French President Emmanuel Macron arrives this week on a four-day visit to India as an international statesman. He is not due to meet movie star Kamal Haasan but maybe the two should to exchange notes on what it means to storm the political landscape all of a sudden. The Tamilian star-turned-politician, who only recently launched his outfit, Makkal Needhi Maiam (People's Justice Centre) and the French leader, who won power last year, have a lot in common.
It was only in April, 2016 that Macron launched his party, Le Republique En Marche (The Republic On The Move), turning from his career as a civil servant and investment banker. Only four months later, in August, he declared he would run for President. In that very month, France awarded Kamal Haasan the title Chevalier de L'Ordre Arts et Lettres (The Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters), its premier award close to India's Padma awards. Less than a year later, in May 2017, Macron assumed office as the youngest President of France at the age of 39, suggesting that in a democracy, storming into office with a populist style can be done faster than one thinks.
Can Kamal Haasan do a Macron in Tamil Nadu? That is a tantalising thought because the two have a lot in common. They both have handsome faces with popular personalities and a populist style. Both are philosophically inclined and strangely, bring into their respective political arenas a kind of centrism that stands aloof from both the established Right and Left. Like Macron, Kamal wants to change the system by enlisting widespread participation.
And, like in France, there is a political vacuum of sorts.
Industrialist Harsh Vardhan Goenka tweeted that Tamil Nadu perhaps should be renamed "Turmoil Nadu" for its current political confusion, in which Kamal's long-time film world colleague, superstar Rajnikanth, has also thrown his hat into the ring.
With the way politics is panning out in this Southern state, why do we not call it Turmoil Nadu ?
— Harsh Goenka (@hvgoenka) March 6, 2018
Periods of turmoil typically favour the rise of charismatic leaders, and both Kamal and Rajni seem to fit that bill. However, Rajnikanth is keeping his cards close to the chest as he has not clarified whether or how his new outfit, which does not even have a name yet, will contest the coming Lok Sabha elections due next year. Tamil Nadu Assembly elections are as of now three years away. But he inaugurated a statue of late MG Ramachandran this week and clearly said he wanted to emulate the former chief minister's rule in Tamil Nadu and fill the vacuum left by the death of J Jayalalithaa, MGR's successor as the head of the AIADMK.
If one is to take this at face value, Rajni will offer freebies, goodies and handouts to Tamil Nadu's voters, just like MGR. However, Kamal, in contrast, says he is against "scooter and quarter" (referring to quarter bottle liquors as incentives for voters and the AIADMK government's offer of subsidised two-wheelers to women last year). Kamal, on the other hand, says he does not believe in handing out freebies, but in providing opportunities for employment and avenues for affordable education.
Rajnikanth does not want students to take part in politics. Kamal believes students should be change agents as he describes his party as one of "social service agents".
It is an open issue whether Rajni's spirituality-and-style politics charms Tamilians or Kamal's no-nonsense centrism. But it is clear that in a democratic polity, a French-style storming by previously untested faces cannot be ruled out. Italy also saw this week the rise of Five Star Movement, a rag-tag political group that was started by a comedian less than a decade ago. Washington Post described the group that emerged as the single largest group in a hung parliament as "an anarchic faction encompassing Euroskeptics, libertarians, progressives and a strong core of disenchanted youth voters". Its leader Luigi Di Maio is only 31 years old.
In such a context, Kamal Haasan could well do a Macron or Maio on Tamil Nadu, given his strong ideas and style (He also conducted the first Tamil outing of the Bigg Boss House, storming television in addition to cinema).
Macron's philosophy is interesting. He says France's main obstacles are corporations, elitism and the political system. Kamal speaks of the corrupt system in his state in a similar vein as he calls out to people to join his march.
More important, Macron is explicit in underlining that the French are missing a royal figure, and evidently sees himself in a charismatic, kingly mode. That is a lot like Tamil Nadu, where a "thalaivar" (leader) has always been in fancy. Kamal's official ideology is more participative and democratic, but his individual personality resembles a towering figure - one that could fill a "thalaivar" vacuum.
A lot depends on how Kamal or Rajni deal with the entrenched Dravidian parties. The cadre-based DMK is said to be closer to Kamal and vice versa. Kamal is a rationalist though brahmin by birth, and recently said the controversial nationwide medical college entrance test, NEET, was imposed on Tamil Nadu, "just like Hindi."
Kamal has a higher chance if tired Tamil Nadu voters dump established Dravidian parties in favour of a new face. But he needs to cobble up a support system for grassroot politics as well. If he manages to do that, he could well be Tamil Nadu's Macron.
Rajni, with his new movies asserting the rights of "dark" working people, has his own populist style. But that's another story.
(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)