If Kamal Haasan’s intention was to be a showman on the political stage, he succeeded in his effort in Madurai. If his aim was to impress the audience with clever one-liners, laced with humour and sarcasm, and some plain truth, his first day, first show was a hit. If his idea was to tell the people of Tamil Nadu and India that he is the newest politician on the block with an idealistic outlook, he hit bull’s eye.
Given his star status, there was understandably a huge amount of interest around the launch of Haasan’s political party, Makkal Neethi Maiam. The media, both national and vernacular, has converted the duel in Tamil Nadu to one between Haasan and Rajinikanth, who too has announced his political entry. In the bargain, it has reduced established political parties including biggies like DMK and AIADMK with a presence in every village, to mere bystanders.
Anyone who understands Tamil Nadu politics will tell you nothing could be farther from the truth. Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party’s Delhi experience may sound a tempting template to emulate but Delhi state is just a bloated municipality. Tamil Nadu with its complicated caste layers and rural-urban divide will be a different cup of tea altogether. And Haasan and Rajini’s battle — fought separately — will be against the existing political system and culture.
The truth is Haasan has only begun well. Period.
The process of building a party is a long and laborious one. Electoral politics is 10 percent speeches and 90 percent funds and booth-level micromanagement. Haasan will be expected to bring clean money to the party to fund his plans and that will be some challenge, given the way politics is done in India. It is a screenplay Haasan has never worked with before, so he is like an intern taking on the professionals in the political business.
His thoughts, going by what he spoke about in Madurai, are still at the idea stage, be it on Cauvery or a welfare agenda. They will need quite a bit of finetuning to be in sync with the reality on the ground. Haasan, thanks to the privileged life he has led, has only depicted impoverishment between a film director’s ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’ on the big screen. Real life is more seamless, something Haasan has to discover now.
What works for Haasan? The actor has got into the arena at the right time when the existing players are looking jaded and there is a yearning for change. His job is to convince the people that he is the right vehicle and that he has the wherewithal to be an effective leader. The focus on him and Rajini will make Tamil Nadu elections very presidential — a Kamal Haasan vs MK Stalin vs Rajinikanth vs TTV Dhinakaran vs Anbumani Ramadoss.
Haasan has made a strong pitch for regional pride, focusing on the Thamizh. At a time when the ruling party at the Centre seems to be looking to create a homogeneous India, he is emphasising its heterogeneous character, underlining Tamil pride in its language, in its song, in its aspiration to move forward.
Interestingly, he has also invoked the idea of South India in his party logo and extended the boundaries of his identity politics beyond just Tamil Nadu. This is the Dravidian thought, that the ethos of all of India below the Vindhyas is the same. In the modern context, this fits in with the resentment against Delhi that is seen as calling the shots be it on policy matters, distribution of funds, the imposition of Hindi or other major political decisions. Given that Haasan has reached out to Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh, KT Rama Rao in Telangana and Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala, and actor Prakash Raj from Karnataka has congratulated him on his political venture, this could be the beginning of a pressure group from south India to get its due.
His critics constantly diss him as confused but they mistake his idealism for being muddled in the head. Haasan is also criticised for not being realistic. The reality that is spoken about is the reality of Rs 6,000 for a vote, about liquor and freebies doing the trick at election time for parties, and about political corruption being a way of life in Tamil Nadu.
Haasan-speak is utopian but the question that he is raising is how long will Tamil Nadu continue to swim in the muck by investing in the same politicians. His strategy is to provoke them to reject the idea of being bought once every five years and signing away one’s rights as a citizen. The swachh Tamil Nadu abhiyaan may not work but Haasan at least deserves Tamil Nadu’s ear.
Nothing of the Haasan reality show on Wednesday promises he will be a political success. Because in a starstruck India, a crowd of 20,000-odd is the easiest to attract. There is a sense of deja vu as well for one saw a similar launch with Chiranjeevi a decade ago in Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, with the actor mouthing similar platitudes. Even his party was called Praja Rajyam, but the Telugu actor flattered to deceive.
If at the end of the day, in the climax scene, it is revealed that Haasan took all of Tamil Nadu for a ride, all we can do is to doff our hat to a wonderful performance. We knew about his acting prowess all along, didn’t we?