American philosopher Richard Rorty often criticised intellectuals on the Left for hanging on to archaic Marxist buzz phrases and failing to connect to a world moving towards a post-ideological era.
“Start talking about greed and selfishness rather than about bourgeois ideology, about starvation wages and layoffs rather than about the commodification of labor,” he said.
It is not clear if actor Kamal Haasan’s attempts to stay away from “isms” stem from an intellectual grounding in works of philosophers like Rorty. But his speech on Wednesday at the launch of his political party in Madurai was a clear attempt to remain ideologically neutral.
In the process, his address was high on rhetoric and very low on substance. He projected Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu as one of his big idols, clearly suggesting that he would rather be a technocrat than an ideologue. Sitting next to him on the stage was Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who, like Naidu, has perfected the art of ideological neutrality by avoiding urgent questions like caste and its effect on the society. Even while praising Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who sent a recorded video message with good wishes for the actor, Haasan identified the Communist leader as a rather man of action than an ideologue.
All through his speech, the actor emphasised pragmatism. But when it came to real issues, his views betrayed a lack of understanding.
Party and its flag
Perhaps for the first time since the S Ramadoss-led Pattali Makkal Katchi was formed in 1989 and the Puthia Tamizhagam in 1997, a potentially major political outfit in Tamil Nadu has been launched without invoking the concept of “Dravida” in the name. Haasan’s party is called Makkal Needhi Maiam or People Justice Centre.
It is important to note that the foundation for the Dravidian movement was laid by a party named the Justice Party in 1917.
Haasan’s flag consists of six hands holding each other in a circle on a white background. The actor said this denotes the six southern territories – the five states and the Union territory of Puducherry. “If you look closely you will see a new South India map,” he said.
Three of the six hands were red and three were white. In the centre was a black circle with a star in it. All three colours are associated with the Dravidian movement and find a place in the flags of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
For any observer in Tamil Nadu, the flag would strongly indicate Dravidian ethos. However, Haasan was not inclined to pigeonhole his outfit. Asked if he liked Gandhi, Periyar or Ambedkar, Haasan said like a believer who offers prayers to several gods, he too likes all of them. “We are not Left or Right. We have centre in our party name,” he stated.
At a press meet in the morning, the actor said he was not averse to borrowing ideas from the right-wing if they were useful to achieve his ends.
It was Kejriwal who set the tone for the launch meeting when he directly attacked the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Drawing parallels with Delhi, where the Aam Aadmi Party won a landslide victory in 2015, Kejriwal said Tamil Nadu now had the option of voting for an honest party. “If you want corruption, vote for DMK and AIADMK,” he said. “If you want hospitals, schools, roads and electricity, vote for Shri Kamal Haasan.”
Haasan thanked Kejriwal for doing what he himself was hesitant to do: attack the two Dravidian parties who have ruled Tamil Nadu for over 50 years. He complemented the Delhi chief minister by pointing to the cash-for-votes problem in the state and said he would not be able to defeat corruption without the help of the people, who should be ready to make small sacrifices.
All through, Haasan took on the problem of corruption, considered a relatively easier subject to speak on given the across-board acceptance of its menace. But on topics like caste and religion, he made only passing references. In fact, there was not a word on the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is the ruling party at the Centre and which has been highly critical of the actor. He made a general point that caste and religion have been used to divide people and this will no longer be allowed.
However, speakers who kept the crowd engaged before his arrival made some references that tried to appeal to the Thevar caste, which dominates Madurai and other parts of south Tamil Nadu. One speaker called Haasan “Virumandi”, the name of the 2004 film and its main Thevar character that was heavily criticised by Dalit organisations for glorifying caste valour.
Haasan said his public meetings will be interactive. A party official read out selected questions to Haasan, which was claimed to be consolidation of questions that came from the crowd. But the way the questions were framed made one wonder if the questions were those of the crowd or planted by party members.
Haasan did not provide a road map for what he was planning to do. This was probably because the scope of the meeting did not allow him to make such elaborate declarations.
But even on topics he chose to speak on, Haasan failed to provide concrete answers. For example, on the Cauvery water dispute on which Chief Minister E Palaniswami has called for an all-party meeting on Thursday, Haasan said negotiations would get Tamil Nadu its share of water. “If I can even get blood from Bengaluru, why not water?” he asked the large crowd. This was a reference to the blood donation camps his fan clubs organise.
This clearly showed a lack of understanding of a complex problem that has persisted for decades. It is not as though negotiations between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have not been held. Since 1974, a number of meetings have taken place between the chief ministers of the two states. Even the Centre, on instructions from the Supreme Court, has moderated such meetings over the years.
It was only after negotiations route failed that the two Dravidian parties began insisting that courts were the appropriate forum to assert Tamil Nadu’s water rights. By reverting to a failed process, Haasan has undermined the legal route that has worked well for Tamil Nadu. He even suggested that the Cauvery issue was being kept alive for political benefits. “This is like lighting a beedi when the house is on fire,” he alleged.
On a question about his plans for protecting Tamil language, Haasan said if people spoke the language without any shame, it would remain healthy. Here was a chance for Haasan to explain his position on Hindi and Sanskrit imposition that Tamil Nadu parties have consistently claimed has become a feature of the BJP-led Union government. The speech had nothing on the problems that have engaged the Tamil people in the last two years: the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test for medical admissions and state autonomy.
By making superficial statements on weighty matters, refraining from commenting on the BJP while attacking the state parties, and seeking an ideologically-neutral ground, Haasan has left a great deal of room for speculation about the trajectory his party will take.