With the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, MK Stalin has come into his own, emerging out of his father and the late DMK patriarch Kalaignar M Karunanidhi’s long shadow. He has singly withstood both the ruling BJP and the AIADMK, almost sweeping the state in the parliamentary elections. However, in more concentrated contests, the 22 bye-polls for the Tamil Nadu Assembly, the DMK’s performance was stymied by the ruling party’s might in power.
Despite this, Stalin stands out as the tallest regional leader who stopped the BJP juggernaut from setting foot in Tamil Nadu. Thanks to Jayalalithaa who posed “Modi or this lady?” then, the BJP could win albeit a single seat in the 2014 elections in Tamil Nadu. Its ally, the PMK, also won a single seat then. This time around, Stalin appears to have done a Jayalalithaa and beyond on the BJP. The BJP has drawn a blank in the state. One should not forget that Jayalalithaa had the luxury of power. Since 2011, the DMK has been out of power in the state.
In the absence of his father and Jayalalithaa, both titans, the electoral arena was bereft of a leader of their size. Stalin was the only leader who addressed a record number of public meetings, confident of his ability to draw large crowds. And he did. Also, the spontaneity with which people rushed to get a glimpse of him, greet him, take selfies or shake his hands was extraordinary. Stalin did not disappoint them. He braved the pitiless sun and walked briskly with a smile - frequently with the candidate unable to keep pace with him - one moment waving his hand to those in their balconies and another moment extending his hand to the eager public in his way to shake his hand. He was the only leader of his stature to do this routinely in this campaign. His palms must have been sore, but Stalin did not show it. Instead, he said he was moved by this show of affection.
Stalin had borne the brunt of the DMK campaign since the 2011 elections. Earlier, he was the Thalapathy, or commander, of the DMK and Kalaignar the leader. This time around, Stalin was on his own. He was both the leader and the commander. He chose the DMK’s allies, the apportionment of seats and the candidates of the DMK.
The party’s political strategy was made as early as when Jayalalithaa passed away. Many cadres expected the DMK would take advantage of the rift within the ruling AIADMK. However, it did not. Stalin made it clear that they would not seek power through the back door. The DMK’s wish was to force an election. The party’s legal recourse to prove that the Edappadi Palaniswami government was a minority one has so far been unsuccessful.
This parliamentary election, along with the bye-polls for 22 Assembly seats was therefore Stalin’s and the DMK’s rare opportunity to kill two birds in one stone: to win as many parliamentary seats and bring down the state government. Ironically, despite delivering in the parliamentary polls, the BJP’s massive comeback has denied Stalin an opportunity to play a decisive role in the Centre. Furthermore, the DMK failed to breach the ruling party’s wherewithal and hold in the Assembly by-polls.
Despite these setbacks, one should credit Stalin for running the most spirited campaign against PM Modi. Stalin took on Modi in a muscular manner, describing him as a “Foreign Prime Minister”, an allusion to the PM’s frequent overseas trips, and stretching a Tamil pun on his name to describe him as a “cheat” for allegedly failing to keep his promises. While DMK cadres cheered, others squirmed at the choice of words. On the other hand, he put forward Congress President Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate of the opposition to take on the “fascist-Nazist Narendra Modi Government”. In late 1979, his father had invited Indira Gandhi, who was in political wilderness then, as “Nehru’s daughter welcome, give us a stable government”. In 2004, he coined the slogan “Indira’s daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi welcome, India’s treasure may victory be yours”. However, the Congress party was not this sclerotic then.
Stalin appears to have taken a long-term view of his party’s relationship with the Congress and the Gandhi family. The apportionment of 9 of the 39 parliamentary seats for the Congress in Tamil Nadu as well as the lone Puducherry seat was a sign of this. Stalin’s thinking that the Hindi-Hindutva BJP would not be kosher in Tamil Nadu has been proven right. However, Tamil Nadu’s sentiments were not echoed in a majority of the states. The Congress failed to win even a single seat in more than 10 states.
Stalin’s campaign theme “Let us save Tamil dignity” seems to have resonated well. He argued that the Modi and Edappadi Palaniswami governments were “more cruel” than the merciless sun. Listing the alleged failures of the Modi government in job creation and other fronts he charged that Modi had turned into a dictator bulldozing uniformity and destroying India’s secularism. Of the two competing visions of India - one that is majoritarian and autocratic, and the other that is secular and plural, he asserted that the DMK will safeguard the second describing the DMK and the BJP as “ideological foes”, and ruling out any post-poll deal between the two parties.
Stalin travelled 7500 kilometres in 25 days banking on both major public meetings as well as wayside road campaigns where he addressed and interacted with crowds from his itinerant van. Only Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami covered more ground than Stalin – 8,000 kilometres. But except the last day, he did not get down from his van to interact with the public.
Stalin has emerged on his own and has vindicated himself as his father’s worthy heir. His next test is to win the state for the DMK.
R Kannan is the biographer of Anna and MGR. He is part of the political and mediation group of the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia.