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Easily the most disastrous assumption of Karl Marx was that the middle class would be squeezed out as the bourgeoise and the proletariat got locked in mortal combat.

The middle class didn’t. On the contrary, they flourished and became some kind of a buffer for the rulers world over.  The middle class is a fluid entity, and a proper definition still remains elusive, as is the case with one’s understanding of their prejudices and predilections.

Having said that, the middle classes do play a crucial role – say in ratcheting up the Hindutva rhetoric or the liberalization discourse in India.

Rajinikanth meeting those who were injured in the police firing

The BJP tapped into them, with results we are confounded by. And actor Rajinikanth is trying to emulate the saffron party in his own way.

It is difficult to say how far he will be successful. Tamil Nadu has its own set of peculiarities, but it would be a huge mistake to think he has committed some inexcusable faux pas by denouncing “the anti-social elements who had provoked the police.”

It was the irrepressible Cho Ramasamy  who used to voice such sentiments strongly  — sentiments that solemn editorial writers of respectable English newspapers also voiced, now and then.

If now “law and order” is being foregrounded, or at least the concerns are becoming mainstream, it is essentially thanks to Rajini’s charisma.

But then the craving for stability, to carry on with one’s life whatever happens to others around you, is likely deeply etched in most souls. Even the most oppressed and exploited would rather be spared of ordeals if they could help, notwithstanding the utopia beckoning them.

Even the most oppressed and exploited would rather be spared of ordeals if they could help, notwithstanding the utopia beckoning them

Confining oneself to the state of Tamil Nadu, the DMK used to position itself as the sole champion of the subalterns. “Kooli kettaan athaan, kundadipattu seththaan..” (My dear husband sought pay rise and all he got was a bullet.) That was a powerful slogan used by it during the run-up to the historic 1967 elections. There were posters all over the state showing a woman in distress, with the legend denouncing “an insensitive government.”  The reference was to an agitation at the time, and the DMK made the most of it.

But once in power, they didn’t hesitate to unleash the police on agitators anywhere. The DMK and its offshoot the AIADMK have been alternating in power all these years, and every government has had its quota of strong police reaction, justified or otherwise.  Rarely the guilt is fixed and those responsible prosecuted. Both the parties cry foul when in opposition. The people are used to such charades and would rather be left in peace.

It is precisely such a psychological climate that Rajinikanth could be said to be exploiting to his advantage. Interestingly, while talking to the media on Tuticorin, he recalled fondly the example of the late Jayalaltihaa, who “used to crush anti-social elements with an iron-hand.”

Jayalalithaa was generally touted as a no-nonsense administrator, giving a “free hand” to the police. How much of it was true and how effective was she are altogether different issues, but in perceptional politics she won hands down.

In her first term of office in 1991-96, she never missed an occasion to demonstrate her solicitude for the police or declare law and order was her priority – she had come to power in the aftermath of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, which had triggered widespread anger over “the failure of the DMK regime to rein in the Tamil Tigers.”

In her subsequent reigns, she did seem mellowed, the shrillness coming down significantly, but the image of an iron lady struck in the minds of the people.

The caste riots of 1997 and the Coimbatore blasts next year reinforced Karunanidhi’s notoriety as a dilly-dallying Chief Minister, though he too had allowed police to be brutal on occasions.

What Rajnikanth is trying to do is to draw towards himself the law and order fetishists. With the current government seen as feckless, even effete, and the DMK possibly weakened by the immobilization of Karunanidhi, he is perhaps hoping he would emerge as a viable option.

He has also warned potential investors would be scared away if the state was going to be plunged in chaos. That is typical establishment high-horse sermon, but does carry conviction with some and it’s a reason why his fulminations against groups like Makkal Athikaram could strike a chord.

As an actor Rajnikanth is well past his prime, and his hardcore fans should also be similarly aged. But he has certainly something solid to start with unlike Kamal Haasan whose fan base is rather nebulous, though he could be a lot more articulate and tends to be more politically correct.

Critics would like to portray Rajnikanth as a stalking horse of the parivaar and insist, rightly in this instance, that Tamil Nadu will never ever fall for Hindutva, for a variety of historical reasons. But then Rajnikanth seems to understand that quite well and keeps a respectable distance, whatever the desperate attempts of the BJP. 

Making a case for a “responsible citizenry” need not necessarily be vote-repellant

Many of those inveighing against Rajinikanth would have us believe that it is just the brahmins and some pro-BJP non-brahmins who are swayed by his anti-violence rhetoric. But that is not true. The growing middle classes hanker for peace and prosperity, whatever the justness of an agitation.

Middle class sentiments have their own way of percolating down to the masses — as  happened with Cho Ramasamy, in respect of the hypocrisy of Dravidian politicians, to wit.  In the circumstances, making a case for a “responsible citizenry” need not necessarily be vote-repellant.

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