The stage at the sprawling Anna Arivalayam had been set; the one-track agenda crystal clear: the unopposed elevation of 65-year-old MK Stalin as the president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
With every mention-worthy office bearer of the party in attendance, the headquarters of the DMK was a sea of red and black, with cheers of ‘Thalapathy, Stalin vaazhga! (Long live, Commander Stalin)” renting the air on an overcast Tuesday morning.
Having joined the party over four decades earlier while his father was at the helm of affairs, it was finally his turn to take over the reins as President, only the second in the party’s 69-year history.
While his elevation comes as no surprise given that he was virtually in charge as both treasurer and Working President of the party, the challenges he is faced with are at once both unique and familiar.
Unlike the ruling AIADMK which witnessed multi-pronged infighting soon after the passing of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa who left no heirs, the DMK has perhaps never been as prepared for anything as it has been for Stalin’s leadership.
Stalin joined the party as young as 14, campaigning for the DMK in 1967- a tenure that would eventually become Karunanidhi’s first term as Chief Minister. Working his way up through the youth wing of the party, reports of his arrest and torture under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act, 1976 shot him into political limelight.
His rise through the ranks also earned him the close friendship of trusted partymen like Durai Murugan, TKS Elangovan, and J Anbazhagan in addition to the blessing of Karunanidhi’s oldest friend and DMK General Secretary K Anbazhagan. Apart from occupying prominent positions within the party, these men have Stalin’s ear.
Over the past few months, Stalin has been undertaking district-wise visits revamping leadership, having his pick of the lot from amongst his trusted old timers and youth wing leaders.
Stalin’s rise within the party also meant dissent within the large Karunanidhi household. While the DMK patriarch ‘marked out’ his sons’ territories as early as the 80s, keeping older brother Azhagiri in Madurai and the younger Stalin in the capital, the two have continued to clash over the years.
The most relevant period of Azhagiri’s political career was when he made himself indispensable in Madurai district, helping win elections for the DMK in what has traditionally been an AIADMK bastion. While he was rewarded with the whipped-up post of ‘South Zone Organising Secretary’, the temperamental leader’s petulance soon unravelled when he began taking private meetings with other parties, without permission from the high command. He was expelled just ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections for ‘violating party discipline’.
Soon after Karunanidhi’s death on August 7, Azhagiri once again began his theatrics, making visits to his father’s grave and warning consequences if he was not re-admitted to the party.
Even as Stalin seeks to prepare himself for two assembly by-polls and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Azhagiri is likely to prove an air-time grabbing nuisance at his best or a rebel stooge for Rajinikanth or the BJP at worst. The carefully curated image of Stalin as Chief Ministerial material would remain undented, however, if he doesn’t rise to the bait.
DMK Women’s Wing Secretary and Rajya Sabha MP M Kanimozhi has also been increasingly vocal in her support of Stalin and poses no threat to his leadership. Her popularity with women and the media could, however, be at risk over the possible return of former Union Minister Dayanidhi Maran, which the DMK is reportedly mulling over.
Another son into politics?
Jayalalithaa’s death opened up a pandora’s box of actors and has-beens who had reportedly been waiting to jump into the political fray. While the high profile political entrants included Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth, slipping quietly into more photographs and DMK events was Stalin’s son and actor-producer Udhayanidhi Stalin.
The 40-year-old who is increasingly seen with his father, has raised questions about the his role in a party that already carried the tag of dynasty.
While being the boss’ son no doubt helped Stalin rise up the ranks, he was given a Ministership only as late as 2006, years after he had won the mayorship of Chennai in direct elections twice. The same will most definitely not apply to Udhayanidhi, and Stalin is already facing criticism for the prominence given to his son.
Stalin’s handling of his son and his son’s role within the party is sure to send a message to other young leaders in the party who await their turn much as Stalin has done over the years.
The certainty of being in command does not make one a good commander. Success and failure in politics is inevitably at the hands of the electorate and Stalin is no doubt aware of this: the DMK has had no tangible electoral success in recent years.
The deteriorating health of M Karunanidhi over the past couple of years meant Stalin and his loyalists within the party were left with making key decisions. However, the DMK, which won 22 seats in 2009, was brought to its knees in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, with not one Member of Parliament to speak of.
While the AIADMK won 134 seats in the 2016 Assembly Elections, the DMK was able to secure just 89, ensuring the former became the first party in 34 years to be voted back to power in the state. In the three bye-elections held the same year- Thanjavur, Aravakurichi and Thiruparankundram- the DMK once again lost. And worst of all, the embarrassing defeat in the 2017 RK Nagar bye-elections, despite the highest voter turnout the constituency has seen- shattered the illusion of any political strategy at play.
With two bye-elections due to be held, one in his father’s seat of Thiruvarur and the other in Thirupparankundram, Stalin’s reputation as leader and future Chief Minister is at stake.
A disenfranchised population, that has witnessed several large-scale, leaderless movements over the last couple of years with an unpopular government in the state, could well be charmed by DMK President Stalin, if he plays his cards right.