Opinion: What Chief Minister MK Stalin must do

From reaching out to the Union government to being a CM for all, some lessons for MK Stalin as DMK is voted into power, writes R Kannan.
MK Stalin in a white shirt with palms together, standing against a poster.
MK Stalin in a white shirt with palms together, standing against a poster.
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With a DMK victory in the 2021 Assembly elections, no one in Tamil Nadu is better prepared to take up the responsibility of Chief Minister than its leader MK Stalin. The 68-year-old has been waiting for this moment since 2011, if not earlier. In 2009, he was made the Deputy Chief Minister but that was courtesy his father Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi, who was the CM at the time. This time, however, Stalin has made it on his own and deservedly so. He has so far vindicated himself as his dad’s worthy successor in party affairs. 

His industriousness and public contact exercises have been exemplary. As a legislator, he is a model representative of Kolathur, meeting his constituents regularly and tending to their needs. His performance as the Leader of the Opposition is reasonable if we were to discount the incident where he displayed his torn vest. With the impressive victory in the 2019 Parliamentary elections, the DMK leader made people sit and take notice of him. That election in Tamil Nadu was a vote on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Stalin had successfully nurtured an anti-BJP-Modi narrative and harvested it.

Stalin has come a long way since his teenage years. As a gawky adolescent, in 1968, he had insisted that the party founder and Chief Minister CN Annadurai attend his event to mark his birthday on a date that Stalin had predetermined. An ailing Anna yielded to the schoolboy’s persistence but not before commenting, “Gosh! You are as stubborn as your father!”  

Not just stubborn but equally industrious, Stalin has surprised even his detractors through his public contacts, mass contact programs and his tireless campaign style. The recent gram sabhas he led were novel, although actor and Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) chief Kamal Haasan claimed that it was an idea copied from him. It is this industriousness that has kept him a constant in Tamil Nadu’s political landscape where people such as MGR’s widow Janaki Ramachandran, and matinee idol Sivaji Ganesan, have fallen by the wayside.

Being on top of information

The 2021 vote has been for Stalin and the DMK. The crowds that showed up quite spontaneously in many places at his whistle stop tour indicate that Stalin may not yet be in his father’s league, but he is expected to fill his shoes by DMK party workers and even a section of the public. Will Stalin be as Chief Ministerial as his father? While he has admitted that he is not his father, he can be in many respects. 

Firstly, Karunanidhi was the most accessible Chief Minister of the Dravidian movement. He read the major newspapers and journals, lent his ears to a wide spectrum of people and worked the phones to the district collectors and officials on the issues highlighted by the press from as early as six in the morning. Stalin can easily be all this and it is likely that he will rise to the occasion. While he is not necessarily  from the “old school”, Stalin as the Chief Minister can rely on a team that could easily scan the media and give him a digest which will of course be complemented by the regular intelligence reporting that Chief Ministers normally rely on. This was just one of the many facets of Karunanidhi, that Stalin could put his own touch to.  

A page from the past could be instructive, especially in terms of being gracious in victory. No more just the DMK leader, Anna was particular that high office should neither change his manners nor his sartorial style. It appeared that the already seasoned man had turned more complete under the weight of office. The Congress government had reportedly burnt certain files fearing a reprisal from the DMK administration. Anna termed it ‘unnecessary’ and ‘wrong’ and said the Congress had not understood him and rejected the suggestion for an inquiry saying that what had transpired in the Assembly was already an investigation. He mentioned that during the anti-Hindi struggle, a senior police official had called Nedunchezhian to say that Anna had hung himself. When Nedunchezhian denied any such thing, the official insisted that Anna was  ‘close’ (dead). The official, Anna said, was under his watch and there was no danger to his position. To K Vinayakam’s (Congress) taunt that his ‘days are numbered’ the Chief Minister said he would quit if he realised he could not perform and observed “within ten days in this position, ennui has engulfed me.” 

Chief Minister for all

Stalin should be Chief Minister for all. Civil servants are also human beings and have their biases. But a Chief Minister should be above these human sentiments. The politicisation of the services began when Chief Secretary Royappah reportedly called on K Kamaraj in 1971 anticipating his return to power. Karunanidhi, however, came to power and shunted Royappah to a less pivotal position. Today, there are identifiable DMK or AIADMK sympathetic civil servants, which is a pity. Stalin should show that he can treat all fairly, despite their sympathies like Anna did. Anna retained all the staff of his Congress predecessor Bhaktavatsalam. Anna also did not differentiate between DMK men and others and was accessible to all.

Reach out to the Union government 

Similarly, like Anna and Karunanidhi, Stalin should reach out to the Union government making it clear that Tamil Nadu’s interests come first and that he desires a constructive relationship with the Centre. In 1969, when Karunanidhi was chosen by the party to succeed the late Anna as Chief Minister, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who was at Sanjiva Reddy’s family wedding in Tirupati had remarked, “I have heard that he is a confrontationist.”

Speaking at the Legislative Council weeks later, the 44-year-old Chief Minister made it clear that cooperation was a two-way street and he expected the Union government to reciprocate. Months later, when Indira Gandhi unveiled Anna’s portrait at Rajaji Hall, Karunanidhi famously declared, “Uravuku kai kodupom, urimaiku kural kodupom” (Extend a hand in cooperation, lend a voice for rights). He stood by Indira Gandhi on the issue of bank nationalisation and other progressive measures. But the massive electoral victory in 1971 left both leaders giddy, to the point where this relationship began to falter - ending in the now very familiar story of his government’s dismissal and the suffering during the Emergency. Earlier, on 23 February 1967, in the aftermath of the election victory, the first DMK Chief Ministerial designate- Anna had said: “I am not at all itching for a clash between the Centre and the state.”

Only 24 days into his term, on 30 March 1969, Anna told the Legislative Assembly that he would “haul [the Union government] up to the stand if they were to obstruct”. Scheduled to see the Union ministers for the first time, the Chief Minister wanted them to know about him. Anna was a leader and not a pleader and Stalin can follow both his illustrious predecessors. But Anna was equally Chief Ministerial. When Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) wanted a higher tariff for the power purchased by the state, an official opined that when public undertakings like Hindustan Steel were making a loss, it was not fair to expect NLC to perform differently. However, Anna didn’t agree. He said that one could speak so in a public meeting but not as Chief Minister. It was only fair that the Union government expected just returns for its significant investment in the state. The state electricity board consequently agreed to the higher price. 

The lesson here for the new Chief Minister is that he needs to take a holistic attitude to issues such as NEET, the eight lane Chennai-Salem highway and other contentious issues. As promised, he should pass a resolution seeking exemption for Tamil Nadu from NEET by seeking protection for the move by placing it in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution. But this is highly unlikely to happen. In that case, the state administration should prepare the students of the state to better prepare for these exams. Tamil Nadu does not have to possess the dubious distinction of being the only one seeing red in everything. 

R Kannan is with the political and mediation group with the United Nations in Somalia. He is also the biographer of Chief Ministers Anna and MGR.

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