Can a third front prevail in Tamil Nadu politics? Yes, if you consider All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi leader and actor R Sarathkumar's confidence ahead of the April 6 assembly election.

Sarathkumar spoke exclusively to Asianet Newsable's Yacoob about his brand of politics and his alliance with Kamal Haasan's Makkal Needhi Maiam and Indiya Jananayaka Katchi in Tamil Nadu

How confident are you about the performance of your party, All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi's alliance with Kamal Haasan's Makkal Needhi Maiam and Indiya Jananayaka Katchi in the April 6 election? 

The confidence level is very very high. I think, now we have a people's opinion because we have been campaigning since 1996. In 1996, I campaigned against the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Tamil Maanila Congress came to power. I have been interacting with people from then on. I see there seems to be a change. That change converts into votes. We (the AISMK-MNM-IJK alliance) have a chance to make a mark in this election. 

You have pitched Kamal Haasan as the chief ministerial face of the alliance. What made you believe in him? 

Many people have been saying, 'you have been in politics for 25 years, you have been in Parliament and in the assembly, why didn't take the lead?'... Sometimes you do reach an agreement on certain issues, a give and take policy. So at that point in time, I felt he (Kamal Haasan) is a much senior person as far as leadership is concerned and a person known nationally. That was one of the reasons I thought we will have an upper hand. The Makkal Needhi Maiam stood in the parliamentary elections which showed the numbers (vote share). So that will impact definitely. IJK and my party will work on the pattern that I will work in 234 constituencies. I thought it is the right decision (to announce Kamal Haasan as CM face for alliance).

What is your take on poll surveys which have been giving a clear majority to the DMK alliance?

I don't believe in poll surveys. In the previous assembly elections, they said DMK will win, but the AIADMK won. So let's not go with the surveys. The survey may be right or wrong. I don't know how perfect that is. It is people -- they can definitely change (their view) and if the change happens, that will be dramatic. 

This election will miss stalwarts like Kalaignar (Karunanidhi) and Amma (Jayalalithaa). How will this impact polls? Do parties like yours and the MNM sense this as a chance to bolster their position?  

Yes, definitely. Two tall leaders are not there in this election. That definitely gives enough edge to other people to convey their thoughts effectively and without any kind of fear. 

The fear mentality will not be there for most people who campaign now. That's because when tall leaders are around, they (other party candidates) definitely get a little worried about ridicule or even criticism. So that may not be there in this election. They will be a little bold and they would express what they feel freely.

What new are you offering to the electorate in terms of your ideology and policies? 

Basically, my policy is education and employment. That has to be very clearly stated to the youth of today. The youth should have a direction in their life. We believe that in every 100 kilometres, there should be definitely a place for employment for the educated people. So that's one thing we are planning. We will work accordingly. We are looking into the balance-sheet of Tamil Nadu, which is not very high as far as the debt is considered (Rs 5.8 lakh crore). Though economists have advised the chief minister to borrow Rs 10 lakh crore, I don't think we should be looking at that. We will rectify the balance sheet and examine where costs should be cut. Even the government publicity cost can be drastically cut. We are looking at various aspects. 

As for freebies, we are not totally against freebies. For instance, the laptop offered by Kamal Haasan's party is a necessity now because of the Covid-19 situation. Once again, another pandemic is coming up now; people have to sit at home, even for work and education. And we have promised an increase in WiFi connectivity in rural areas and throughout Tamil Nadu. So whatever is necessary we will do. 

Reservation has to be there, but now we will have to look into the one-man commission that is looking into the caste system in Tamil Nadu and after that, we will have to make a decision, and not just announce just for one community. 

I am not against anybody announcing reservation for any particular community. I really appreciate that, but everybody should be looked at and then they should announce (reservation). It should not be a vote-catching statement. 

Basic infrastructure is lacking in rural areas. They don't have a sewage system. It is sad that across the entire country, this sort of development has not been looked into and people (governments) have not poured money into it. It is only a flowery and fancy statement that is made just before the election. Washing machine -- it is an atrocity because you neither have any water nor electricity supply. Basically, logically thinking, giving a washing machine is 'absurd' when they have not even completed the entire sewage system in the state.

There is social backwardness among students who go from rural areas to abroad to study. They don't even invite friends home because the sewage is running in front of their houses. There is a taboo there. So basic needs of the people like toilets and sewage systems are not provided.

In the past leaders like MGR and Jayalalithaa made a significant impact having come from the film industry. They left behind signature projects. What will be the signature project that you plan to bring in?

Employable education. That's what I am looking at. Not just a basic degree that makes you a graduate. Employable education is the most important. I think people should be proactive in taking any kind of job that is offered to them. We are looking at how education would help them to be steady in the future. Education should be job-oriented. Talent hunting should start right from the beginning; what they are capable of in the school itself. 

The elections are fought on the basis of two 'Cs -- caste and cash. What is your take? Do you think you will be able to win against these factors?

This is one thing that I have been addressing during my campaign. I have been requesting, actually begging, before people and telling them not to accept money because it is only going to be around for some time and then it would vanish. 

Right now, there is a pandemic situation. Everybody is in an economic crisis. So they may accept it, but I am telling you this is only a temporary phase. So I think that this is one thing that should be totally erased from the country's electoral process. The purchase of candidates by people should also be an offence in the country along with investing money and trying to create a vote bank. A constitutional amendment or electoral reforms should be brought in place. If they really believe in transparency, the government at the Centre should look into all these things.

Every single common man in the street who is into social service and who is recognized for his social activity should be in a position to go and contest. It should not be the case that you must have Rs 75 crore to contest assembly elections and about Rs 300 crore to contest for the parliamentary election. That is not democracy. Now, how effective this is going to be is only in the hands of people.

What is your take on the BJP which seems to have gained ground in Tamil Nadu? 

BJP is trying to make inroads into Tamil Nadu. Any political party would like to gain strength in every state. BJP is making a move along with AIADMK to find a footing for themselves. 

The DMK-Congress alliance believes that you are AIADMK-BJP's B team. What is your take on this?

(Sarcastically laughs) Whenever proactive people come together, they become a 'B' team. I think we are the 'A' team. We are non-corrupt. We have no particular agenda for making money. We don't see politics as a money-making institution but as an extension of social service. So we will definitely make a mark in this election.

In case there is a hung assembly and your alliance gets to be kingmaker, which way will you swing? Towards AIADMK or DMK?

I have been thinking about this hypothetical question. For me, Kamal and IJK's Ravi Pachamuthu, the decision on whom to support will be taken at that point in time. Should we go into elections and spend the taxpayers' money again or support one of them (DMK/AIADMK), it is a decision that should be made by the three of us.

One of your leaders switched sides saying that he was fielded to split votes. What do have to say?

I have been running my party for the last 14 years. Some people who had been here (at AISMK) had business interests backed by the government. They sometimes feel that the decision we take will be detrimental to their interests and future. They have no ideologies as such. So no comments. Wherever they go, they see comfort in making their economic growth. Well, let them go and enjoy themselves. We are not bothered about all these people who are leaving.

What is your idea of politics?

It (politics) is an extension of social service. I think people (political leaders) have to be very serious about doing something for the people. When you go to rural areas across the country and in the state (Tamil Nadu), they still lack amenities. The youths have education but that is not making them economically stable. If that was not the case, nobody will be offering money for votes. So if they are still giving money for votes, that means people are below the poverty line, people's issues have not been addressed properly. So that is what I think about politics. Politics has to be totally democratic in nature and transparent. Any common man interested in doing something for the people should be able to contest elections. That is how I think about politics.

Candidates have offered the moon to voters as a freebie. Can elections not be won without freebies and inducements?

The Election Commission should take cognizance of such offerings. Are they offering from their own pockets or the government's money? Even the government's spending was hugely on publicity on newspapers and channels. We want to do reforms if given a chance.

It has been noticed that while parties have been criticizing the ruling government of Covid mismanagement, all parties have been seen violating covid protocols at their campaign rallies. What do you have to say about it?

It is sad. Definitely, even I do feel that. But you have to meet people right now. If I am going to say I am not going to meet people at all, how am I going to benefit?

If all channels are going to have a debate like in the US presidential election, and if that is enough for us to campaign, let the electoral direction come. I am ready for it. Everyone has been on the field much before the election started. The Chief Minister was on political canvassing, Stalin was canvassing. None of us knew whether the vehicles are going to come that far (limitation on vehicle movement in the campaign) and we had only 12 to 13 days left. Then what do we do? We have to go and meet people, right? I was a Covid patient for almost 30 days. I am still at risk even after vaccination. If I get Covid, it will be very detrimental to my health and that of my family. If we stand in the vehicle, people ask to come down and talk to them. Else, they would say you are a star. So how do you manage this? A rule should have been brought by the Election Commission.

How should a post-Covid Tamil Nadu be like?

I think we should think about economic growth. We should support the people with regard to what they are lacking. Right now, banks have to be more liberal with traders because they are suffering. Banks have been breathing fire down the throat of all the people. Small entrepreneurs get totally pressurized because their account will be termed as NPA in about three months time if they don't pay EMI. I think this is a great concern. This has to be looked into. How they are going to be supported and how they are going to be guided.