Rajinikanth and creating his own playbook!

“Normal people go to a party on 31st Dec., but Rajinikanth forms his own party on 31st Dec.”! This joke got added to the myriad “legend of Rajinikanth” jokes that storm the internet in regular frequency usually before his film releases. His next film 2.0 is still few months away. But his career 2.0 finally got released.

What were hitherto just signals and hesitant testing of waters turned into a clearly stated commitment on the last day of 2017, when Rajinikanth announced his intent to enter electoral politics in Tamil Nadu. The journey from being a matinee idol, Superstar Rajinikanth to the Thalaivar Rajinikanth has begun in right earnest. It’s clear that Rajini now sees an opening in TN to make an impact amidst the current political vacuüm that has engulfed TN since the demise of Jayalalitha and the virtual retirement of Karunanidhi. And for common people, of what has now become a rudderless Turmoil Nadu, Rajinikanth is their beacon of hope.

Why did Rajini decide to take the plunge now?  If you map Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into Rajini’s life, he is probably past the first 4 needs (Physiological, Safety, Love & Belonging and Esteem) and now he is seeking “Self Actualisation”. Nothing else explains his craving today to jump into politics having been so successful in his film career. The point to note is, if he lived in a state like Maharashtra, probably he would have just walked into the sunset like a Dilip Kumar. But TN has a strong precedent of popular actors trying their luck with politics (with mixed success though) and hence has shown politics to be the path to Self Actualisation for any mega successful actor.  Explains Kamal’s recent fishing in political waters as well.

If you just go by history just in TN, you have examples of stars who succeeded big time in politics and who failed miserably. MGR, Jayalalitha count in the 1st category while Shivaji Ganesan, Vijayakanth and a host of others fall in the 2nd. These tried to emulate the MGR playbook which didn’t work. In another era and environment, to succeed, Rajini needs to create his own playbook today. For which, he needs to know not just his strengths and weaknesses but also limitations of his strengths. Just like how he knew these and managed well in his film career all these years.

Having been an extremely successful actor and elevated to being a legend in the last 20 years, his popularity, charisma and top of the mind recall among the masses in TN are unparalleled. So he starts with this huge advantage of connecting with the youth, women and the underprivileged instantly.

Rajini has thus far a super clean image. He is not known to have cheated people or swindled others’ money. Stories of him returning money to distributors when his films like Baba and Lingaa flopped have only helped cultivate the image of him as a person with high moral values.

Rajini’s other important and I would say deliberate approach has been to stay away from controversies. Being just an actor so far he has not felt the need to give his opinion about all matters under the sun. Also he never threw his weight around in matters which are unconnected with films and thereby managed to remain unattached. This has earned him more sympathisers than adversaries!

But succeeding in politics and becoming a ruler of a state needs more than just a charismatic leader. You need a grass root organization with credible leaders who will be connecting and engaging with people on a day-to-day basis. Here’s where I would like to bring in Rajini and a seemingly far fetched BSNL analogy.

In India, when BSNL got the license in the 2nd round for offering mobile phone services, it started off with a distinct disadvantage. That of, competing with established private players who had a head start in the market. However compared to the other private players like Airtel, Tatas who also got into the market late, BSNL had one great advantage.  The private players had to put up a cellular tower network in their respective regions from scratch, right from identifying location, incurring high capex in real estate, setting up towers,…  BSNL however, already had their established base of offices for landline phones in the nook and corner of the country. So BSNL had to just put up cell phone towers in their own office buildings and do the roll out. This explains the fact that even today when you travel to remote rural areas, Airtel/Vodafone,.. fail miserably while BSNL provides great connectivity. I notice this every time I travel to my native place in Kerala!

Akin to BSNL’s offices in the nook and corner of the country, Rajini, though new to politics, has his established organizational network of Fan clubs in the entire TN. This network needs to be activated to become what we call in Marketing as “Touch points” for people. And from the announcement speech, it appears that this is what is Rajini’s first task going to be! I.e. of organizing the fan clubs into political shaakas!

Tapping into the BSNL analogy again, in spite of having such an advantage in terms of an established infrastructure, BSNL did not manage to set the cellular phone market on fire. While in rural areas, BSNL could hold fort thanks to the superior coverage, in urban India it couldn’t match the nimble footedness of private players. The “sarkari” image and the sloth experience customers got to experience in BSNL’s touch points in urban centres didn’t at all help in getting users to try BSNL. As Rajini tries to activate the fan clubs across TN, it is important for him to give a different flavor for these fan clubs in rural and Urban TN to appeal to the different sensibilities.

This is where it is important for Rajini to have the right set of advisors around him. Those who will be able to translate his intent into set of initiatives that will impact the people. Here, he can go back to his model what he has been adopting in his film career. As far as his films go, Rajini had a very clear but simple approach. That is of selecting the right script and choosing his directors very carefully. Apart from bringing his personal heft behind the project and picking the director, he didn’t do much in terms of influencing the script or choosing his technicians and the cast,…,… beyond a point. Here he is very different from Kamal Haasan or even other top Tamil stars like Vijay. Surya, Ajit,… who I understand involve themselves in the film beyond just being the hero. Similarly, with a right team in place and a winning script in the form of a vision for the state of TN, Rajini should let the team carefully craft the roll out of the policy, programs and promises.  Having a right team is also critical as, in the world of competitive politics, Rajini, (an ageing star turned politician at 68 with health concerns) has to be “seen” on top of issues 24*7. This can only happen if he has a good team to lean on. The current set of ‘Fan club” leaders may not fit the bill entirely.

In marketing, Brand positioning is considered to be the most crucial element in the whole mix. How one positions the brand in the minds of the consumer differently with respect to competition defines the way the brand is remembered and adopted. And here I feel, Rajini has thoughtfully come up with a unique positioning i.e of “Aanmeega Arasiyal” (Spiritual politics). While we have heard of Secular politics and Developmental politics and politics of all hue, this is unique. In TN, Dravida parties and their variants for decades have professed Atheism, Care for the oppressed and all such lofty ideals but have practiced exactly the opposite. I feel that this positioning will resonate well with the urban middle class segment which has been enduring the hypocrisy of the Dravida parties for quite some time.  Having cracked the positioning bit, it’s important to live it up and be consistent around this positioning as time goes by.

If one would have noticed, since the 31st Dec, when he made the announcement to join electoral politics, Rajini has managed to remain in the news. Instead of doing everything on one particular day and keeping quiet subsequently (a la Kamal), Rajini has been carrying out his activities in tranches. Thereby remaining on top of the news clutter. A smart approach so far.

Rajini has thus far created his own playbook and has played his cards well. But politics is a long game. It will be interesting to watch his next moves and the outcomes. Whether this playbook helps him to succeed, only time will tell.

Usually when so called “Good people” join politics with a promise to bring a change, they end up changing themselves. But here, “Politics has joined Rajinikanth”. Hopefully politics gets a makeover. Or so many pray!

Pic courtesy: AFP