Close to nine months ago, Kamal Haasan baptised himself in the political waters of Tamil Nadu. But has the actor turned politician shown signs of capitalising on the vacuum post Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi? Far from taking baby steps, his fledgling Makkal Needhi Maiam has been attempting giant strides in its outreach initiatives. In his new role, the veteran actor has hit the road running, on a mission to be a 'Change Agent'.
From roping in a mix of entrepreneurs, former bureaucrats and a seasoned media relations professional in his core team, to maintaining a robust social media presence, Kamal's itinerary reflects his resolve to feel the pulse of the masses and build a rapport with them. In the nine months gone by, he has held town hall style meetings with farmers, fishermen, women entrepreneurs, lawyers, differently abled children, environmental activists, business leaders, industry bodies, senior citizens and students, undertaken tours to fourteen districts, organised Panchayat meetings, addressed seven big public rallies and launched award winning apps.
Spelling out his stand on the most contentious issues in the State - from Cauvery to Sterlite to the right to dissent, Kamal also met the Karnataka Chief Minister and visited the victims of the Tuticorin police firing. All in under nine months. With the exception of M.K.Stalin’'s 234 constituency wide 'Pesalam Vanga' (Come, let's talk) how many Chief Ministers or aspirants for the top job have reached out as much in five years?
Championing causes like blood and organ donation have been on his agenda decades before his foray into politics. But do good intentions lead to good governance, or even a shot at it? Politics is no 'First Day, First Show' spectacle. As he wipes off the grease paint and gets into the grime on the ground, 'Nammavar' will have to grapple with three factors that determine electoral success in Dravidian politics - caste, alliances and deep pockets.
A self proclaimed atheist, Kamal has alienated himself from the Brahmin community to which he belongs. Even a seasoned leader like Stalin has toned down his rationalist rhetoric, telling his General Council that the DMK is not against those who believe in God. Wooing even a fraction of the Gounders or Thevars loyal to the AIADMK or the minority, OBC vote bank of the DMK or the Vanniyar stronghold of the PMK, will be more than daunting. Kamal can only hope that such groups don't strictly vote en masse by the caste card but get swayed by political issues that emerge closer to D Day. And that he scores bonus points with his popular image as an actor, not to speak of his clever use of imagery at rallies, like displaying pictures of MGR carrying him as a child.
The solitary reaper strategy, built on the anti corruption plank, may have worked for the Aam Admi Party in Delhi. The script is very different in Tamil Nadu. Kamal may decry the freebie culture, equating it with "alms". But the 'what's in it for us' query on the minds of voters in the South, make manifesto promises an important hook. Competitive populism is the mantra that has been at play in Tamil Nadu for at least the last four assembly polls. The ability to flex financial muscle is a sine quo non in Tamil Nadu's electoral landscape. What must also not be forgotten is that people vote differently in Lok Sabha elections, where national issues, coalitions and the Prime Ministerial candidate loom large.
Movie punchlines make good election slogans, but they may win applause and likes on the social media, not votes. Striking the right alliance is crucial for a newbie on the block. It is not prudent to rule out ties with any side several months before polls.
Although perceived to be ideologically closer to the DMK, Kamal has gone on record to declare that he will have no trucks with it. Or with the AIADMK for that matter.
Expecting the Congress to jettison its trusted ally, the DMK, and align with the MNM is more than wishful thinking. Other actors like Vijaykanth who tested the waters, notched up a good tally when they were part of a coalition.
The by-elections on the cards may be a good exhibition match for Kamal's party, as a prelude to his real electoral debut. And also provide a rough note for course correction. As he blows his birthday candles, he may well wish that good intentions offset, perhaps even trump inexperience....