How CM-designate MK Stalin found the spotlight amidst Karunanidhi’s long shadow

From his teen years working for the DMK to serving as Chennai’s mayor, MK Stalin has faced highs and lows in his career.
MK Stalin in white shirt seen from waist up, standing and waving
MK Stalin in white shirt seen from waist up, standing and waving

MK Stalin never had it easy. The more than five-decade political career of the 68-year-old chief ministerial designate has had its highs and lows. From warding off criticisms of dynasty politics early on to handling the constant comparisons with his father M Karunanidhi, Stalin has faced his own set of challenges.

The DMK leader was all of 14 years old when he decided to work for the DMK. As a teen, Stalin launched his political career by campaigning for his uncle Murasoli Maran. He also floated a movement with his friends to celebrate the birth anniversaries of leaders. The movement, it is reported, later became the DMK’s youth wing. One of his earliest achievements was to have successfully convinced C N Annadurai, then the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, to attend an event commemorating the latter’s birthday. “You are persistent just like your father,” Anna told him, before changing the dates he had given to accommodate Stalin’s wish. Unfortunately, Anna had to leave for the United States for his cancer treatment around that time.  

While being Karunanidhi’s son could have given him access to tall leaders like Anna, it also had a different set of consequences. Stalin was born in 1953, three years after the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was launched and when Tamil Nadu was at a political crossroads. Born out of the Dravidar Kazhgam, the DMK would soon test electoral waters but not before leading a series of protests on various issues. While the DMK was gaining momentum in the state, fiery movies like 1952’s Parasakthi were helping to build the popularity of the Dravidian movement. In the centre of all this robust activity was also Karunanidhi – the man who was touring the state to propagate the ideals of the DMK, while simultaneously writing in cinema for pretty much the same cause.

“When we were in school, the anti-Hindi agitation was at its peak. And Stalin had to face the repercussions,” says Dawood Mia Khan, grandson of acclaimed political leader Quaid-E-Milleth and Stalin’s classmate in Class 7 at Madras Christian College School in Chetpet. “My grandfather had come to put me in class that year and two students came running to see him. When he realised that one of them was his friend Karunanidhi’s son, he was overwhelmed.” 

In the class, Mia Khan recalls, a teacher would daily ask Stalin to come forward, and rap his knuckles. “It happened every day and there was no clear reason. It turned out that he was punished because he was Karunanidhi’s son. Remember, he was one of the frontline leaders in anti-Hindi agitations and he minced no words against the then Congress government.”

When Mia Khan met him a year ago to invite him for a conference, Stalin remembered the punishment he faced as well as lighter moments, like playing cricket together. “He was withdrawn and an average student. But he was very interested in sports. Ours was a natural friendship. Because there was a political alliance and Stalin was isolated in school. Those who worked at the school were from a particular community that had its allegiance to Congress then, and those who put their children to study there were from another community in the deep south and again supporters of Congress.” That perhaps explains Stalin’s keen interest in politics and at that point of time, culture. Growing up, Stalin had done theatre, serials and films. He had also donned the role of his father in one of the plays. While directors were willing to cast him in films, Stalin reportedly decided to eventually quit to focus on his political career.

The peculiarity of his name also had its own consequences. Karunanidhi had originally intended to name him Ayyadurai as a mark of respect for two leaders who shaped his political career – Periyar (who was addressed as Ayya) and Annadurai. But when Joseph Stalin died the same week, Karunanidhi decided to name his son after him. Interestingly, it is said that the Church Park Convent in Chennai denied admission to Stalin because of his name.

The late journalist and writer Solai had once noted that the tag of dynasty politics had prevented Stalin from getting his due on time. In 1982, Karunanidhi was hesitant about Stalin’s election as the secretary of DMK’s youth wing, fearing he would be accused of ‘dynasty politics.’ The party however prevailed, with party workers arguing that after spending a year under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), Stalin no longer carried the dynasty tag. He was physically assaulted in jail, and once remarked that the experience gave him the ‘steely resolve to sustain in politics.’ 

DMK leader Chittibabu, who stepped in to take the blows meant for Stalin, later said that he feared for Stalin’s life. “They kicked his face with their boots. Another policeman was hitting him with a lathi on his shoulders. I interrupted and received all the blows.” Much later, Chittibabu succumbed to internal injuries caused by the assault. Stalin was newly married when he was picked by the police under MISA. Recalling the incident, Karunanidhi wrote in Nenjukku Neethi (Karunanidhi’s six-part autobiography) that Stalin was away when the police came to arrest him. “I asked them to come the next day. Stalin had been married for five months and his wife was crying. I said we need to be prepared for all kinds of sacrifices.”   

Stalin was also initially denied an Assembly ticket because Karunanidhi thought it would pave way for criticisms. Stalin was 36 when he finally became an MLA and seven years later, Chennai’s first elected mayor – an opportunity to display his administrative skills and political acumen. As mayor of Chennai, Stalin’s efforts to clean and modernise the city through various schemes, including construction of bridges, received wide acclaim. When he was re-elected as mayor in 2001, then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa enacted the Tamil Nadu Municipal Law (Amendments) Act which prevented a person from holding two elected posts. While the Madras High Court struck the law, it held that a mayor cannot be in office for two consecutive terms, leading him to step down. In 2003, Stalin became DMK’s deputy general secretary.

He was 53 years old when he finally became a minister in Karunanidhi’s cabinet and had spent well over four decades in public service. Stalin made his mark as rural development and local administration minister by rolling out a series of schemes to solve basic issues. In 2009, Stalin became the deputy chief minister, a sign that he may be the party’s heir after Karunanidhi. In 2013, the latter finally made it official.

Since then, Stalin had also faced criticisms about his performance while being compared to his father. Though Stalin slowly worked his way up, proving his mettle at every instance, some critics feel the comparison itself was ‘unfair.’

“The field was not the same,” said Dravidian scholar and economist Professor E Jayaranjan. “It is not right to compare both. The ground was different – in terms of history, sociology and anthropology. Also, the comparison is very superficial. I have heard people say that Stalin cannot write or speak like him. Is it not Sanatanist [adhering to aspects of Sanatana dharma] – to expect a son to be like his father? The comparison stems from the politics of spite. The idea is to make him seem inferior.”

Stalin appears to have battled that through his career by working hard to persevere as well as surrounding himself with trustworthy people. But his new role as chief minister might just bring a whole new set of challenges.

(This story draws references from the following books: MK Stalin - Ponniyin Selvan (India Today Tamil's special edition on M K Stalin in November 2010) and Kazhaga Varalaatril Thalapathi Mu Ka Stalin (Thalapathy M K Stalin in the history of Kazhagam) authored by Ch S Manimaran.)

Views expressed are the author's own.

Kavitha Muralidharan is a journalist with two decades of experience, writing on politics, culture, literature and cinema.

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