Kamal Haasan's party Makkal Needhi Maiam launched: Will he be the next NTR?

Tamil film icon Kamal Haasan at the launch of his political party 'Makkal Neethi Maiam' in Madurai. PTI Photo
This Business Standard special piece, originally published on November 15, is being republished as actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan has finally made his formal plunge into politicsby launching his party 'Makkal Needhi Maiam' (People Justice Centre). The party, Haasan claims, will seek to provide governance free of corruption and stop playing games on the basis of religion and castes. Overall, there seem to be several things going against the actor wanting to reinvent himself as a politician. Will he be able to overcome these and make a real impact? Sumant Raman explores for Business Standard.  

The media attention in Tamil Nadu over the past few weeks has been focused on just one man and his political ambitions. When “ulaganayagan” or ‘World Star’ Kamal Haasan started announcing his political plans, he initially did it coyly but has been clearer of late. What started off as a Twitter buzz has now hit the real ground, with Kamal starting to meet people and visiting places of political relevance to mark an entry of sorts into politics. 

At his birthday bash on November 7, he announced that the launch of his political party was a work in progress – the work had already begun. Who are the people working with him on it? We do not know as yet. When will it be born? Again, we only know that it will be in “a few months”. Will the party contest the next election in Tamil Nadu? It likely will, but that would depend on when the elections are held. 

At 63, Kamal Haasan is no spring chicken. He does not have clear answers to why he did not take the plunge earlier, when Jayalalithaa was alive, or when Karunanidhi was active. “Things now are worse than when they were in charge”, is all that he would say, without elaborating how. 

The charitable view is that Kamal Haasan sees a void in the Tamil Nadu politics, something that many others have also perceived since Jayalalithaa’s demise. He possibly feels he can throw his hat into the ring to fill that void.

While many actors across India have been successful in politics, most have ridden piggyback on established political parties in what have been mutually beneficial relationships. Apart from NTR, there have been few examples of movie stars starting from scratch and riding to victory in a short span of time. MGR had been in politics for two decades before he started the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), and Jayalalithaa inherited the largest political party in the state, with its vast base built by MGR.

While it is true that a large percentage of the electorate yearns for a change from the two Dravidian majors – AIADMK and Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) – the lack of a credible alternative has thus far prevented any challenge to their stranglehold on the Tamil Nadu electorate. Even today, the two parties together command over 70 per cent of votes in the state. If Kamal Haasan wants to challenge them, he needs a plan and a commitment for the long haul. 

He says he will continue acting for now but will stop when he takes up a responsible post. To an extent, this casts doubts over his commitment to politics. With work to do on Vishwaroopam-2, the long-delayed/stalled Sabaash Naidu and the in-the-pipeline Indian-2, there are bound to be questions on the availability of time that Kamal Haasan would devote to his political career.

Except for his anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stance – given his comments on Hindu terror, saying his colour is not saffron, etc – little is known about where he stands politically. The general consensus is that his views are left of centre, though he claims to be a centrist. His persistent Hindu baiting, however, would already have lost him a sizeable number of voters. His claims to being a rationalist itself might not be viewed positively in a state increasingly made up of believers – even the DMK now says that the majority of its members are Hindus. He once chided people for revering the Mahabharata, asking how we could respect an epic where men gambled away a woman. One view is that the statements like these and those on Hindu terror might have been aimed at bolstering his Dravidian image, in a calculated move to shed his Brahmin tag in a caste-sensitive state. 

Another move that might not have been wise is his announcement that his party would not align itself with any of the existing players but will go it alone. Traditionally, political parties in Tamil Nadu have vied for alliances with the AIADMK or the DMK to gain electoral success; going it alone is not considered a smart move, especially for a new party. 

Will Kamal Haasan succeed? Quite frankly, it is way too early to say. But, clearly, the odds are stacked against him. Without an organisation base except fan clubs, without money (he wants people to donate and help him run the party), without a clear plan (as yet) beyond saying he wants corruption to end, and without an identified team, it does look like an uphill struggle for the actor. But we need to give him some time to work on each of these. Clearly, the clock has started ticking for Kamal Haasan, the politician. We will have to wait for the “baby to be born”, as he puts it, to know if it will walk tall or only crawl. 

The writer is a television anchor, besides political and sports commentator. The views expressed are his own.    

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

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