OPINION | Kamal Blooms in Tamil Nadu's Colourful Political Pond, For Now
Actor Kamal Haasan has taken the political plunge with the launch of his party, Makkal Needhi Maiam. (News18)
Even by 21st Century Tamil Nadu’s ‘rationalist’ Dravidian standards, actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan did the unthinkable at the launch of his new political outfit, ‘Makkal Needhi Maiam’ (MNM), which translates to ‘People’s Justice Centre’.
In a state where annual temple festivals commence with a formal flag-hoisting at an auspicious hour, always around the crack of dawn, Kamal hoisted the three-colour MNM flag after sunset.
Going beyond another ‘political superstition’, yet conforming to demands to pull crowds possibly, Kamal chose the southern temple-city of Madurai for the launch.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was there personally to felicitate him and Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan addressed the more-than-moderate gathering through video-conferencing.
Obviously, the Tamil Nadu CPM, which got a new State Secretary in a routine manner only a day earlier, could not have stomached Kamal side-stepping the organised structure of a cadre-based (!) party and bringing in their own party chief minister from a neighbouring state to the launch of what looks like a competitor to their Left-rationalist moorings.
By profession, and supposedly by practice too, Kamal is Left and rationalist. He has often declared, at times even without being asked, how he was a non-believer all along, though in his first movie Kalathur Kannamma (1960), Kamal was a child artiste, best remembered for the screen-rendering of the ever-green song Ammavum neeye, appavum neeye..., sporting vibudhi, or sacred ash, on his lil’ receding forehead, and addressing god as mother and father (to all those orphaned children).
If his screen-presence and filmy past are an investment for his political career, Kamal is still remembered for some of the most devout character offerings, including the one-song episode in the opening sequence of the Dasavatharam, the 2008 blockbuster, incidentally named after the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu, but stopped there.
Even in his better-remembered and controversially-titled Virumandi (2004), Kamal will be remembered for the scene, sporting the sacred ash on his forehead, and wearing a ‘black shirt’.
The ‘black shirt’ cause of Periyar EVR seems to be Kamal’s flavour of the season, still — and not without reason. The term ‘justice’ in the new party’s name recalls to the mind immediately the forerunner of the present-day Dravidian political party. Founded in 1916, the ‘non-Brahmin alternative to the ‘Brahmin-dominated’ Southern India Liberal Federation was and is popularly known by the name of its English language newspaper, Justice. In his speech, Kamal did make a passing reference to the ‘Justice Party’ as well.
The MNM’s flag has three colours — red, black and white. The first two make up those of Periyar’s non-political Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) and the breakaway DMK founded in 1949. It’s the MGR-founded breakaway AIADMK that has all three colours.
Kamal’s party has more of the white than the other two colours, and also has in the centre a ‘star’, which is there in the blue-and-red standard of the Dalit-centric Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) led by Thol Thirumavalavan, though the stars are designed differently, and are also different from the forgotten ‘star’ symbol of Rajaji’s extinct Swatantra Party.
If the MNM flag resembled some of the flags of other parties in the state, no one was complaining in the early hours.
What, however, stands out more than the ‘white’ in Kamal’s flag — obviously denoting purity in public life than anything else — is the image and imagery of six linked hands, a reflection of Leftist political practice of cooperation and coordination, especially of the labour and farming classes in the country. As if to prove the point, Kamal had on the dais PR Pandian, a farm leader of some repute. That Kamal would focus on farm sector and also try to bring in Pandian was known when he attended a quickly organised farmers’ seminar in Chennai a few weeks ago.
Otherwise, there are already reports that some of the front-liners in the new party, when in government service before retirement, had a shady past. MNM’s functionaries also include yester-year actress Sripriya, a contemporary of the better-known Sridevi, who had paired with Kamal in many movies in the ’70s and ’80s. Sripriya retired into oblivion, only to be resurrected now. It does not mean that she should not have any commitment to serving the people in her time, or in Kamal’s political company, but any value-addition in terms of face and name-recognition may not be as much as with Kamal.
At least she would not be what Jayalalithaa was to MGR when he inducted her into his AIADMK politics, but then Kamal too is not another MGR for his past political experience, nor is MNM an AIADMK in the making in terms political parentage, ideological roots and cadre-base.
In future interactions with the media, Kamal may be called upon to respond to specific queries on issues of the kind. At media talk shows and otherwise, Kamal may also be questioned on his observation at the party inaugural that the Tamil Nadu voter had ‘under-sold’ his vote for Rs 6,000 when it could have fetched Rs 6 lakh (without of course reference to the spirit in which Kamal made the statement).
Some of his other observations at the inaugural, including a purely metaphoric reference to the ‘missing rabbit’ (whether it was killed and eaten by those in power), did leave a bad taste in the mouth.
Kamal continues to sound confused, or divergent, on issues of political philosophy. He would not accept anyone before his time as his torch-bearer, nor would he denounce any. If for his generation of voters and political leaders — born in November 1954, he is now 63 — Kamal’s hazy responses to questions on political philosophy might recall MGR when he founded the AIADMK.
When asked what his political philosophy, ‘Anna-ism’ (referring to parent DMK founder CN Annadurai), pat came MGR’s response: “Anna-ism is a mixture of capitalism, communism and socialism.”
Only that not many in the present-day generation of Tamils know or remember the same, as such other pronouncements from other political leaders have often gone unchallenged or uncontested. Though Kamal sounded genuine on the stage, his communication skills off-screen require better honing before he could be accepted as a convincing political player, who can convey his ideas and ideology with greater credibility, which is what he too says Tamil Nadu polity is lacking now.
It is going to take a long time, but then he said that the Madurai meeting was only the first in a series of district-level conferences that the party would host in the coming days.
There will, of course, be need for that, sooner than later. Having launched a political outfit now rather than wait for the Assembly polls in May 2021 like compatriot and competitor Rajinikanth, Kamal will have both the opportunity and challenge to contest the much-delayed local body polls across the state due to be held in the coming months as per court orders.
It will be an occasion for him to put together grassroots-level machinery, test their organisational skills and also his own acceptance-levels.
But like the ‘rebel’ AIADMK leader and MLA TTV Dinakaran, Kamal may also face the problem of being able to get a poll symbol from the Election Commission, which is also then accepted by the State Election Commission (SEC), a separate constitutional entity under the 74th and 75th Amendments, creating Panchayati Raj and Nagarpalika institutions across the country.
If he does not get a common symbol for the local body polls, then Kamal would have a lot to complain about and a lot more to prove in the elections.
The reverse would also be true, in more ways than one.
It remains to be seen if Kamal would stick to the recent decades of Tamil Nadu political culture of new parties having their names only in Tamil, and expect the English and other non-Tamil media to use the same name, without offering an English alternative.
Having commenced his political journey from the Hindu temple-town of Rameswaram, but from the family home of former president APJ Abdul Kalam, Kamal continued to explain away his island visit as one to the latter’s home and not to the temple-town per se.
All of it would happen if and only if Kamal blooms as a politician from now on and draws larger crowds than in Madurai. Kamal would have to put together state-wide tour plans, party meetings and organisational consultations, for which he is not known to have a proven team, even if from rival political parties.
It would be a plus and minus point at the same time. Based on this, and the consequent public perception alone would the likes of DMK’s MK Stalin and DMDK’s Vijaykanth consider MNM a serious enough compatriot or competitor.
For now, however, the media is full of Stalin’s observation on the eve of MNM launch that “paper flowers do not spread fragrance”, supposedly an indirect reference to Kamal’s new party, and possibly also that of Rajinikanth.
Kamal later explained away the purported reference, saying he and his party were not flowers as yet for the people to feel the fragrance as yet, but were only seeds, which would take roots, grow and then produce flowers and fruits for them to have.
Stalin’s reference to ‘paper flowers’ was possibly borrowed from his ailing octogenarian father M Karunanidhi’s successful campaign-slogan for the DMK’s victorious 1967 polls: “Kahitha poo manakkadhu, Congress socialism palikkadhu (Paper flowers do not spread fragrance, nor does the socialism of the Congress work out here).”
(The author is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.)