The political scene in the last few weeks in Tamil Nadu has been abuzz with news of the "people connect" program of the DMK's eternal heir apparent MK Stalin. Christened "Namakku Namae" (We help ourselves) Stalin kicked off, what was touted as an attempt to interact with the masses, at Kanyakumari on September 21.
Now into its second phase the DMK leader's possible objective was an image makeover, an attempt to boost the sagging morale of the party cadre and to establish a rapport with the people, highlighting how while a leader like him was meeting the people, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was not.
Three weeks into the program much of the sheen has worn off. The start was promising. Clad in colorful casual shirts and trousers, a far cry from the traditional white dhoti and white shirt attire of the Tamil politician, and psychedelic shoes, the campaign attracted enormous public curiosity. To show how he was connecting withthe masses Stalin sat at roadside shops and ate dosas and drank tea. He rode a bicycle and travelled in an auto. The photos were promptly uploaded on social media bythe campaign managers. Twitter was abuzz with updates and though the trolls were active it was clear that Stalin had the state's attention. So what did he do with it? Well, very little.
People were happy to see a leader of Stalinâ€™s stature among them. But when they tuned in to his walkathons in person or on television they expected to hear a message of some sort from the DMK scion. Instead, all they got was the same set of charges against the AIADMK government and a promise that should the DMK come to power in 2016 their problems would be solved.
Stalin has so far not made any attempt to address the reasons why people decisively rejected the DMK in 2011 and,in an even more resounding fashion, in the Lok Sabha polls in 2014. On a couple of occasions he did say that they had made mistakes and that these would not be repeated. But he never elaborated on what the mistakes were and there was certainly no apology. Admittedly, elaborating on the allegations the DMK and its leaders face is not easy but a Chief Ministerial hopeful who aims to regain the trust of the people in his party cannot be seen to be silent on the reasons for the loss of that trust in the first place. Voters in Tamil Nadu, since 1991, have alternated between the AIADMK and the DMK but Stalin knows only too well that this time there is no guarantee of a return, with the odds, six months or less fromthe election, looking to be loaded against the DMK.
To be fair Stalin is in an unenviable position. At 62 he still remains in the shadow of his father and faithfully parrots the party line that, should the DMK win in 2016, his father nonagenarian M Karunanidhi will be the Chief Minister for the sixth time. Yet as he goes about collecting grievance petitions and promising to solve people's problems, the air of a Chief Minister in waiting is unmistakable and for voters this is confusing.
Also, the old guard in the DMK fears that they may not wield the same clout under Stalin as they did under Karunanidhi and this makes the situation more difficult for Stalin as they stick closer to his father instead of embracing the partyâ€™s future face. Unlike the AIADMK which is a one leader party and where the other leaders count for little, the DMK has always given more freedom and power to its second-rung leaders and Karunanidhi places substantial faith in his longtime associates however tainted in public perception they may be. This makes it difficult for Stalin to bring in the fresh blood that he knows the party needs.
Irrespective of the fate of this contact program Stalin also knows fully well that a grand alliance is needed to bridge the over 17% vote share gap between the DMK and the AIADMK. A successful contact program could have brought some of the smaller parties who are now holding out for a share of power knowing the DMK's desperation, back into the party's alliance fold. If â€˜Namakku Namaeâ€™ fails to strike a chord with the public these smaller parties will demand a bigger pound of flesh from the DMK or stay away altogether if they feel that the party does not have enough steam to win.
Namakku Namae is an opportunity that the DMK appears to be missing out on. By attempting to make an honest admission of some of their mistakes, by offering an apology and by promising to put up a new generation of untainted party leaders before the people in 2016, Stalin could have made a genuine effort to stem the erosion in the voter base that the DMK has suffered. Instead, with no message sans the anti-AIADMK rhetoric and with the attention focused more on photo ops the program is already meandering. Tamil people are known to be emotional and an apology may not have gone down badly at all especially coming from a leader who is not perceived as negatively as his party is.
Stalin still has time to turn things around in the Namakku Namae campaign. He needs to make some tough decisions and fast. People recognize the shortcomings of theAIADMK government and though there is no perceptible anti-incumbency wave there is, at least in some circles, a desire for change. The next few weeks will decide the fate of Namakku Namae. Will Stalin rise to the occasion?