting with governance.
But insiders say that they would still have to work hard if they have to make an electoral impact in these hard times.
It is here that the AIADMK strategists seem to think that they needed to 'fix' the BJP before it became too late.
After meeting EPS on Monday, state BJP chief Murugan had told newsmen that the national leadership was likely to make the party's position on the electoral alliance in three or four days. He did not respond to media queries on EPS' assertion that there would not be a coalition government in the state.
Ahead of Rajini's current decision, BJP leaders in the state, and also from the Centre, had left media men and even more the AIADMK ally guessing as to the poll alliance, coalition government and chief ministerial candidate.
Ever since the AIADMK leadership announced at an official function in the presence of Unioh Home Minister Amit Shah in Chennai a few weeks back, BJP leaders have been seemingly distancing themselves enough for the claims that EPS would be the chief ministerial candidate, as earlier agreed upon by AIADMK factions, the other one led by three-time chief minister O Panneerselvam, considered to be closer to the BJP national leadership.
More recently, Union Minister Prakash Javadekar, who was in Chennai, left mediamen confused more than guessing on all relevant questions. It did not go down well with the AIADMK, after all.
Long back, the BJP's Murugan had declared that the party could win as many as 60 seats on its own, indicating that they would not settle for a small number, if offered by the AIADMK.
It looked as if the BJP, both in the state and at the Centre, was hoping to use Rajinikanth and his new party as decoy for them to press their seat-bargain with the AIADMK even more.
Now with the Rajini bait gone, the question now is not how much the BJP would settle for, but how much the AIADMK would be ready to offer.
Now with what is seen as the BJP's strong-arm strategy boomeranging on the party, and possibly for the first time under the Modi-Shah leadership, indications are that the AIADMK would not flinch if push came to shove, and they are threatened with the possibility of tax raids and the like.
Even the pending DMK petition on corruption charges against the AIADMK government, presented to Governor Banwarilal Purohit, falls into this box.
According to AIADMK insiders, who knows, the "Tamil Nadu people may love it if EPS is unyielding to pressures of the kind that had been put on us since Jayalalithaa's hosptialisation and death."
After all, says one, Jayalalithaa was loved for her toughness against the Centre, with the result, the AIADMK won 23 out of 39 seats from the state in the Lok Sabha polls of 2014, when Modi's popularity was at its first peak.
Such AIADMK sources say that more than targeting the AIADMK, 'undecided' and 'swing voters' will go all out for the leader who was ready to stand up to the pulls and pressures exerted by an overbearing ruling party at the Centre.
Then there is the question of the fate of the 'Rajini votes', if any.
Indications are that the figure might not have crossed the five-per cent mark, or even less, as the traditional voter-wanting-change had not seen Rajini come out openly on his commitments and public pronouncements before this one.
For now, Swaminathan Gurumurthy, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue and editor of the Tamil political weekly Thuglak, launched by that satirist of a journalist, the late Cho S Ramaswamy, who was among those Rajini consulted on his political entry, has tweeted that the superstar would still be as influential as he was in Elections 1996, when incumbent chief minister Jayalalithaa lost power and also her Bargur seat.
Gurumurthy has referred to the penultimate paragraph in Rajini's statement, saying that by promising to do whatever good he could do to the people yet, Rajini was only indicating his mind about a possible future role (however limited).
AIADMK Minister D Jayakumar was more explicit when he said that Rajini would support them this time -- which, of course, implied an alliance with the BJP, still.
However, Rajini fans are confused. The superstar had fed them on an anti-Dravidian political diet, however limited, through the past three years. They were not for his joining hands with the BJP.
He was even reported to have told a conclave of the office-bearers of the Rajini Makkal Mandram, the fans association that turned into a welfare organisation, that he would recognise the fact that Muslims and Dalits also being among his fans.
Though the fans had all along not ruled out the possibility of Rajini hanging the boots even without wearing them, especially so after his Hyderabad hospitalisation, when the announcement became real, they are as confused as they are upset.
Yet, when the chips are down, the chances are that they might settle for a more agreeable anti-Dravidian force, even if their vote were to 'go waste'.
Will Kamalahassan's Makkkal Needhi Maiyam with a 3.5 per cent vote-share in Elections 2019 be the beneficiary? That is whoever from among the Rajini fans who do not stay away from the polling booths.
Should an opinion evolve from within that the BJP had pressured their Thalaivar all along, then the alliance in which the party is in, may have cause to grieve -- at least in the constituencies allotted to the BJP.
Given the 41-40 per cent vote-share lead that the incumbent AIADMK registered in the assembly polls of 2016, as against the massive victory margins recorded by the rival DMK combine in LS-2019, every vote might count between now and the polling day, and every Rajini vote may be those votes that needed counting.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.