There are several similarities but one crucial difference between actor Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam and Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party. Haasan, like AAP, has positioned himself as a political outsider whose principal plank is to root out corruption without pursuing the politics of identity or by deploying muscle and money power. He believes, as Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal once did before his electoral debut, that he can ride the popular disgust with the existing political class to come to power, assisted in his mission by a team having little experience of electoral politics.
The crucial difference is that AAP, unlike Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam, emerged out of a movement against corruption. The media’s extensive coverage of the movement had a multiplier effect and turned its leaders, until then unknown, into household names. Their popularity was largely because of the ideas they represented.
As a famous film personality, Haasan doesn’t require an introduction to Tamil Nadu. Yet he is not in the mould of chief ministers MG Ramachandran, J Jayalalithaa and K Kaurnanidhi, all of whom, like Haasan, were associated with the film industry. But unlike him, the trio were also members of a political formation before their ascent to power.
Haasan wil, therefore, need the media to disseminate his political ideas. This is more so as he embarks on a tour of the state, as he wrote in a letter released last month, to understand “what the needs of my people are?, what is afflicting them?, what their aspirations are?”
In other words, Haasan’s political party will now become a vehicle for a movement, a trajectory opposite to what AAP took. The Makkal Needhi Maiam is designed to be a movement against corruption, not only evident from Haasan’s remark at the launch of the party, but also from his audacious sallies in the past few months.
For instance, in a series of tweets on last year’s Independence Day, Haasan wondered why nobody demands that Tamil Nadu chief minister E Palaniswami should resign “for mishap and corruption.” In another tweet on the same day, he said that “unless we liberate ourselves from corruption, we are all slaved. Let those persons who have the guts to pledge themselves to the new freedom struggle come forward. Let us win (the struggle).”
Haasan’s outcry against money power and the metaphor of freedom struggle were also elements of the anti-corruption movement that morphed into AAP. Huge portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and the Tricolour would constitute the backdrop of the site where leaders of the movement, such as Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal, would either fast unto death or speak to the audience. Haasan considers Gandhi his favourite leader, a fact his daughter, Shruti, mentioned in a best-of-luck tweet before the launch. It is to Gandhi’s inspiration Haasan has credited his decision to adopt one village in every district.
AAP’s tactics of mobilisation before its inception included exhorting people to give missed calls and sending text messages to register their protest against corruption and support for the movement against it. Likewise, Haasan has a whistleblower app – maiyam whistle – where people can report the wrongdoings of the government. To do so implies signing up with Haasan.
Haasan also shares with AAP an irreverent disregard for mainstream politicians. Earlier this month, while speaking at Indian Conference 2018 at Harvard University, Haasan accused Tamil Nadu’s political class of setting mediocrity as the standard of the state. He quipped, “… Rubbish becomes acceptable, ordinary become extraordinary and extraordinary becomes genius. Genius itself, if it exists at all, is relegated to a state that needs psychiatric monitoring.”
The actor was projecting the crackdown on corruption as a farce, a charge AAP leaders often leveled against the United Progressive Alliance government every time it ordered an inquiry into a scam or called for negotiations to frame a Jan Lokpal bill for creating an independent body to investigate corruption cases. In those days, AAP wouldn’t hesitate to lampoon prominent political personalities as thieves.
In the same vein, Haasan equated politicians with criminals. After the raids on Sasikala’s properties, he said, “Examination bell has gone. Criminals should not rule…People should turn judges. Let’s wake up and arise. People should act….”
On the count of shunning the politics of identity, Haasan has gone farther than AAP ever went explicitly. In a recent media interview, he said that caste politics has become a hurdle for rural students and farmer, and that it has not withered away because “officials are safeguarding caste.” He reiterated the line in his speech yesterday: “Caste and religious games must be stopped.”
For most part, AAP too has refrained from appealing to caste identities, preferring the strategy of promoting the interests of the urban poor, such as halving the power rates, supplying water free till a certain level of consumption, and improving government schools and hospitals. Kejriwal has often remarked, as he too did at the launch of Makkal Needhi Maiam, that there is ample money in the government’s kitty, but it doesn’t get spent on welfare measures because the intent of those in power is ignoble.
From this perspective, corruption becomes a recognisable codeword for services and facilities denied to the poor by the corrupt political elite. In his speech in Madurai, Haasan, too, identified corruption as the root cause of poor quality education and unemployment.
This strategy has worked for AAP in Delhi because class, not caste, drives its politics, as is not the case with Tamil Nadu, where multiple parties have banded groups of castes as their social base. This is perhaps why Haasan plans to adopt one village in each of the state’s 32 districts, as he said at Harvard, to “re-imagine” them. In other words, the plight of rural Tamil Nadu is because of a corrupt system presided over by political leaders. Whether such a tactics will succeed in the caste-based politics of Tamil Nadu is moot.
To the two Cs, Haasan has added one more – caste. As such, Haasan raised the BJP’s hackles by saying that “in the past, Hindu, right-wing groups would not indulge in violence. They would hold a dialogue with opponents. But now they resort to violence.” It had some leaders of Hindutva groups to demand an apology from him.
Like AAP, Haasan will have to rely on volunteers to expand the party, given that his anti-corruption plank will compel him to keep the moneybags at bay. He can’t possibly finance an army of supporters. For a political startup, it is advantageous to take the route of movement before taking a plunge into electoral politics. This assures them a reservoir of volunteers and grassroots leaders, as has been indeed the case with AAP.
Haasan won’t have this advantage, which he can perhaps hope to overcome with his fan club that reportedly has 5 lakh members. They perhaps have a modicum of organisational skills as Haasan turned the club into a welfare organisation years ago. It has to be seen whether they and Haasan, like AAP leaders, have an instinct for politics.
Haasan seems to have already taken a leaf out of AAP’s book – for instance, portraying political participation as a virtue, a pressing need to drive the bad out of politics. At Harvard, Haasan said that he, like the intelligentsia, was disdainful of electoral politics. “On the contrary, it can and should be a civic duty. A duty that we have neglected…,” he said.
Haasan has jumped into the political arena expecting a political vacuum – Karunanidhi is old and the AIADMK might soon witness a meltdown. But old parties don’t wither away overnight. Karunanidhi’s son, MK Stalin, could well prove his mettle and Dhinakaran could run away with the AIADMK cadres. Seasoned analysts don’t give Haasan a chance to make a dent in Tamil Nadu’s politics.
But such prognostications analysts too made when AAP contested the 2013 Assembly election, believing the BJP and the Congress would decimate it. Most predicted for AAP a tally of less than 10 seats. AAP surprised them all, precisely why political parties in Tamil Nadu will not commit the same mistake of underestimating Haasan and his party. The blowback from the political mainstream that AAP has been facing since it came to power in 2015, Haasan will likely countenance it during his preparation to become a successful political player.