Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam turned three on Sunday. Addressing his party cadres, Kamal said: “We have to capture power, sitting in the opposition is not an option.” Hope that’s motivational talk, not a realistic assessment.
A day before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu, I sat with Kamal Haasan for a chat on his party’s electoral prospects. Kamal had no delusions of grandeur when I asked for a self-assessment, but he sounded overconfident. “Experts say we will get 5% votes, but we will clear the 10% mark,” he told me. The MNM got a little less than 3.8% votes.
What struck me more was Kamal’s sense of haste. I asked him about his homework before launching the party, if he had consulted some experts. He spoke about a Harvard professor telling him that he should give himself at least 10 years in politics before he could aspire to attain power. “I am 63,” he said. “I don’t have the time for that, so I ignored the advice and charted my own plans.”
But that was two years ago, when his party was barely a year old. Now, the short journey through the dustbowls of rural Tamil Nadu should have convinced Kamal what the Harvard professor couldn’t: It’s going to be a long battle. There is no denying that this assembly election will be a direct fight between the DMK and the AIADMK, and most of the other parties have chosen to ally with either. MNM so far has stood its middle ground.
American motivational writer William Arthur Ward said the pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails. If the MNM’s decision not to align with either of the parties is because it can defeat the leviathans this time, it will be missing the winds and drowning the sails.
Kamal looks up to Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s electoral success merely a year after founding the Aam Admi Party (AAP). Kejriwal is indeed an inspiration to leaders who dream of storming the citadel, but Delhi and Tamil Nadu are two different worlds. More than 93% of Delhi’s population is urban, while more than half the population of Tamil Nadu is rural. Urban population in at least 10 districts of Tamil Nadu is less than 25%.
Crusades against corruption and status quo work easier in cities because of their demography and the characteristic pent-up anger at the establishment. If you are not following the populist route, you have to plough long and hard in the hinterlands to have a good electoral harvest. Here, besides taking on the big ones, Kamal will find a competitor in Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) that garnered a little more than MNM’s vote share in the 2019 general elections. The NTK, with its rustic, Tamil nationalistic agenda, is in many ways the MNM’s antithesis.
Kamal, as a politician, has been hardworking and promising. When I interviewed him in September 2017, five months before MNM’s birth, his answers were mostly general, some vague. The Kamal I met after the 2019 polls was more political and less philosophical. Kamal should consider this election another training session to progress steadfastly towards his proclaimed goals. The most treacherous pitfalls on the way would be the temptation to be a bit like others. If that happens, Storyboard will be among the first to censure him. Till then, many happy returns of the day, MNM.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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