Actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan made his maiden political speech at Ottakattai Grounds, Madurai on 21 February where thousands had gathered to hear him. While most turned up to see Kamal Haasan the actor, they were given the first taste of Kamal the politician as he churned out punchy one-liners. 

Kamal Haasan seems to have strategically chosen Madurai as his launchpad. It was here in 1921 that Mahatma Gandhi, whom Kamal greatly admires, gave up his formal attire and donned his loin cloth to become Bapu for the nation. Madurai is the Tamil heartland and perceived as the land of Tamil culture. In fact, it is the centre of jallikattu as well. Politicians in Tamil Nadu are always seen as a force to reckon with if they have a stronghold over Madurai. The city has given rise to many successful politicians like M.G. Ramachandran and Vijayakanth. 

The 63-year-old, who launched his political journey from A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s home, introduced his “Makkal Needhi Maiam” party to the people of Tamil Nadu and spoke about the southern coalition which he is hoping to achieve. “This is a party for you, for the people. I am your instrument, you are the leaders, this is a crowd full of leaders,” he told the crowd.

At the public meeting, Kamal also spelt out what the Makkal Needhi Maiam would focus on at this point: “an honest war” against corruption, to provide education for all and employment to the educated youth. On the dais with him, was AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal with whom Kamal shares a common goal—to fight corruption. Though some might deem Kejriwal a failure in politics, Kamal has immense respect for him and AAP’s political success.

Kejriwal batted for the actor-politician calling him a “hero in real life” and urged the people of Tamil Nadu to vote for him stating he was giving the state an honest, political alternative. “If you want corruption, vote for the DMK and AIADMK. But if you want schools, road, water, electricity, vote for Kamal,” he added.

Unlike the usual political rhetoric one hears from politicians, Kamal Haasan’s statements and actions resonated with the common man. At Ramanathapuram, he likened himself to the lamp at people’s homes rather than a movie star. “Like the lamp in your homes you should protect me,” he stated. When he met the fishermen there, he didn’t accept the shawls that people brought to drape him with. He said, “I will not drape you with a shawl. Instead, I will be your shawl.” Kamal went on to hug the fishermen, which is unprecedented. 

With money freely flowing from political parties to the public during elections in Tamil Nadu, Kamal also addressed the cash-for-vote issue. “I won’t give cash to voters even if I had it. Without realising the value of your vote, you have been fooled by selling your vote,” he told the public who had gathered. 

Many of his colleagues in the Tamil film industry have hailed his move into politics and wishes poured in for Kamal Haasan on social media. Some of them have also taken the step of joining his Makkal Needhi Maiam. Actor Sripriya and Kameela Nasser (actor Nasser’s wife) form part of the core group of his party at present and were seen on the dais with him in Madurai.

The party name symbolises people, justice and the centrist ideology that he wishes to follow while the party flag shows six connected hands in reference to the friendship between the six southern states and the star in the centre represents the people. Explaining the symbol, Kamal stated, “The flag logo is like a new South India map. The six hands indicate six southern states.”

However, Kamal’s party symbol has already stirred controversy on social media with some accusing him of playing divisive politics due to his focus on South India and his Dravidian brand of politics apparently versus the Aryan. But the Centre’s obesssesion with the Hindi-speaking states and perceived isolation and/or disregard of the southern states has not gone down well with the people here. Kamal Haasan has been perceptive in tapping into this feeling of alienation felt by those in Tamil Nadu and the south (like Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah) by using the route of Dravidian politics.  

From the beginning, the actor-politician has stated that saffron is not his colour. In his weekly column on Thursdays in the Tamil magazine Vikatan, he wrote, “People say I dishonour the colour saffron. That is wrong. There is space for that sacrifice (saffron represents sacrifice in the national flag) even in our national flag. I only feel that it should not spread across the entire flag.” 

In January, Kamal Haasan called for the southern states to unify under the Dravidian umbrella in order to gain advantage at the Centre. The actor remarked that the Dravidian identity should be celebrated across South India so that the “united chorus” reaches New Delhi. And with the six united hands (the six southern states) on his party flag, he seems to be taking this ideology further. The question now is whether this will appeal to the masses and the educated classes and push them to vote for him. 

“Kamal Haasan has got the right to talk about Dravidian principles in politics. But if it is true that Kamal Haasan is trying to isolate the Dravidian states, then it is wrong. I don’t think Kamal would have thought about separating the six states but if he thinks along those lines, then it will be a very big failure for him. It shows he hasn’t understood the mood in the country. At the same time, he says he is a nationalist. Only Kamal can answer this question being posed by detractors,” said BJP’s Narayana Tirupathy. 

But many dismiss these allegations. Journalist M. Bharath Kumar states, “Kamal Haasan is not playing divisive politics. He is clear he is a nationalist and loves his country. In fact, he has reiterated this on many occasions including in his weekly Vikatan column. If you look at films, he has a passion for Hindi cinema and has done so many Hindi films. I believe he doesn’t want to restrict Dravidian politics to Tamil Nadu but has a wider vision to take it to the six southern states. Leaders like MGR, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi only focused on Tamil Nadu, but Kamal wants to take it beyond the Tamil Nadu borders.”

Adds writer and analyst Madhavan Narayanan, “I think Kamal Haasan is smartly using his fan base across southern India in four languages to create a mutually helpful network with the likes of Pinarayi Vijayan and Chandrababu Naidu. This can help his fledgeling party. If anything he is trying to look beyond identity politics of language, caste or religion to forge a new style focused on jobs and economic welfare.”

Kamal Haasan stated that greatness comes from simple beginnings. Keeping his political debut simple with just one meeting in Madurai, Kamal seems to be taking it one step at a time with other meetings lined up across various towns in Tamil Nadu over the next few months. The dawn of a new era in politics has now been officially kicked off in Tamil Nadu, believe Kamal’s supporters.

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