Makkal Needhi Maiam Vice President, Dr R Mahendran, who is the second in command in the party, after founder Kamal Haasan, said his party would nominate candidates for the Lok Sabha polls to be conducted on April 18 based on their commitment to work for the people and not on their religion or caste lineage. A physician by profession, Mahendran, a pioneer of Vanilla farming in the State, is a man with a hectic schedule, managing day-to-day activities of the party and interviewing candidates for the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry and the bypolls to the 18 Assembly seats in the state.
Your party is just one year old and your first election is for the Lok Sabha. However, the two Dravidian parties have a tie-up with the national parties. In this tough situation, how would you convince voters to choose you?
We are fighting to be representatives of Tamil Nadu at Delhi and we should not decide the outcome before the election. One party has allied with Congress and other with BJP and therefore whoever comes to power would be fought over by the other party who has lost. We have no bias towards any of them. But we will fight tooth and nail to get what is our right. Take the instance of what happened during the Gaja Cyclone. The PM, who comes here every week, and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi who flies in just to visit Stella Maris, did not find it necessary to land in Thanjavur. This is my question. The (Dravidian) parties here are unable to question this because their hands are tied. So we want our hands to be free and clean and we want to point our fingers and question. And I think we can do it better than anybody else. We want people of State to know this.
In Tamil Nadu, both the Dravidian parties nominate candidates depending on the caste equation of the constituency. They hardly field a Dalit candidate in a general seat. What is your approach to caste?
Neither in our application nor in our interview we have asked about their caste. You may ask any candidate who attended the interview. Our application form is quite unique; it does not have a column asking to mention their religion nor caste. Only an indirect question about caste comes – Are you a reserved candidate, if it is a reserved constituency. That is the only way left to ask whether they are qualified or not. It is always swimming across the current. In Tamil Nadu, caste plays a big factor and we cannot just resign to that. If our forefathers decided not to fight against the British, we would still be slaves. Fight against caste is another type of struggle. If you see enough number of people who are frustrated and they do not know how to come together and fight, MNM is becoming a centre of such people who are slowly pouring in. That is the reason the party is talking about contesting in all 40 seats.
Do you have any criterion for selecting your candidates?
The major factors that we look at are whether the person is committed for long term to be in politics and whether he is stepping into politics with a passion, not for business. He should be self-sufficient, where he does not need politics to make money and why he wants to enter into politics. That is the feel which conveys what we are. Why do we need to come to politics? We are comfortable in our various spheres of life - different levels of comfort. So one – Is he aware of what the political scenario is? Is he committed to what our principles and ideologies are? It is almost like he need not come and be comfortable but where he is quite exasperated and frustrated with the scenario that is prevailing in our state and wants to make a change. This becomes the first character we look for. Next, is the person who can work with the public irrespective of what would be the result in his constituency? Is he is committed to doing this on a long term? Does he have the ability to communicate with the people and the co-workers and the public? Then, of course, we will look at his education and achievements. These are some of the major criteria we look at.
You mentioned about the candidate to be self-sufficient. Is it based on financial background alone?
When I say financial, it does not limit to finance alone. How much income can a person have? There is no limit and it keeps going. I mean that he should be self-sufficient. He should not come into politics to make money, instead to contribute to politics.
How are you raising funds for your party considering that established parties are estimating an election expense of Rs 20 crore per seat?
As per Election Commission (EC) norms, you cannot put posters, banners which makes it good for parties like us and we are glad those rules exists. Can you tell me where those Rs 20 crore are going? Do you think Rs 20 crore would go around, talking to people? We are the party that we would never do that. So it is our principle and ideology and we are not worried over whether they are going to use 20 or 100 crores because it is the same for us. For us anyway, we want the people to understand that they should not sell their votes.
Are you accepting money from industries or corporates?
Any democracy in the world has to run on public contribution. If you see Rs 20 crore that are being utilised by the two major parties in 40 constituencies, I am sure that the money would not come from the personal income or assets of the contestants. In the interview, we always ask the candidates whether they are aware of the EC norms or are they aware of how they are going to generate. Do you have an account? Do you have IT returns? Do you have the money to do this? Are you going to spend two lakh, three lakh or whatever? That is how it should be.
So the MNM candidate has to take care of his or her election expenditure on their own?
Yes. Only the candidates have to spend the money but the party does some central expenditure. This is because, otherwise the contestants with financially poor background would not be able to get nominated. In a certain situation where we think the contestant is really worth, then the party would support the candidate. I think out of the current list of the candidates, quite a few of them will be that way. Where they really have a very good profile, the party will take care. My point is anybody who is going to spend over and above the EC norms is obviously going to do things that are not sanctioned/ allowed or otherwise illegal. We are very fortunate that of all the contestants, we are the only one to have a brand image that MNM would not offer money for the votes and they are the party that are asking the voters to vote based on merits and conscious. The name is already there even before going to the election.
Every party in Tamil Nadu has its own voter base. What is yours?
The support for us is not based on caste, religion or money. It is based on the fact that of people across the State, religions or castes, who see us as a factor with which the future should be. That kind of alternative was never there. You think of a moment without us. Every alliance is based on money or caste as it purely matters to them. For a moment, one should reflect on that option that has come for the first time in 60 years.