In Tamil cinema, Kamal Haasan is thought of as an highbrow. Haasan, a creator, singer, choreographer, consistently broke new ground with his acting, stories and technology. He could play a hero, a inebriated, a woman, a dwarf and even a former United States president. So, it used to be 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 meeting elections, the fledgling party’s performance diminished, with just 2.5%. In the results declared on May 2, all of the party’s candidates — 135 from MNM and the others contested by allies — missing in the 234-seat meeting. Haasan, the chief ministerial candidate, who tested his hustlings in Coimbatore South constituency, missing to BJP’s Vanathi Srinivasan in a contest that went down to the wire.
But he’s 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 used to be 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’s 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 can leave you to decipher who your true loyalists are,” Mahendran’s letter read.
Following Mahendran, there used to be an exodus with general secretary and former IAS officer Santhosh Babu, CK Kumaravel, M Muruganandam, and surroundings wing secretary Padma Priya quitting. Those who were vocal after their exit criticised Haasan as being an autocratic leader and relying on incorrect 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 can be in politics till the time I am alive. Makkal Needhi Maiam will continue as a party so long as politics exist,” he said.
Two party leaders, who did not want to be named, said that Haasan blamed everyone else apart from himself for the party’s defeat. “After Mahendran’s resignation, everyone’s morale used to be down. We had a review assembly the next day to come and he told everyone, ‘It’s your fault’,” said a party member who had attended the assembly. 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 want to be identified.
In February, the MNM passed 25 resolutions, which included coronating Haasan as their “Permanent Leader”. This used to be akin to a personality driven culture in Tamil Nadu politics that Haasan used to be promising to change — yet it did not spark the dissent that isn’t being witnessed after the ballot 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 will be the permanent general secretary of the party. It’s the top most position in the AIADMK in the past held by its founder M G Ramachandran (MGR). Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch M Karunanidhi too used to be party president despite the fact that he used to be ailing and until his death in August 2018. Haasan used to be 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 fitting 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 all the time 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. A few 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 at the moment the third largest party in the state with 6.7% vote share.
Haasan’s MNM fought the election on an anti-corruption ballot plank promising clean governance. The party used to be filled with former bureaucrats and social activists, with no seasoned politicians, demonstrating that MNM wanted to grow out of doors a traditional political system.
For example, 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 branch. On the day he had joined, he spoke of the pressures he faced all through his stint as the top IT official to signal on a bid. Babu had said that he had received an offer from the Prime Minister’s office to develop into the CEO of the MyGov platform but he had to turn it down to concentrate on his work in the state. He didn’t want to speak on why he quit but said that he would continue to be in politics. “I imagine Tamil Nadu’s potential is sky high and there is only such a lot I will do as a bureaucrat. As a politician, as an sincere politician, we will change the state into a world-class economy,” said Babu.
Haasan’s toughen base also came from his fan base and his utopian speeches on the wish to clean a corrupt system by placing politicians with integrity captured the imagination of urban youngsters.
“But eventually, there used to be no transparency even here,” said a second party member. In the days leading up to the polls, MNM inducted Pazha Karuppiah who had in the past 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 inside the alliance.
Haasan’s ideology has also been relatively indistinct. While he used to be objected to Dravidian parties, he drew on ideals of Periyar E V Ramasamy, regarded as 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, even though Jayalalithaa, also a Brahmin, used to be in a position to steer lucid from it despite her open practice of Hinduism.
Critics also questioned Haasan’s toughen for Anna University vice-chancellor M K Surappa, a BJP appointee, who the preceding AIADMK regime had put under investigation. Haasan, on the other hand, 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 isn’t lucid on how he’s going to be different,” says political commentator Maalan Narayanan. “Structurally there’s a problem. He’s the only leader and there’s no second line leadership. They relied entirely on his crusade and thought people would get carried absent 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 could also be the host of Big Boss in Tamil in his attempt to directly connect with the audience and therefore his electorate. But the paths taken by his predecessors are vastly different which his modern 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 therefore 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 modern Sivaji Ganesan used to be a bad show in politics. Haasan is frequently in comparison to Ganesan in his acting prowess in addition to his political fortunes.
Experts, on the other hand, don’t write off MNM but say it requires more patience and an overtake 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 begin at the grassroots, from the behind 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. Whether corruption used to be 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 remark denying the allegations. “The news against us is total 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 select not to issue a point-by-point rebuttal.”