Days ahead of the 2016 Assembly polls in Tamil Nadu, and 48 years since M Karunanidhi took over as the President of the DMK, a bitter campaign was underway in the state to defeat J Jayalalithaa. But despite his deteriorating health, it was clear that Karunanidhi was eyeing the CM's chair for a sixth time.
Detractors and even his own party cadre questioned why he would not allow MK Stalin, who had proved his mettle over the course of the campaign, to become the CM candidate of the party. He had, after all, been groomed to take over the mantle for 40 years. But Karunanidhi would have none of it.
"Stalin himself doesn't want to become Chief Minister," he proclaimed. "He wants only the DMK chief to become the Chief Minister. I've not lost even a single election since 1957. If I win, I would be the Chief Minister for the sixth time. Stalin is the first among all who wants me to become the Chief Minister for a record sixth time," he declared.
And when asked what his response was to those who expected Stalin to become the Chief Minister, Karunanidhi said, "Stalin can become Chief Minister only if nature does something to me."
The chosen one
Over the years, Karunanidhi has played a fine balancing act with his sonâ€™s political career â€“ he pushed his son into prominence, and also weighed down hard when it was required. While the latter was done for all to see, the former was done subtly, ensuring that allegations of favouritism do not gain mileage.
Stalin's supporters have always argued that he catapulted into political prominence when he was arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in 1975. The DMK was amongst the few major regional parties to vehemently protest the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, and Stalin was beaten mercilessly in prison for his party's stand against the Centre. He was just 22 years old then.
â€śI was in Maduranthakam performing a play on behalf of the youth wing of the DMK when the police came looking for me in Chennai. My father told them that I was out of town and promised to hand over me once I reached Chennai. I was arrested on February 1 after my father called the City Police Commissioner to inform about my arrival,â€ť recalled Stalin in an interview in 2016.
According to senior journalist TN Gopalan, the DMK patriarch's direct intervention to ensure the recognition of his son began in early 1980s, with the official inclusion of the youth wing into the party.
"The DMK youth wing was formed with the sole purpose to make Stalin the secretary and to give him relevance in the party," says the senior scribe. But, senior leader K Anbazhagan was made to oversee the activities of the youth wing and unlike other associations affiliated to the DMK, the group under Stalin could not make autonomous decisions without Karunanidhi's approval. "But that was just an eyewash. An attempt to make it seem like there was restraint when there really wasn't," says Gopalan.
Stalin later received an MLA ticket from the party and was first elected to the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 1989 from the Thousand Lights Constituency in Chennai. Senior journalist S Murari points out that Stalin's rise within the party in this phase cannot be ignored, given that he went on to be elected from the seat four times consecutively and also won the mayoral elections in 1996.
"Karunanidhi controlled every aspect of the DMK and his word was always final. Even at the district levels, despite internal elections, you required his blessings to win. For Stalin, this was never a hurdle. He always had his father on his side," points out Gopalan. "From there on, it was a matter of winning over the vote of the people," he adds.
A slow coronation through rebellions
In 1997, Stalin opened the rally at a DMK conclave in Salem and it was widely speculated to be his coronation. The 'future-is-Stalin' theme echoed even among the cadre and the clout he wielded was seen as disproportionate to that of the Mayor of Chennai.
"Yes, his father may have groomed him but he never went out of the way to do so," points out Murari. "Stalin climbed up the ladder himself and Karunanidhi's actions were never at the cost of the party," he claims.
Yet, the DMK chief took to several public stages to reiterate the claim that the party came first and not his family. In Salem, shortly after Stalin addressed supporters, Karunanidhi made a two-hour long speech, categorically denying dynastic rule in the DMK. "I am neither a king nor Stalin a prince. The DMK is not a mutt to determine the successor. It's a democratic party and its future leader will be decided only by the party cadres," he declared forcefully.
But by then, the party had seen rebellion over the son's rise. In 1993, the party suffered a split on the issue, with V Gopalsamy or Vaiko, a key functionary, leaving the DMK to begin his own outfit.
"Karunanidhi is reducing the party to his family property. The parliamentary party is a fiefdom of his nephew Murasoli Maran, the organisational structures are under the control of Stalin and the southern districts are held on leash by his second son Alagiri," he had said then, angrily.
Vaikoâ€™s departure, however, did little to stop Stalin's growth. In 2001, ahead of the Assembly elections, Karunanidhi deputed his ministers Arcot N Veerasamy and K Anbazhagan to oversee candidate selection. But this was just on paper. In reality, it was Stalin who monitored the process.
"Ahead of the elections, Karunanidhi cobbled together all caste-based outfits for an alliance. Murasoli Maran was strongly against this. But Stalin was the brain behind it and this was his initiation," says Gopalan. The party went on to face a huge drubbing in the election.
But anyone who spoke up against the free hand given to Stalin was quickly removed from the party, even if it was another son of the patriarch.
"It is no secret that Alagiri was sent away to Madurai to smoothen the succession for Stalin," says Murari. "Even Vaiko had to leave because he opposed Stalin," he adds. It is also alleged that it was Stalin's dominant role that even prompted Murasoli Maran's early exit from active politics.
"Maran was outraged by the free hand given to Stalin," says Gopalan. But the message to the leaders was clear â€” support Stalin or leave the party.
So, it was not surprising that no protests were heard from senior leaders like Arcot Veerasamy and Anbazhagan. Anbazhagan told India Today as early as 2001 that, â€śThe reins of the Dravidian movement has always been in safe hands - from Periyar to Anna to Kalaignar and now to Stalin and in the future to his son.â€ť
Even posters across the state saw Stalin's presence growing in size. In addition to this, he even adopted his father's trademark pose with a pen as he held court.
By 2014, most of Stalin's competitors had been eliminated. Alagiri was expelled from the party for making derogatory remarks about his brother on television. Karunanidhiâ€™s first son MK Muthu, who was initially seen as a possible heir by the DMK leader, had long ago failed in his acting career and lost the confidence of his father after a bout of alcoholism.
Always a prince, long live the king
And yet, Stalin could never reign over the party in his fatherâ€™s presence. Despite pressure from his immediate family, several members of the leadership and party cadre, Karunanidhi never gave up his post and powers to his son when he was in active politics.
As late as 2011, weeks after a humiliating defeat by the AIADMK at the assembly polls, when Stalinâ€™s supporters in the party raised the ante to make him the president of the party, Karunanidhi shot back with what was widely seen as emotional blackmail.
At a party meeting in Coimbatore, upset with calls to anoint Stalin as the party chief, he offered to resign from his post. Karunanidhi walked out of the executive meeting in a huff, ending it abruptly. While he offered to resign, he also got sentimental about the challenge to his leadership. Senior leaders like K Anbazhagan and Duraimurugan then clamped down on the calls to elevate Stalin, and the matter rested for a while.
"Being the son of Karunanidhi has only been a disadvantage to Stalin," opines DMK spokesperson A Saravanan. "If anybody else in the party had consistently worked so hard, they would have definitely rose up the ranks much faster. Look at how fast a Vaiko, A Raja or TR Baalu grew. Even in 2004, when the DMK had the chance to choose a ministerial candidate, it was Dayanidhi Maran who became the Union Minister for Communications and Information Technology," he points out.
"There was a joke amongst the political circles that Stalin will forever remain the prince and never become the king," says Murari. July 2018 marks 50 years since Karunanidhi became the DMK chief, a post he held despite not being part of active decision-making in the party. Stalin still remains only the working president of the DMK and while he proved his popularity with a 90-seat haul in the 2016 assembly elections, Karunanidhi was still largely seen as the face of the Dravidian party. â€śYet, Stalin has remained in the shadow of his father," says Murari, "It is only now that his time in the sun has finally come."