Actor Kamalahaasan would not have imagined that the thrust and parry of politics would nick him within a span of five hours—the time it took him to reach Madurai from Rameswaram, from where he had begun his political journey. At Rameswaram, he was asked why he chose to start at former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s house when he could not find time to even attend his funeral. “I am not in the habit of attending funerals,” retorted Kamal, but only for his bluff to be called in the hyperactive social media, which showed Kamal was exploiting Kalam’s name for political expediency—he had apparently met the scientist only once, that too on a flight.
Within a couple of hours of the actor claiming to abhor funerals, photos of him accompanying Tamil film legend Sivaji Ganesan’s body and attending the funerals of actors Manorama, Nagesh and Gemini Ganesan, as well as of music icon M.S. Subbulakshmi, flooded social media with the question: “So who is this man attending these funerals?”
“Kamal would have learnt that giving an escapist reply would not make him a smart politician—not when the digital footprints of his past are readily available to contradict any claim he makes today,” points out actor Kavithalaya Krishnan, who has shared screen space with him. “This applies to every celebrity who tries to take a deceitful stand.”
At Madurai, Kamal launched his new party on February 21 in the presence of Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal. The juiced-up expectations gave way to an underwhelming response from the crowd when he announced the name of his party, Makkal Needhi Maiyam (MNM), roughly meaning People’s Justice Centre, which could be mistaken for a legal aid centre. Similarly, the flag depicting six hands joined together in a circle was alleged to be a copy of a postal union’s flag.
But Kamal took pains to clarify that the word ‘Centre’ referred to the people. “The people would be the central focus of this movement,” explained the 63-year-old actor. “I would only be an enabler and a guide, not a leader, in getting them a just and honourable life, and fight corruption.” The six hands represented the six southern states as he hopes his politics would, like his films, impress across the state borders.
It is in Tamil Nadu’s crowded political canvass that Kamal would have to carve out a place for himself. DMK’s Stalin dismissed him as a flower that would fade. The AIADMK predicted his party would flop like his last few films. The BJP, which was furious when Kamal said Hindu extremism was a reality, called him a non-starter as the state’s majority Hindus would punish him for telling a lie. Only the CPI(M), which is not comfortable in the company of the DMK and the Congress, may find in him a much needed alternative. “Kamal could emerge as the CPI(M)’s new brand ambassador, and that would be tragic for both,” quips writer Charu Nivedita.
“Kamal would only be partaking in the anti-BJP, anti-AIADMK pie, which is being shared by too many contestants—the DMK, the Congress, the CPI, the regional parties of Vijayakanth, Vaiko and Ramadoss, fringe Tamil parties, minority groups and so on,” predicts political analyst Ravindran Duraiswamy. “Once he realises he would get a mere nibble, he would readily become part of a larger alliance and be reduced to a minor player.”
With Rajnikanth hovering in the background and expected to unveil his own political party in a few months, Kamal needs to take advantage of the headstart. “Kamal has shown greater political urgency in launching his party, having taken a political stand in the year since Jayalalitha’s demise,” points out advocate Rajasekhar, part of MNM’s core team. “Even when she was alive, he had shown immense courage in criticising the mishandling of the December 2015 floods and corruption in the administration. In contrast, Rajnikanth has dithered for over two decades and his political entry has only been a reaction to Kamal’s arrival.”
Instead of flexing his muscles and form his own party, Rajnikanth did the unthinkable—he announced a new film, to be produced by the Sun TV group. Two of his films are already in the pipeline—Kaala, slated for an April release, followed by 2.0 later in the year. The film fraternity sees the new movie as a desperate gambit by Rajnikanth to make a fast buck to settle his wife Latha’s many financial dues as he fears her financial woes could trip him in future.
“When you launch another film instead of a party, you would be seen as a non-serious politician,” says political science professor Ramu Manivannan. “Rajnikanth needs to focus all his energies on his politics. You cannot have one foot in politics and the other in movies. You will end up compromising your politics for the sake of your film’s success. With the Sun TV banner identified with the DMK, he might find it difficult to oppose the DMK on a specific issue.”
Rajnikanth seems to be buying time as he feels he should be ready only for the assembly polls, which are expected along with the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Meanwhile, he has gone in for some political crowdsourcing by asking his fans to enroll at least one crore members in the Rajni Makkal Manram (Rajni Peoples’ Forum), which will anchor his party.
“Rather than start a party and go scouting for members, Rajni is doing the opposite,” observes film producer and historian G. Dhananjayan. “MGR showed how a solid fan base can be converted into a political party. He kept acting in movies until he became CM. So I would not fault Rajni if he seeks to expand his fan base by doing one more film. He has time till May 2019 to launch his party.”
Though Kamal has formed his party, he too would be acting in a movie, Indian-2, and also shoot for the second edition of Bigg Boss on television. The two movies stars would still be doing what they do best—performing before the cameras. State politics, meanwhile, will remain a joust between the regular players.
Unmindful of the star act, PM Narendra Modi proved his political adeptness by inaugurating a subsidised two-wheeler scheme for women, a dream project of Jayalalitha. His participation proved that the BJP is unwilling to discount the AIADMK as a potential ally. The AIADMK has remained a steadfast supporter of the Centre and its numbers are needed in Parliament, where NDA allies are getting peskier by the day. Jayalalitha’s votebank, though not fully intact, remains substantial as a wise political investment that the BJP cannot ignore.
“Modi and EPS together proved that realpolitik belongs to well-honed politicians like them. The actors, meanwhile, can continue to sell their dreams,” says Tamil Nadu finance minister D. Jayakumar.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai