In the 1992, Tamil blockbuster Thevar Magan (remade in Hindi as Virasat), Kamal Haasan’s character Shakti emerges sporting a white dhoti-kurta, handlebar moustache and trimmed hair - instantly reminding everyone of his deceased father Periya Thevar, played by Sivaji Ganesan. Kamal Haasan’s political debut on February 19 was also quite dramatic, though it would be too early to make such comparisons with political lodestar MG Ramachandran.
Kamal Haasan named his party Makkal Needi Maiam - which translates to people’s justice centre or centre for people’s justice. The words "justice" and "centre" in the name may not be incidental at all. As many as 101 years ago, the then state of Madras saw the formation of Justice Party (South Indian Liberal Federation) that later metamorphosed to Dravida Kazhagam (DK) under Periyar EV Ramasamy, the precursor of DMK.
The newly founded MAKKAL NEEDHI MAIAM is your party. It’s here to stay, and to make the change we all aspire for. Guide us to serve you. #maiam #makkalneedhimaiamofficial website: https://t.co/cql8kgqGkkfb: https://t.co/2Gz1xRg5vftwitter: https://t.co/J9ywXrunOb pic.twitter.com/Xza62w4DcC— Kamal Haasan (@ikamalhaasan) February 21, 2018
Haasan is tapping into the legacy of Dravidian politics although he wants to emphasise his centrist and liberal credentials at the same time. The launching of the party Madurai, the southern headquarters of the state, may also not be a coincidence; as the seat of Tamil culture, hub of Jallikkattu and the territory of the Thevar community.
His party’s logo, which consists of a circle of six hands holding one another in colours red, white and black and a star at the Centre, represent the six south Indian states (including Puducherry) - Kamal Haasan explained. Despite criticism that he did not explicitly identify with the Dravidian ideology, there cannot be anything more indicative of the message than a Dravida Nadu symbol in the flag.
Kamal Haasan’s entry closely follows fellow superstar Rajnikanth’s own foray into politics; though the differences between the duo’s styles of politics is already quite evident. While eventually there might be space only for one of the two, both of them have chosen alternative paths to achieve their goal. Rajnikanth’s “spiritual” brand of politics is an attempt to offer a Dravidian alternative; though it also evokes suspicions among some of his proximity with the BJP, a “north Indian party” Tamilians are generally wary of.
Kamal Haasan’s ideologically neutral, centrist pitch and the presence of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on the dais have confused many. People have always known Haasan as an atheist and possibly a closet Communist, but it seems he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. It is also a possibility that he has slowly transitioned from the Left to a more liberal space.
Many experts also wonder how his anti-corruption pitch is going to work in a state like Tamil Nadu where electoral corruption is the norm and people monetise their votes. The going rate seems to be around Rs 6,000 these days, but that is where Kamal Haasan has to take a leaf out of MGR’s playbook.
MG Ramachandran was ousted from the DMK for demanding that party accounts be made public and seeking more probity from the then chief minister Karunanidhi. If Kamal Haasan can similarly make an emotional appeal and convince them (especially women) of the need to weed out electoral bribing, nobody can stop him from emerging as a mass leader. As a movie star who has transcended the class divide, it wouldn’t be tough for him to accomplish that.
In his weekly column "Ennul Maiyam Konda Puyal (The Storm Centred in me)", published by popular Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan, Kamal Haasan wrote about the need to teach people the art of catching fish for them to live with dignity. He was referring to job creation and the practice of giving freebies to people, including consumer goods. Although it could be dismissed as rhetoric, many people are reminded of MGR’s own abstract formulations when he plunged himself into politics. When Haasan quipped that he didn’t believe in any "isms", it reminded many of MGR’s ideology of "Anna-ism", which he claimed was a combination of capitalism, communism and socialism. Soon, Kamal will have to come up with a more concrete plan of action. It may not be enough to convince the people that he will give a welfare government if voted to power.
Another challenge for Kamal Haasan when he prioritises health and education is that Tamil Nadu is already way ahead of many states in Human development indices. It needs more than a vision and he will need a clear roadmap and a team of bright young people assisting him. His fan following is considerable but dwarfs in comparison to Rajinikanth’s own following. Both actors envisage converting the fan clubs into party units like MGR’s own experiment. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that in MGR’s case, he managed to attract a considerable section of the DMK cadre as well from his long association with that party.
Beyond the emotional appeal, the nitty-gritty of caste and party organisation will be the Achilles heel for both Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth. Although they might hope to transcend caste and community lines, it may not work that way in every constituency. Kamal Haasan is likely to reach out to the Thevar community (if the indications at the launch are anything to go by) whom he has portrayed and glorified in films like Virumandi and Thevar Magan and who currently backs the AIADMK. While a cadre party like the DMK might withstand the challenge posed by the superstars, both Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth will hope to wean away the votes of AIADMK, which is expected to implode by the next Assembly elections due in 2021. Kamal Haaan comes from the Brahmin community but that may end up as a neutral factor as he does not identify with his caste.
Unlike Rajnikanth, who clarified that his yet-to-be-launched party wouldn’t contest the much delayed local body polls due this year (and was also non-committal on the 2019 parliamentary elections), Kamal Haasan might choose to convert his early bird advantage by testing waters in these polls.
Although both actors have been criticised for taking the plunge at this point of time, having stayed away despite being witness to the rot setting in prior to that, it needn’t be a negative. There is definitely a political vacuum and either of them have a chance to occupy that space.
In my humble opinion, Kamal Haasan is better poised to succeed despite having a smaller fan base than Rajnikanth. He definitely looks more passionate and can go well beyond the punchlines. In fact, Kamal Haasan has conveyed his politics through his films over the years and has made films that appeal to every section of the class divide.
While the middle class might already resonate with his anti-corruption plank, whether that becomes a successful formula depends on the success of his emotional appeal to the masses. Many people choose to compare Kamal Haasan with Sivaji Ganesan and Rajinikanth with MGR respectively, for their acting chops and mass appeal. But it would be unfair to foresee their political future merely based on such comparisons.
No more conclusions can be drawn from the current set of facts available to us. As the last lines in his 2003 film Anbe Sivam (Love is God) goes - "adutha vinadi olithu vaithirukum achariyangal ivvulagil eralam (The world got plenty of hidden surprises waiting for us in the next moment)".
Let us wait and watch.