Kamal Haasan is known for highly emotional crying scenes on screen. The week gone by has been no less cinematic, as he created lumps in millions of throats by appearing on 24x7 news channels as the victim of a political bully. Deprived of artistic freedom, he threatened to exile himself to a freer country.
His latest megabudget movie, Viswaroopam, had been banned in Tamil Nadu by Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa on the urging of Muslim groups upset with what they saw as his close association of terror with Islam in it.
It was an actor-turned-filmmaker up against an actress-turned-politician, and a stand-off between two people of the same tinsel world was sure to draw crowds. He appealed to the media, while she approached the Madras High Court to ‘stay’ the film’s release. As the drama wore on, neither side would budge. When a single bench of the Madras High Court vacated the stay, her government asked it again to keep the ban in place. A testy Jayalalithaa pointed out that Viswaroopam was also banned in Qatar, the UAE, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore. “Screening has also been stopped in neighbouring Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Am I responsible for this?” she asked.
There were conspiracy theories galore on why Jayalalithaa had sought to teach Haasan a lesson: commercial conflicts of interests, a long-standing enmity, and even Haasan’s presumed preference of a veshti-clad Tamil over a sari-clad one as India’s next Prime Minister. “I am not against her in any way,” Haasan told a TV channel, “I was just an ordinary assistant dance choreographer when she was already a superstar.”
At one point, Jayalalithaa seemed to suggest she had little choice, as it would be impossible for the police to shield all 524 cinema halls slated to screen the film from Muslim anger. Some observers drew grim parallels with recent episodes of Muslim assertion, evident or otherwise. In Mumbai, a Raza Academy protest against attacks on fellow Muslims in Myanmar and Assam had taken an ugly turn for violence (in clear public view). In Bangalore, thousands of Northeasterners had fled the city in fear of retaliatory attacks after some of them got a few SMS threats (unclear exactly from whom). Was this, some wondered, at a piece with the same sort of minority fist-shaking?
The whispers got funnier and uglier by the day, till Jayalalithaa threatened to sue those floating such explanations. And finally, she appeared to relent by stating she was willing to lift the ban if “Haasan [was] willing to sit down with Muslim protestors and [arrive at] a mutual understanding with them.” And so it was. Political capital, it seems, had already been made.
Jayalalithaa had moved so quickly—at the first hint of controversy—to block the film’s release that it left observers wondering why a usually right-leaning CM would want to appease Muslims in her state. Funnily enough, nobody asked the question. Yet, it is a clear indication of a shift in her vote calculations as another general election nears. “Forget the merits of the film,” says a leader aligned with the AIADMK, “her decision to go ahead and ban the film on law and order grounds has deep-rooted political thought.”
Tamil Nadu has a sizeable Muslim population. As voters, Tamil Muslims have traditionally split their votes between the Congress and the DMK. However, in the Assembly polls that Jayalalithaa won in May 2011, a large number of Muslims voted in her favour. She could perhaps have counted on their support for the next Lok Sabha election as well, had she not been seen getting friendly with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. To overcome the off-putting effect of this, wooing Muslims anew was imperative. “As a good percentage of Muslims voted for the AIADMK in the last Assembly polls, our leader does not want to alienate them, as that will upset her winning combination,” says the leader, “If Muslims and another bloc move away from the party, then she will end up giving the DMK-Congress combine the state’s 39 Lok Sabha seats on a platter—as has happened earlier.”
Jayalalithaa’s calculation seems simple. According to the latest census report, Hindus make up 86 per cent of the state’s population, with Christians and Muslims 7 per cent each. The numbers are disputed, not least because conversion is a highly contentious issue in the state. In fact, after a wave of Hindu conversions to Christianity, Jayalalithaa had tried to stop it with an anti-conversion bill introduced during her second term as CM.
Geographical concentrations mean that Muslim votes are more easily translated to seats. Historically, Muslims have held sway in the districts of Thanjavur, North Arcot, Tirunelveli and Ramanathapuram. They are also active in expressing support for one party or another.
In May 2011, the two main parties—the DMK and AIADMK—together fielded only 15 Muslim candidates. But there was a significant difference in pattern. In the previous assembly, five of the seven MLAs of the community were DMK representatives. In this Assembly, though the DMK alliance had fielded as many as 10 Muslim candidates, only one won. This signalled a shift towards the AIADMK.
Of the two main Muslim political parties in the electoral fray, the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi (MMK), led by its coordinator Professor MH Jawahirullah, fought the polls in alliance with the AIADMK and won two of the three seats allotted to it, while three Muslims won on AIADMK tickets.
The other party, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), led by Professor KM Khader Mohideen, had fought in alliance with the DMK-Congress.
That Jayalalithaa is keen on support of the state’s Muslims has been noticed widely within the community. An article published in Milli Gazette (issue of 1–15 June 2012) that has been doing the rounds explores the question of whether the so-called ‘Muslim votebank’ in Tamil Nadu is a myth or not. ‘In fact, the Muslim vote bank is a powerful weapon,’ concludes M Ameen, its author. He cites the example of the 1967 Assembly polls, when Tamil-speaking Muslims were united under the leadership of Muhammad Ismail who was in alliance with the DMK led by CN Annadurai. The DMK had won 137 seats of the Assembly’s 234 that year; back in the 1962 polls (its electoral debut), it had won only seven seats. According to AM Yusuf, editor of Marumalarchi, a newspaper popular with Muslims, it was en bloc support of the community that had helped the DMK achieve power for the first time; on an analysis of 1967’s results, he found that in 58 constituencies, DMK candidates won by margins of 2,000–7,000 votes. ‘If six per cent of Tamil Nadu’s Muslims back then could ensure a regional political party’s win in about 40 per cent of the state,’ writes Ameen, ‘the Muslim vote bank is not a myth.’
To back his argument, Ameen gives another example of actor Vijayakant’s party Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK).
Surveys indicated that he had about 6 per cent support of the total electorate. But after he allied with the AIADMK, his party won 22 seats. ‘A votebank of six per cent translated into about 10 per cent political representation,’ Ameen writes, adding that the case of the Pattal Makkal Katchi (PMK), founded by Dr Ramadoss to capture Vanniar caste votes, is no different. ‘Vanniars represent 6 per cent of the population and the party won 16 Assembly seats in the 2006 Assembly polls and a handful of Lok Sabha seats too, and a Cabinet berth [for the founder’s son Anbumani Ramadoss ] by aligning with the DMK.’ But with Muslim votes split among various parties vying for them, Ameen notes, it is pointless for the community to equate itself with the PMK or DMDK.
That leaves Muslims largely as ‘swing’ voters between the big two. In other words, it is either Amma or Ayyah (either Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK or Karunanidhi of the DMK), and Amma knows it. She believes she has already stolen ahead in Muslim favour.