After poll rout, Haasan faces an uncertain political future
In Tamil cinema, Kamal Haasan is considered an intellectual. Haasan, a writer, singer, choreographer, consistently broke new ground with his acting, stories and technology. He could play a hero, a drunk, a woman, a dwarf and even a former United States president. So, it was only expected that when Haasan made a political foray, he would base it on offering something new. In his words, “a change” and “an alternative”.
Haasan launched Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) in 2018. The party contested in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls with a 3.7% vote share that it garnered predominantly from urban areas, but in the 2021 assembly elections, the fledgling party’s performance diminished, with just 2.5%. In the results declared on May 2, all the party’s candidates — 135 from MNM and the others contested by allies — lost in the 234-seat assembly. Haasan, the chief ministerial candidate, who tested his hustlings in Coimbatore South constituency, lost to BJP’s Vanathi Srinivasan in a contest that went down to the wire.
But he is facing a bigger battle after the electoral debacle, with prominent faces and the party’s senior leaders who were associated with him since the party’s formation quitting the party.
It started with the resignation of party vice-president R Mahendran who was also the party’s best performing candidate in Coimbatore South in 2019. In a 12-page letter to Haasan, he blamed him for listening to an election consultant company, Sankhya Solutions, instead of party functionaries. “I am sad to say that there is a decline in your tenacity of purpose, which lies buried under a style of operation that reeks of a non-democratic manner of running a political party. I will leave you to decipher who your true loyalists are,” Mahendran’s letter read.
Following Mahendran, there was an exodus with general secretary and former IAS officer Santhosh Babu, CK Kumaravel, M Muruganandam, and environment wing secretary Padma Priya quitting. Those who were vocal after their exit criticised Haasan as being an autocratic leader and relying on wrong advice.
Haasan shot back in a four-minute video message released on May 24. He said those who quit failed to take responsibility for the party’s defeat. “I will be in politics till the time I am alive. Makkal Needhi Maiam will continue as a party as long as politics exist,” he said.
Two party leaders, who did not wish to be named, said that Haasan blamed everyone else except himself for the party’s defeat. “After Mahendran’s resignation, everyone’s morale was down. We had a review meeting the next day and he told everyone, ‘It’s your fault’,” said a party member who had attended the meeting. Those holding senior positions, including late President Abdul Kalam’s former secretary V Ponraj, stepped down from their posts to rejig the party.
Those who left also criticised Haasan for not choosing a Chennai constituency and going for Coimbatore South instead. Mahendran had come third in Coimbatore in the 2019 parliamentary elections. He registered a 16% vote share in the Coimbatore South segment. “Kamal basically stole his lieutenant’s seat,” said a political commentator who didn’t wish to be identified.
In February, the MNM passed 25 resolutions, which included coronating Haasan as their “Permanent Leader”. This was akin to a personality driven culture in Tamil Nadu politics that Haasan was promising to change — yet it did not spark the dissent that is not being witnessed after the poll defeat. After J Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016 and the ouster for her post VK Sasikala, the All India Anna Dravida Kazhagam (AIADMK) declared that Jayalalithaa would be the permanent general secretary of the party. It is the top most position in the AIADMK previously held by its founder M G Ramachandran (MGR). Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch M Karunanidhi too was party president even though he was ailing and until his death in August 2018. Haasan was following in their footsteps, with the party and the leader being synonymous.
Haasan articulated his admiration for several political role models. Like several leaders in Tamil Nadu politics, he claimed MGR’s legacy, espoused Gandhian values and aspired to be an alternative like Delhi chief minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejrival. “But the party is becoming more like Congress where the high command refuses to accept its mistakes and blames the cadre,” said the MNM member quoted above.
In Tamil Nadu’s politics dominated by the two Dravidian parties, there have always been smaller parties who either wanted to emerge as an alternative force or form a third front. Voters who are dissatisfied with the DMK and AIADMK form the pool that shift to these other parties. Some of these parties are caste-based and in 2021 they allied with the two majors formations. Tamil nationalist S Seeman’s Naam Tamizhar Katchi (NTK) is presently the third largest party in the state with 6.7% vote share.
Haasan’s MNM fought the election on an anti-corruption poll plank promising clean governance. The party was filled with former bureaucrats and social activists, with no seasoned politicians, demonstrating that MNM wanted to grow outside a traditional political system.
For instance, Santosh Babu, voluntarily retired from service in August 2020 after helming the Tamil Nadu Fibrenet Corporation (TANFINET) between 2018-19 in his capacity as principal secretary, Information Technology department. On the day he had joined, he spoke of the pressures he faced during his stint as the top IT official to sign on a tender. Babu had said that he had received an offer from the Prime Minister’s office to become the CEO of the MyGov platform but he had to turn it down to focus on his work in the state. He didn’t wish to speak on why he quit but said that he would continue to be in politics. “I believe Tamil Nadu’s potential is sky high and there is only so much I can do as a bureaucrat. As a politician, as an honest politician, we can change the state into a world-class economy,” said Babu.
Haasan’s support base also came from his fan base and his utopian speeches on the need to clean a corrupt system by placing politicians with integrity captured the imagination of urban youngsters.
“But eventually, there was no transparency even here,” said a second party member. In the days leading up to the polls, MNM inducted Pazha Karuppiah who had previously been with both Dravidian parties. MNM also teamed up with actor Sarath Kumar’s Samathuva Makkal Katchi (SMK) and Indhiya Jananayaga Katchi (IJK) who had walked out from the AIADMK and DMK alliance respectively and curiously gave them 37 and 40 seats to contest within the alliance.
Haasan’s ideology has also been somewhat vague. While he was opposed to Dravidian parties, he drew on ideals of Periyar E V Ramasamy, considered the father of the Dravidian movement. His critics call him a ‘B-team’ of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), pointing to his Brahmin caste — which is a baggage in Dravidian politics, although Jayalalithaa, also a Brahmin, was able to steer clear from it despite her open practice of Hinduism.
Critics also questioned Haasan’s support for Anna University vice-chancellor M K Surappa, a BJP appointee, who the previous AIADMK regime had put under investigation. Haasan, however, has critiqued the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies. He envisions a caste-free society but his stance towards that end has been criticised as ill-informed.
“Kamal Haasan has promised to be different, but he is not clear on how he will be different,” says political commentator Maalan Narayanan. “Structurally there is a problem. He is the only leader and there is no second line leadership. They relied entirely on his campaign and thought people would get carried away but that didn’t yield results.”
To rely on Haasan’s star power is expected in a state where former chief ministers are matinee idols such as MGR, Jayalalithaa and scriptwriter Karunanidhi. Haasan is also the host of Big Boss in Tamil in his attempt to directly connect with the audience and subsequently his electorate. But the paths taken by his predecessors are vastly different which his contemporary Rajinikanth also couldn’t match up despite having a cult following across the world. Rajinikanth quit politics two weeks after announcing his entry in December 2020.
MGR, Karunanidhi and subsequently Jayalalithaa were entrenched in Dravidian politics and used films to propagate the political ideology and didn’t have a smooth rise to the top until they consolidated their positions. MGR’s contemporary Sivaji Ganesan was a poor show in politics. Haasan is often compared to Ganesan in his acting prowess as well as his political fortunes.
Experts, however, don’t write off MNM but say it requires more patience and an overhaul in its style of functioning. “Though Kamal Haasan says Kejriwal is his idol, he didn’t follow his ground-level work. Kejriwal contested against Sheila Dixit but Haasan didn’t pick a strong opponent,” says Narayanan. “He has to start at the grassroots, from the bottom and not from the top. He has to talk to the common man to understand his problems and not address what he perceives to be a problem. If corruption was the biggest problem for people of Tamil Nadu both DMK and AIADMK wouldn’t exist.”
MNM’s general secretary AG Maurya and Sankya Solutions’ Suresh Iyer did not respond to HT’s calls and messages.
On May 7, the company released a statement denying the allegations. “The news against us is complete fabrication of lies by Dr Mahendran with ulterior motives against the party and the president. We have been used as a scape goat and collateral damage, since we are bound by confidentiality, we choose not to issue a point-by-point rebuttal.”