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On February 21, from his modest housing board allotted home in RA Puram, M Kesavan, an auto driver, watched actor Kamal Haasan live on the news launching his political party from Madurai. Wasting no time, Kesavan quit from his position in the Mylapore division of the Congress party, of which he has been a member from the 90s. The following day, he registered online on Makkal Needhi Maiam’s (MNM) website. Not particularly tech savvy, he took the help of kids in the neighbourhood.

Trudging on the pavement in front of Haasan’s erstwhile home-turned office in the Alwarpet, Kesavan has parked his auto adorned with Haasan’s poster, party registration details, blasting MGR music and is now a regular sight. He has been awaiting the star’s political entry for a long time even though he was happy with his role in the Congress.

During the controversy surrounding Vishwaroopam, when a fed up Haasan said he wanted to leave the country, the auto driver shared with his friend that such incidents would push the actor to form his own political party.

One night in the early 80s, Kesavan and this friend were

teenagers pedaling on a tricycle when they spotted Haasan’s car and followed him when he was returning to his Alwarpet home from shooting for his film Vikram. The second time the auto driver met the actor was in March in their new roles as party member and founder. “I joined the Congress because it was a national party,” Kesavan says. “I’ve been a fan of MGR and Kamal since I was a child. I was too young to follow MGR’s party so when he (Haasan) started hinting his entry into politics, I knew I would join him,” he says.

“I’ve been a fan of MGR and Kamal since I was a child. I was too young to follow MGR’s party so when he (Haasan) started hinting his entry into politics, I knew I would join him.” – Kesavan, auto driver

Kamal’s support base would in-part seem to come from people like Kesavan who see film heroes as natural choices for political leadership. Like his actor-turned-politician predecessors, Haasan has converted his enormous fan base, which he renamed as a welfare association three decades ago (Kamal Haasan Narpani Iyakkam), into his foot soldiers. Yet the comparison with MGR stops there. “MGR was reluctant; it was us fans who wanted him to float a new party. We did not have to organise supporters who were fans and DMK cadre. Every ward and every panchayat had an MGR fan unit,” recalls Saidai Duraisamy, former Chennai mayor and one of the founder members of AIADMK.

In October 1972, when news spread that DMK president and then chief minister M Karunanidhi had suspended MGR who was then party treasurer, the public reaction was unprecedented. “Thousands of people came to the streets to protest. Vehicles were allowed to pass only if the driver said ‘MGR Vaazhga’ or if the vehicle had that in writing on their widows or the body of the vehicle,” says Duraisamy. “It was a war-like situation. All supporters wanted MGR to start his own party as a true heir of Anna (DMK’s founder leader C N Annadurai). The party’s name was registered by Anakapathur Ramalingam (from his fan’s association), not MGR. On October 17, a flag was raised and the party was launched.”

“From November of 1972 onward, our cadre started visiting constituencies and crowds would gather on their own. They would compete for membership forms to join the party,” says Duraisamy. He added that the first announcement for a formal party structure was made by introducing a core committee which included the likes of RM Veerappan, K A Krishnaswamy and a list of district coordinators, taluk organisers and chief administrators. “Later, MGR held elections within the party for positions,” he said. “Kamal and Rajini have an opportunity now only because there is no tall leader in the state, no talented writers, speakers or charming personalities whereas MGR was up against veteran leaders in DMK and Congress while forming the party and he drubbed them,” says Duraisamy.

Now, while there is talk of a vacuum there is little sign that Kamal’s Maiam seeks to make inroads into the AIADMK’s core voters. Interviews with a cross-section of MNM workers as well as the fact that the core committee doesn’t have seasoned politicians but people who are accomplished in other fields indicate that MNM seeks to grow outside the political system.

“Kamal and Rajini have an opportunity now only because there is no tall leader in the state, no talented writers, speakers or charming personalities whereas MGR was up against veteran leaders in DMK and Congress while forming the party and he drubbed them.” Saidai Duraisamy, former Chennai mayor.

Fandom responds

Adjoining the compound wall of the party office on Eldams Road in Chennai is a makeshift booth for registration of new members which has been put up since March 3rd.  On one of the desks, is Balaji S, a second generation member of the Kamal Haasan Narpani Iyakkam. Balaji’s father joined in 1980 after the release of K Balachander’s Varumayin Niram Sivappu where several youngsters of that time connected with Haasan’s character. Most fans refer to the time period when they were associated with Haasan using his movie names.

More than twenty years later, a similar epoch came to Balaji with Anbe Sivam which he says he had to watch it at least thrice to understand. This private bank employee’s day starts at 7am when he goes around for his collections for three hours. At 10 am he is at this camp and for the next few hours his job is to enroll members who come to register, fill their data and answer their questions. At 5 pm he leaves to his office again. Earlier, when he finished work, he went home to play with his son. “Now I’m here all the time, on all weekends and holidays,” says Bajali. “I don’t remember the last time I relaxed or had some entertainment. But, I don’t feel bad about it. I’m rather proud that I’m doing meaningful work because I believe he will be the next chief minister. The first step towards that is enrolling interested people.” While several fans wanted to quit their jobs and focus on work to formulate the party, Haasan has been categorical that they should not neglect their professional and familial commitments. Recently, advocate and TV panelist C Rajashekaran, one of the key members of the 14-members committee quit citing that he was unable to meet the demands of both jobs simultaneously and so he wanted to concentrate on his work at the Madras high court. 

People registering here are mostly senior citizens and those who are unable to register using web facilities. So far around 8,000 members have registered in this camp alone.

The camp in front of the party office functions every day. Besides this, all the district heads decide on different locations for every weekend and take prior police permission to put up temporary camps in various parks, community halls, and other public spaces. The total number of people who have enrolled has not been revealed yet by the party. Party workers insist enrollment will ramp up if there is an event or an election, such as the local body polls.

Kamalahasan at Makkal Neethi Mayyam inaugural function

Thirty-seven-year-old software engineer, Kirubakaran Chandrasekhar, heading the south Chennai unit of Haasan’s fans was among the massive crowd cheering in Madurai when he unveiled his party’s name and flag. “He called out my name and that’s when I knew I would be in charge of building a cadre for south Chennai,” says Kirubakaran. “I was totally surprised and at the same time I was scared because we don’t know politics,” he says breaking into laughter. There are 10-lakh odd fans under the Kamal Haasan Narpani Iyakkam/All India Kamal Haasan Fans Welfare Association which has a representative to head each of the 32 districts in Tamil Nadu. The same structure has now transitioned from fandom to welfare organization into a local political structure with the sole task of swelling the inchoate party.

For fans who once erected and poured milk on giant cut-outs of the star, donated blood and organs, this new set up to foster Haasan’s political ambition seems like a natural progression. Even though some fans don’t foresee a future for themselves in politics, they say that they will continue to be worker bees in the political process.  Haasan regularly conducts internal meetings with all district in-charges, who say that they are temporary in bridging the gap between their leader and the public adding that their positions will soon be occupied by those more politically active.

All the fans and their family members have enrolled as members of Maiam. “Some of Kamal’s hardcore fans belong to other Dravidian parties. Afraid that they may be scoffed at if they switch, they have ensured that their family members joined,” said one of the coordinators.

What is Maiam’s politics?

Every weekend, from 10 am to 5 pm, the local units also put up camps in public spaces and quietly wait until people come to them. On one of the Sundays in April at Nageswarao Park, a lady had launched into attacking Haasan calling him anti-Hindu for his secular views. “We just ignored her,” says one of the members, Om Prakash, a stockbroker. “There will always be people with a difference of opinion. We don’t want to force anyone. Our priority is to bring in people who are interested.”

The local units have been profiling people in neighborhoods. There is a list prepared of people who are likely to join, those who are fans and those who have shown inkling to joining a new corrupt-free party. “We don’t randomly go knocking on people’s doors,” says Prakash. “We select our members who are known faces in their neighborhood, we select homes where we know that at least one of them are likely to be interested. This builds trust and they are ready to listen.”

Though their target on the ground is not to get seasoned politicians or other party members to switch, whenever a person from regional or national party registers their support with MNM, the members are usually invigorated. “We also get Rajini fans who have registered with us saying that in politics they want to align with Kamal and they will continue to be Rajini fans for his cinema” says a member from Chennai. At the outset, the party wants to bring in people from different walks of life which is evident from the CEOs to former bureaucrats to actors who form Haasan’s ‘empowered committee’.

A question in the party registration form asks people for their area of interest in politics. Among the 19 options are statistics, environment, legal, women’s empowerment, water management and agritech. This information helps them select volunteers and allot functions but that process has not yet begun. Interestingly the party website and all forms of communication are in English and Tamil.

Every Sunday morning the volunteers fan out and also go door-to-door with pamphlets and sometimes even betel leaves. They do listen to people complaining about how they will hear from political parties only when they want their vote. “I tell people, follow him (Haasan) for six months, if you don’t like him, leave your membership or move on,” says head of Trichy unit N Suresh. “I say this because I’m confident that in today’s scenario there is no one better than him.”

From the people who seem to be drawn towards MNM and the enthusiasm AAP seemed to generate in Tamil Nadu initially, it would seem the two are sister parties. “Both parties share common goals of being against corruption and for people welfare but our approach is different in Tamil Nadu which is a mix of urban and rural,” said a member of his core committee.

The vision is to build a new generation party whether it is means members wearing casual tees and sitting at meetings or adapting to trends to communicate with public. Even though Haasan has been known for his left leaning positions, after the launch of MNM, he has adopted a centrist stance, tapped into sentiments of Dravidian legacy, spoken on the semantics of being Tamil and continues to apply Gandhian analogies. It may be too early to comprehend the course of the party’s future but for now all these ideas are being espoused by his members. “We want to be a party that is flexible to people’s needs and wishes,” says a member of the 15-member core committee who didn’t wish to be identified. 

“We want to be a party that is flexible to people’s needs and wishes.” – member of Maiam’s 15-member core commitee

While the party’s tenets seem to be focussed on relaying good governance and fighting corruption as the chief political plank, Haasan has repeatedly said that he will keep caste out of his politics. Yet, their policy is to support the existing 69% reservation system and not allow it to dilute.

Haasan and his core team engage various experts to advise them on issues including water, agriculture and industry, RTI and then draft the party’s policies based on such feedback. These ideas manifest in neighbourhoods in the form of public meetings led by Kamal and communicated by social media.

While MNM has taken on the big issues involving agriculture, water and environment, the new app and such mock town halls may be the impetus that leads to discussions on mosquitoes, sewage and corruption in local bodies. The local body polls may well be a useful test for MNM since the issues are micro and local, and a seemingly professional, apolitical approach may resonate with voters.

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