'BJP Trojan Horse', 'Left Winger': Vagueness at the Heart of Kamal Haasan's Politics

Despite the fact that his party, Makkal Needhi Maiam, is poised to garner 20% of the vote, making it a force to reckon with, Kamal Haasan's inconsistent ideology could play a spoilsport.

In the Tamil film world, the term “get up” refers to the persona an actor assumes in a particular movie. Get up is the look and the feel the actor is projecting in that film and is often buttressed by a novel costume.

Every new Haasan movie brings with it a certain curiosity, if not excitement, over his “get up” in that film. If he cross-dressed in one, he would play a dwarf in another. In the next movie, he would assume 10 avatars – 10 different get ups in one film. In the first assembly election it is contesting, Haasan’s party, Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM), seems to be seeking a ‘bit player’ get up, aspiring for the spoiler tag.

Though Tamil Nadu electoral politics is dominated by two fronts, there is always room for ‘bit players’ who together poll one in five votes typically. These parties attract voters who are dissatisfied with the DMK and the AIADMK fronts and are seeking an alternative. Some of them are caste-based, too.

The 2019 Lok Sabha elections showed that MNM was a serious contender for those 20% votes. In 2019, MNM candidates polled more than 10% of the votes in Chennai Lok Sabha constituencies as well as in Coimbatore city. In Madurai city, the MNM candidate clocked some 8% while his colleagues were noticed by voters in other urban constituencies like Tiruppur, Tiruchi and so on.

For 2021, Haasan has teamed up with two minor outfits with little electoral pull for practical reasons. The MNM is contesting in two-thirds of the assembly seats this time, largely in urban areas, while the rest have been left for his allies – the Indhiya Jananayaga Katchi (IJK) and Samathuva Makkal Katchi (SMK).

Also read: Can Kamal Haasan Really Make a Difference in Tamil Nadu Politics?

The IJK is headed by education baron T.R. Pachamuthu, aka Parivendar, while SMK, led by fellow actor Sarath Kumar, seeks to represent the prosperous Nadar community. At best, Haasan’s strategy may help him stay relevant in the future if voter identification with the Dravidian parties weakens. But that would require tremendous staying power and dedication to politics that he has not yet demonstrated.

Source of cash

Parivendar is the founder of the cash-rich SRM group of institutions that has spawned several for-profit companies in the information technology, healthcare, transport and media sectors. Parivendar was elected on a DMK ticket in 2019, but his political loyalties are not permanent. In 2014, he contested as an NDA candidate and lost.

Indhiya Jananayaga Katchi president T.R. Parivendar (L) and Samathuva Makkal Katchi president Sarath Kumar (R). Photo: Facebook.

Parivendar is among the few who made a smart move in the 1980s when the AIADMK government headed by M.G. Ramachandran opened up professional education to private players. Moving away from the pre-university system, the government beefed up lab facilities in its schools and introduced higher secondary education in them. This meant those finishing Class X could continue their studies in local schools and then aspire for college education while earlier the prospects of doing PUC in fewer colleges halted their progress.

For Tamil Nadu’s baby boomers who had benefited from the Dravidian parties’ commitment to widening education among the masses and job quotas for OBC youth, engineering and medical education promised a leap into prosperity. The opportunities came at a price though – hefty capitation fees.

Also read: BJP’s Electoral Strategy for Tamil Nadu in 2021 is the De-Dravidisation of State Politics

MGR’s lieutenants were among the early movers in this field, setting up professional colleges that today are mega institutions in the state. Some of the education barons continue to play political roles that support their business interests.

DMK sources say Parivendar is angling for a ministerial position in the Modi government. And backing Haasan is a sure way to cozy up with the BJP since Haasan, who claims to have been inspired by Dravidian movement founder Periyar, can cut into DMK votes. In the Chepauk constituency in Chennai that has a substantial Muslim population, for instance, Haasan has put up a strong Muslim candidate who can eat into DMK votes even as the AIADMK front gave the seat to the PMK, which is a lightweight in Chennai. DMK president M.K. Stalin’s son, Udayanidhi Stalin, is contesting in Chepauk.

Inconsistent ideology

Ever since he started MNM, Haasan has been in the DMK’s cross-hairs. While many see Haasan as a Left-winger with Dravidian sympathies out to prevent urban middle-class votes from going to the BJP, Dravidianists have trolled him on social media, pointing to his caste origins and reading motives into his tweets and statements.

They see him as the BJP’s Trojan horse in Tamil Nadu. His defence of the controversial vice-chancellor of the state’s engineering university, a BJP appointee, showed his true colours, they said. Haasan is a Brahmin, and in Tamil Nadu politics that is baggage.

For his part, Haasan has kept his politics sufficiently vague. He criticises Dravidian corruption and pitches for non-professional politicians. It’s a slant that can attract urban middle-class interest.

Actor and Makkal Needhi Maiyam (MNM) president Kamal Haasan poses for photographs with his party candidates during a press conference, ahead of Tamil Nadu assembly polls, in Chennai, Wednesday, March 10, 2021. Photo: PTI.

Haasan’s tweets and videos are a troll’s delight, though. His views and ideas are delivered in classical Tamil and that, in and of itself, can be amusing.

Tamil, like Arabic, has two distinct forms – spoken and written. Tamil poetry is ancient while prose has a relatively recent history. Few people speak publicly in formal, written Tamil but Kamal has made it his trademark.

Also read: Kamal Haasan Will Contest Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections from Coimbatore South

While Haasan appears to consider issues from various angles and be nuanced, critics find his style a case of deliberate obfuscation. Haasan publicly spoke against the rise of communalism in the 1990s and met then prime minister Narasimha Rao to discuss his concerns after the Babri Masjid was demolished. But his movie Hey Ram while standing for Gandhian ideals, seemed to rationalise the actions of the Hindu fanatic.

More recently, he supported Anupam Kher’s counter-campaign against ‘award wapsi’, in which a number of cultural and literary personalities returned their awards in protest against rising incidents of intolerance. His latest movies were about Islamist terrorism. Haasan’s inner circle continues to defend him, however, saying he is speaking from his heart what he considers to be the truth – even if that makes him inconsistent.

For Tamils, Haasan is the thinking actor, breaking new ground with his stories and acting. Though not formally schooled, Haasan is Tamil cinema’s intellectual heavyweight. He represents the ‘classes’ while Rajinikanth’s appeal is to the ‘masses’.

The Kamal-Rajini dialectic is not new. Before them were M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan. MGR was not particularly talented as an actor, but he was tremendously popular. People believed his heroic screen image and took it for real. The DMK helped to create the MGR persona and it stayed in the people’s minds until the end of his life, even after he formed the AIADMK.

Sivaji was the artist. He set standards in Tamil film acting though his theatrical style and histrionics are passé and have long been ridiculed for its excess. But, in his time, Sivaji was the epitome of film acting. His funeral was well attended and demonstrated nostalgia-driven respect for a legendary actor.

Sivaji was a flop in politics, however. Originally with the DMK, he moved to the Congress and later made a serious effort in electoral politics after MGR’s death. But Tamil voters did not accept him as a political leader. His first love was movies and politics seemed to be secondary to him.

In the mind of the electorate, Sivaji’s place was the movies where he could play hero, villain, comedian, drunkard, Karna of Mahabharata, and a middle-aged man with a shrewish wife seeking romance. Tamils loved his versatility. But, as a person, Sivaji did not have it in him, as far as Tamil voters were concerned.  They didn’t take his politics seriously, nor did he command the political loyalty of the masses.

In Sivaji’s political career are warning signs for Haasan.

M. Kalyanaraman is a print and broadcast journalist based in Chennai.