Tamil Nadu

Return to star wars

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Kamal Hassan addressing the audience during the launch of his political party in Madurai on February 21. Photo: ARUN SANKAR/AFP

Rajnikanth unveils a statue of MGR at the Dr MGR Educational and Research Institute in Chennai on March 5. Photo: PTI

With Kamal Hassan setting up a political party and Rajnikanth in the process of doing so, politics in Tamil Nadu is entering an interesting phase in which cinema is the only constant.

AT the centre of an expansive stage with a giant digital screen as its backdrop, Kamal Hassan, the actor-turned-politician, paces up and down, raising his clenched fist and turning on his charm as he attempts to engage with the audience that has come to witness his foray into politics, a role he has not played often on screen.

The media were present in full strength, with regional and national satellite television channels beaming the event live from the temple town of Rameswaram on February 21 as the 63-year-old rationalist began his journey in politics with the slogan “Naalai Namadae” (tomorrow is ours) from the house of the town’s most famous son, former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. He travelled around 200 kilometres to the temple city of Madurai, where, at a glossy public show late in the night, he announced the name of his party, Makkal Neethi Maiam (People’s Justice Centre), and unfurled the party flag: an ensign of six hands in red and black encircling a star in black and red, set against a white background.

The party, he said, would pursue the principles of both Dravidianism and nationalism. Incidentally, his team realised only after the launch that the ensign was registered in the name of a Tamil social organisation at Chembur in Mumbai, and it was left to Kamal Hassan to negotiate with the organisation for the right to use it. He announced the names of the district functionaries of the party and members of his high-power committee, the core team that will organise and coordinate his activities. It is a young and energetic group but is yet to set up a smooth organisational mechanism.

Kamal Hassan’s baby steps in politics were not without the stagger. For instance, his interactive session with fishermen, his first public event with the most important community in Rameswaram, lasted just a few minutes. Crowd management was tardy, and he was forced to make backdoor exits more than once to avoid waiting crowds. “We should have avoided such goof-ups. A system has been put in place to plug the loopholes,” said a senior member of the core group.

His maiden political speech itself was without flourish and underscored the need to bring up straight away issues such as the farm crisis, the sharing of Cauvery water, and the need for free education and health care. He offered no tangible solutions and his responses lacked clarity. For instance, on the Cauvery, he said that through “dialogue” he could get even blood (blood donation was what he said he meant) from the other side, that is, Karnataka.

People of both States, he claimed, were mutually affectionate and pointed to those who were “lighting beedis in the fire” (a reference to politicians). He talked about the “saraya kadais” (liquor shops) that were ruining Tamil families and said he would offer neither “quarter (250 ml liquor bottle) nor scooter” (a reference to the subsidised scooter scheme for women, an election promise of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa that Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated on February 24). Patronage politics, he said, had destroyed Tamil Nadu. The days of “eternal leader” were over, he emphasised, and said he would pass on the leadership baton to the next generation at an appropriate time.

The question in the minds of most supporters of Kamal Hassan was this: Were these statements and high-sounding pronouncements enough to build a strong foundation for the party? The answer perhaps lay in the next issue that Kamal Hassan brought up: corruption. Significantly, seated on the dais was the anti-corruption crusader and Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Corruption, he said, was the main reason why Tamil Nadu was suffering today. “We have been betrayed by those who ruled us for five decades,” he said and added that remedying the situation was not a single man’s job. “You all must join me in it,” he told the crowd and termed the culture of bribing voters “a shame”.

It is clear that Kamal Hassan is positioning his politics on the Kejriwal template. When Kejriwal, during his speech, criticised the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Kamal Hassan quipped that the Delhi Chief Minister had set the tone, suggesting that his party would be the ideal alternative to the two Dravidian parties. The AAP’s anti-corruption narrative, he strongly believes, can help recreate the “Kejriwal magic” in Tamil Nadu too. He said he would lead the people of Tamil Nadu to a “wonderful future from their miserable past”.

The corruption issue aside, his speech of 30-odd minutes was short on substance. The decent-sized crowd, the majority of them youths and fans, was disappointed. At a time when strong movements on issues of social relevance—the agitations against hydrocarbon projects in Neduvasal and Kathiramangalam in the Thanjavur delta—and cultural importance—the Jallikattu movement in Chennai—had gained traction in both rural and urban areas, the speech was a disappointment.

Kamal Hassan declared that his politics would stay clear of caste and creed. The rebuttal from political leaders was swift and sharp. Said D. Ravikumar, Dalit writer and activist: “How can it be when society is steeped in casteism and social evils like untouchability are still in practice? In a culture fragmented on caste lines, if you do not come forward to express your views concretely on these issues, what politics are you going to play? He uses caste names in his films nonchalantly.” Kamal Hassan was yet to talk about such social issues, besides the ills of increasing contractual labour, de-unionisation and privatisation and the diminishing size of the working class, Ravikumar pointed out.

In fact, the actor, called affectionately as “Nammavar” (our man), which was the title of a film in which he plays the role of a social reformer, attempts to present the vision of a “perfect society”. Those who have tracked him closely on social media platforms such as Twitter, where he expressed his political intention by announcing “a march to Fort St. George”, the seat of power in Tamil Nadu, cannot but notice his ideological confusion. He claims that he is neither Left nor Right. For him any ideology or any “ism” seems to be spurious. The writer Maruthan, writing in “The Hindu Tamil”, said that the actor, while exploiting the vacuum, was promoting “depoliticised politics”, which was harmful to democracy.

Fuzzy political outlook

Kamal Hassan presents a fuzzy political outlook, much like his fraternal actor Rajnikanth, who too recently announced his decision to start a political party. Rajnikanth even said that the mention of the word ideology was enough to make his head spin. Both bank on “clientele politics”, which is based on hero worship, with their unsuspecting fans marketing them effectively. The attempt in both cases is to construct carefully the political image on the basis of the film image.

“It is an elite, lobby-style politics. Both have no ideological perceptions. They think they can market their image as they used to market their films. But politics is not a product to be sold to people,” said Prof. G. Palanithurai, a sociopolitical analyst and coordinator of the Rajiv Gandhi Chair on Panchayati Raj at the Gandhigram Rural Institute, a deemed university in Dindigul in Tamil Nadu.

Analysts agree that Tamil Nadu politics today is hamstrung by the absence of Jayalalithaa, who died last year, and M. Karunanidhi, who suffers from age-related ailments. “But can it be construed as a political vacuum?” asked Palanithurai. He explained that a political vacuum was distinctly different from a leadership vacuum. In fact, the absence of an able leader had created the space for the entry of Tamil nationalists such as Seeman of the Naam Thamizhar Katchi.

Both actors are trying to squeeze themselves into a crowded space that still has some legroom for alternative voices. The symbiotic relationship between electoral politics and cinema in Tamil Nadu, Palanithurai said, would not, however, ensure a repeat of the past that saw the rise of Karunanidhi, M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) and Jayalalithaa. “The actor-turned-politician Vijayakanth, who promised an alternative, realised this much after more than a decade, and despite having enjoyed a vote share of between 8 and 10 per cent then, his popularity is now on the slide,” pointed out Prof. V. Arasu, social historian and former Head of the Department of Modern Tamil Literature and Tamil Media Studies at the University of Madras in Chennai.

Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth do not camouflage their aversion to Dravidian politics, which has dominated the State for over 50 years now. “Do the two actors offer either an alternative politics or an alternative leadership?” asked Palanithurai. He said: “Politics in the State today is dissimilar to those days of accelerated social and political activity that gave birth to Dravidian politics. The neoliberal climate and the emergence of fascist forces reiterate the relevance of Dravidian politics today. But these actors would prefer to practise election-specific politics rather than people-centric politics.”

In Anna’s name

In the case of MGR, his pro-poor image had clarity. Neither did the DMK, to which he belonged (1953-1972) until he broke away to form the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK), prevent him from constructing an emotional and powerful Good Samaritan image. After floating his party, MGR continued to propagate the same Dravidian ideology but in the name of Arignar Anna (former Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai), as “Annaism”.

The writer M.S.S. Pandian says in his book The Image Trap: “What is significant about the phenomenon of MGR is that he was not merely a political personality, but also was a film star and a politician at the same time.”

Palanithurai said: “MGR just did not leap out of the silver screen one fine morning to announce that the system had failed and people were suffering. Jayalalithaa also did not confine herself to her Poes Garden residence in Chennai after she quit cinema but chose to be a political understudy to stalwarts for nearly a decade before she became Chief Minister. It was an arduous journey.”

Although the two actors have a substantial fan base across the State, analysts claim that they suffer from a trust deficit when it comes to politics.

On the contrary, Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth are banking heavily on their celluloid image, which they believe will win them the kind of political capital that their illustrious predecessors achieved. It cannot be denied that both remain confused and clueless about the nitty-gritty of grass-roots politics. Kamal Hassan’s movies, unlike MGR’s, cannot be put under the “sociopolitical genre”. A couple of his movies ( Unnal Mudiyum Thambi and Anbae Sivam) had traces of active politics. His political disposition thus appears to be ritualistic.

Kamal Hassan fashions himself as an atheist. (He said his colour was not saffron but black, which, he claims, includes all shades of colours.) This image, he strongly believes, will make him the darling of the middle and upper middle class urban elite. Rajnikanth commands decent clout among the subaltern through the Robin Hood image he cultivated in films. But people are wary of his so-called “spiritual politics”, which they suspect is a euphemism for Hindutva.

Restless BJP

In fact, Rajnikanth’s residence in Chennai, at Poes Garden, has been a regular stopover for senior leaders of the BJP, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The observation of Walter Benjamin that “the logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life” cannot be more relevant today in the context of the politics of Tamil Nadu. The BJP has been waiting too long after the demise of Jayalalithaa to dislodge the Dravidian parties.

The AIADMK, the BJP believes, is its natural catchment area. But the party, which has a few more years in power, is not as malleable as the BJP estimated. The emergence of T.T.V. Dhinakaran as a leader in his own right has come as a spoiler for the BJP in executing its plans. His surprise victory in the Assembly byelection in R.K. Nagar in Chennai (caused by the demise of Jayalalithaa) may have prompted the BJP to look at the Rajnikanth option. Its leaders were highly critical of Kamal Hassan’s entry into politics, but they warmly welcome Rajnikanth. A school of thought points out that the entry of the actors into politics has to be studied from this context too.

When Rajnikanth announced his decision in December last, his fans went hysterical. The 67-year-old star called himself a “Pachai Thamizhan” (pure Tamil) and declared: “I have decided to enter politics. The system [Tamil Nadu government] has become rotten, and if I do not save my Tamil people, who gave me everything from fame to money, the guilt will haunt me till my death.” His fan clubs have been asked to reach out to each and every household to garner support.

‘Empty rhetoric’

But neither Rajnikanth nor Kamal Hassan has spelled out a comprehensive plan to cleanse the system. “They stand on the fringe and indulge in empty rhetoric. People need a convincing solution to any problem now,” said Arasu.

While Kamal Hassan has taken the lead, Rajnikanth seems to be treading with caution. He has been in the political limelight, on and off, since 1996 when his caustic comment against the then Jayalalithaa government, “Even God cannot save our Tamil Nadu if the AIADMK wins”, helped the DMK-Tamil Maanila Congress combine sweep the Assembly elections that year. His second foray was when he asked his fans to work against the Pattali Makkal Katchi in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, but the PMK won all the seats it contested.

Rajnikanth is still cagey about celluloid popularity, saying that it alone will not suffice to win in politics. The versatile actor ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan’s disastrous entry into politics has made him more cautious. “He was defeated in his own native place,” Rajnikanth said at the recent Sivaji memorial inaugural function, in which Kamal Hassan, too, was present. That did not deter Kamal Hassan. He bared his ambition by tweeting on issues of political and social importance. Before the launch of his party, he met Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and followed it up with a series of interviews on television in both English and Tamil. He met Rajnikanth, too, besides Karunanidhi and a few other leaders.

At a recent function in a private university in Chennai, Rajnikanth unveiled a statue of MGR and made an overt attempt to appropriate MGR’s legacy. He said his “spiritual politics” meant “pure, clean and godly” politics. “Is there not spirituality in Dravidian politics?” he asked. “Yes, there is a vacuum in Tamil Nadu’s political space. And I will be the leader to fill it,” he declared. He also attempted to depoliticise the student community by advising them not to enter politics until they completed their studies, but told them to exercise their franchise.

On the contrary, Kamal Hassan has embarked upon the task of interacting with students in colleges on politics.

But the indisputable fact is that both actors have more than one thing in common. They share film fame, though they traversed different paths in cinema, and are now in politics. Rajnikanth pointed out: “We have chosen different paths. But our aim is one and the same—public welfare.” Both target the AIADMK government. While Kamal Hassan called it “political pollution”, Rajnikanth said, “People in other States are laughing [at Tamil Nadu]” in reference to the issues of corruption and the political drama that unfolded after Jayalalithaa’s death.

“They are here to harvest the benefits of the public anger and disillusionment against the present establishment, which however were generated by activists and socially conscious groups,” said Arasu. Both, he added, wished to stop the DMK from coming to power in the next elections. “With the AIADMK tottering, the two actors feel that they can fish in troubled waters. They, like the BJP, see that the DMK is the only party that stands between them and power. Each of them believes that he can emerge as a decisive force, and they are warming up to each other,” Arasu said.

It is not clear who can generate the critical mass of influence to succeed in politics. But what is certain is that Tamil Nadu’s political turf is getting ready for yet another round of star wars.