With MK Stalin taking over as DMK chief from Muthuvel Karunanidhi who died last week, an early test of his leadership qualities awaits as he leads the party in the Lok Sabha elections next year without the towering presence of his father for the first time
~By Colonel R Hariharan in Chennai
The passing away of Muthuvel Karunanidhi, 94, last of the leaders groomed in the Dravidian stable of rationalist godfather “Periyar” EV Ramasamy Naicker, leaves a huge void in Tamil Nadu politics. The leader, endearingly called Kalaignar (pronounced kalainyar, meaning gifted scholar) by his party cadres, was a man for all seasons. The rise of “Mu Ka” (his initials in Tamil) as he is known in political circles in the state, from backwoods of Tamil Nadu to the helm of the state as chief minister five times is a testimony to his political leadership and team work skills.
A man gifted with creative ability to write fiction, drama, poetry, political articles and movie scripts, he skilfully blended propaganda in his flowery oratory to build the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). His carefully worded speeches and writings often had a political barb, indicating his mindset.
He followed his mentor CN Annadurai when he founded the DMK in 1949, calling for secession from India to create an independent Dravida Nadu, comprising the four southern states. However, the huge popular support to the government during the 1962 Chinese invasion made the DMK abandon its ideas on secession.
Karunanidhi’s ideological moorings continued to be anchored in the DMK’s credo of social justice which started with a strong anti-Brahmin idiom, federalism and state autonomy. However, Mu Ka carefully tailored his political discourse to suit political needs. His skill in dealing with other parties enabled the DMK to be one of the most successful regional parties that leveraged its strength at the centre. Though he allied with the Congress in 1971, he came out against the Emergency and Mrs Indira Gandhi sent him to jail with his son Stalin. In spite of this, in the 1980 general election, he did not hesitate to ally with the Congress to bounce back in politics.
In a leadership struggle of sorts within the DMK, MG Ramachandran, popular film hero, broke away from the DMK in 1972 to form the All India Anna DMK. He trounced the DMK in the state elections in 1977 and ruled the state for 12 years, marginalising the DMK, and sending its leaders and cadres to political wilderness. Rajiv Gandhi found it useful for the Congress to ally with the AIADMK, particularly in pursuing his muscular policy in Sri Lanka that resulted in sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force to Sri Lanka in 1987.
The DMK came out strongly against Rajiv Gandhi’s Sri Lanka policy, particularly after the Indian forces ended up fighting the Tamil separatists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). When he came to power after the death of MGR, Karunanidhi was critical of the Indian force’s actions in Sri Lanka. When the troops returned from the island nation, the chief minister was conspicuous by his absence. It is an irony, to see his mortal remains covered with the tricolour, making its final passage on an army gun carriage to be buried with state honours with the troops firing the gun salute.
The political environment in Tamil Nadu has been in a churn ever since J Jayalalithaa, chief minister, passed away in December 2016.
In her absence, the AIADMK is in a state of disarray, caught in an internal power struggle. A strong faction under TTV Dinakaran has broken away to form the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), which has the potential to whittle down the AIADMK’s votes. Two “super stars” of Tamil cinema Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth, with strong fan followings, have announced their decision to enter the political arena and the former has already floated his political party. So if the DMK can adroitly manage the political alliances in the state in the 2019 parliamentary polls, we can expect it to make a strong showing after its dismal failure to secure a single seat in parliament in 2014.
Karunanidhi will be sorely missed by the DMK and its ally the Congress, and presumably the Mahagathbandhan, as and when it comes through, for his deal-making skills. Internally, Karunanidhi ensured the elevation of his son Stalin as party president by expelling his elder son and challenger, MK Alagiri from the party two years back. Kanimozhi, Stalin’s half-sister, apparently seems to be reconciled to going along with Stalin as the leader; she would probably continue to act as the DMK’s point woman in New Delhi.
Karunanidhi had groomed Stalin well, putting him through the party activity at various levels during the last three-and-a-half decades. Over the years, Stalin has established his own leadership contacts within the party as well as with the rank and file. So his formal elevation as president of the party is likely to be part of a smooth succession process.
But the moot point is, does Stalin have the leadership skills of his father to lead the DMK to victory? It is evident Stalin lacks the charisma of Karunanidhi. He is no match for Karunanidhi’s legendary oratorical skills. He has not demonstrated his father’s ability to think two jumps ahead in deal-making with other parties, so essential in coalition politics. During his six decades of political career, Karunanidihi had built personal equations with the leaders of many regional as well as national parties. With Karunanidhi dominating the scene so long, it would be unfair to expect Stalin to have such a construct at the personal level.
Since 2009, when Karunanidhi’s health started declining, it was Stalin who had borne the brunt of a number of issues confronting the party—whether it was forming an alliance for the 2011 assembly poll, or dealing with the backlash of allegations of a series of scams at the Centre. Of course, after its dismal failure in the 2011 state elections, the party had regained its 31 percent vote share and performed better in the 2016 assembly elections. But all these elections were contested under the benign watch of Karunanidhi, who presumably cleared Stalin’s decisions. So for Stalin, the 2019 parliamentary election is likely to be a trial by fire of sorts, that will test his leadership ability without his father watching over his shoulder.
His detractors within the party at the moment seem to be few. However, a less than impressive performance in 2019 would probably increase the possibility of a challenger emerging.
At the national level, Stalin is likely to strengthen his links with leaders of other parties in the run-up to the 2019 elections, if and when a joint opposition front emerges. So his role in that process is likely to be played by the ear, based on his experience at the feet of Kalaignar.