Women’s Day (March 8) celebrations are mostly about tokenism. Much like New Year resolutions, a lot of promises are made, none of which are followed through. One day in a year, there are dialogues on gender rights and it’s business as usual for the rest of the year. The newly formed political party, Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM), wanted to make the right noises – after all, it was about first impressions. Its women’s wing organised a programme at Chennai’s YMCA ground on Thursday and the master of ceremonies was of course its founder Kamal Haasan.
A good two hours after the scheduled time, the ceremony began with the ‘Tamizh Thaai Vazthu’ and a silent prayer for Anitha, who committed suicide fighting the NEET. Like any man who wants to sound sincere about women’s rights, Kamal Haasan began by invoking his mother (“En Amma [My mother],” he clarified) and saying that in his family, “women are highly respected”. A few tokenisms later, he announced Rs 10 lakhs as compensation for Usha’s (the pregnant woman who was killed in Trichy) family, amid thundering applause.
Since February 21, Haasan has been giving out information on the party manifesto in phases. He said that instead of aligning with any party or ideology, he wanted to be at the centre and “figure out where the problem is.” What is his stand on women’s issues?
Gerry, who was manning one of the kiosks on YMCA Grounds for party registrations yesterday, joined MNM on March 1. Previously, she was working in a private airlines company. “We need a change in Tamil Nadu. We don’t have a proper leader,” she said. On prodding her a little more on the party agenda and its stand on women’s issues, she added, “It is for Kamal Sir to decide.”
Banners on women empowerment and abstract leaflets on female hygiene and a set of national helplines were distributed. Most members of the audience were fans who hailed Kamal Haasan as the ‘change-maker’, what lacked was clarity on what they expected from the party and its leader. “Talks on women welfare and safety are very common nowadays. What Kamal Haasan does for people below the poverty line is more important,” said Shannu, a Chennai-based entrepreneur.
Divya Sri, a homemaker, was motivated by her husband to join the fan association two years back. Her husband has been a member for the last 22 years. Her importance and stature in the association was evident as she had been given the task of ushering guests inside the hall. “The medical camps and the welfare programmes organised by the association motivated me to join it,” she said.
A common thread that connected all the attendees was their unshakable faith in their leader, no questions asked. Many of the men (for a rally that focused on women’s issues, the men easily outnumbered the women) and women present among the audience have been members of the fan association for a long time. A woman from Purasawalkam was bustling about, coordinating with the organisers. She didn’t have the time to give her name but quipped that she had known Haasan for over 15 years. Her family members too, were part of the fan association.
Then, there was Srinivasan who worked in a private firm. He has been with the association for 14 years. He proudly shared that he attended the same school as Haasan – Hindu Higher Secondary School. When asked whether he’d ever gotten any monetary incentive from the association, he said, “By God’s grace I have enough. There is no need for money, I am here on my own.”
Krishnan had been following Haasan right from Rameswaram to Madurai and was in Chennai selling party paraphernalia. He has been in the business for the past 35 years.
Tempos loaded with fans were brought to the venue, and SUVs full of people were arriving as well. Food vendors lined up on either side of the driveway – samosas, bhajjis, roasted peanuts, tea, coffee – you name it and it was there.
Among the zealous fans and intrusive media, there were a handful of students as well – the most articulate of the lot. Vishnupriya was preparing for the civil services exam. From Kerala, she was curious about what Haasan had to say. “Politics need more women representation,” she said. When asked who was the better politician – Haasan and Rajinikanth, Vishnupriya declared: “Rajinikanth is more right wing, I am from a Communist state and align more with Haasan’s views.”
Janani, who’d just finished her engineering degree, was also attending the rally on her own. She was the only person from her family to register for the party. Her advice for Haasan, “More employment opportunities and better education. There are not enough jobs in the state,” she said. Incidentally, she was also searching for a job in the IT sector.
Perhaps the most nonchalant or realistic among the lot were the cops on duty, and a vendor who sold puffed rice at the venue.
Hailing from a farming family in Dharmapuri, Vasantha has been selling rice crispies at political rallies for over five years. Overwhelmed by the barrage of questions, she sheepishly replied, “Not associated with Haasan or his party. Only here for business.”