IN THE RUN-UP to the 2016 assembly elections, when THE WEEK asked him about his son’s elevation to the party’s top post, DMK president M. Karunanidhi, in his trademark style, said, “One cannot tell the time when a flower will blossom.”
Though he had not said it in so many words, Karunanidhi had, over the years, hinted that M.K. Stalin would be his successor. It was a given when he was elected as working president last January. On August 28, three weeks after Karunanidhi’s death on August 7, he was elected unopposed as the party president, a post held by his father for 49 years. “Karunanidhi did not name Stalin directly as the next leader of the party, but he knew what his son was capable of,” said retired professor M. Naganathan, who was a long-time friend of Karunanidhi.
Stalin, Karunanidhi’s second son from his second wife, Dayalu Ammal, was named after Soviet communist leader Joseph Stalin. Initially though, Karunanidhi wanted to name him Ayyadurai, after rationalist E.V.R. Periyar, who was fondly called ‘Ayya’, and his mentor and DMK founder C.N. Annadurai. Though not named after the duo, Stalin grew up listening to their fiery speeches.
Stalin’s political journey began at the age of 14 when he campaigned for the party during the 1967 elections. He was arrested during the Emergency, following which his stature grew in the party. In 1983, he became the party’s youth wing secretary, and in 1989 was elected as MLA from the Thousand Lights constituency. In 1996, when he was elected mayor of Chennai for the first time, his administrative skills came to the fore. In 2003, he was made DMK’s deputy general secretary, and become its treasurer in 2010.
In 2006, when the DMK came to power with just 96 MLAs, Karunanidhi did not offer him a lucrative portfolio; he was given local administration, which required review meetings and field visits. It was then that Stalin honed his ministerial skills. And, in 2009, he became the deputy chief minister.
Though Stalin has proved to be a good administrator, the journey ahead will test the leadership skills of the thalapathy (commander). “Stalin is the undisputed chief now, no doubt.... After ‘Kalaignar’ (Karunanidhi), not just the DMK cadres even the people expect a lot from him,” said T.K.S. Elangovan, DMK’s organisation secretary.
However, observers said that unlike his father, he has failed to find the right people to be his advisers. His politics is decided by a coterie that includes wife Durga, son-in-law Sabareesan, a few district secretaries and a team of newcomers. A senior leader observed that while Karunanidhi was the decision maker, he took advice from several people in the party on every issue. He said Stalin’s biggest drawback was ignoring the dissenting voices within the party. Karunanidhi, he said, would call the concerned people, address their grievances and ensure that they stayed with the party.
Also, party cadres have not forgotten the 2016 poll debacle. Ahead of the elections, Stalin underwent a sartorial makeover, ditching the dhoti and white shirt for a modern attire. He also undertook a Namakku Naamey Yatra across the state to connect with people. But both failed to create an electoral impact—the DMK got only 89 seats, and J. Jayalalithaa retained her hold on power. In 2017, too, Stalin could not ensure the DMK’s victory in the RK Nagar bypoll, which fell vacant following Jayalalithaa’s death. T.T.V Dhinakaran, nephew of Jayalalithaa’s jailed aide V.K. Sasikala, won the seat.
Moreover, Stalin faces revolt from within his family—elder brother M.K. Alagiri, who had been expelled from the party in 2014, has warned of consequences if he is not taken back. But, Stalin seems unperturbed, as he has enough support in the party and the family. His sister Kanimozhi, who heads the women’s wing, is on his side. On the day he filed his nomination for the president’s post, she wished him “all the success as DMK president”. Former Union minister Dayanidhi Maran, grandnephew of Karunanidhi, too, was present on the occasion.
Another challenge before Stalin is to find allies before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. In 2017, he had called a meeting of anti-BJP parties in Chennai, and later hosted lunch for Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, too, visited him in Chennai. While it seemed that Stalin was warming up to the idea of a third front, the DMK invited BJP president Amit Shah to Karunanidhi’s condolence meet on August 30. Though the invitation was much discussed, Stalin, in his speech after taking over as president, exhorted the party cadre to teach the Modi government a lesson. In the state, the byelections to Tiruvarur, Karunanidhi’s constituency, and Thiruparankundram will be a litmus test for him. Journalist Tharasu Shyam said, “Another electoral defeat would mean the end of the road for Stalin.”
Stalin, perhaps, realises the task that has been cut out for him—to come back to power, he has to ensure that his party’s vote share increases from the existing 24 per cent to 40 per cent. “I can’t talk like ‘Kalaignar’. I don’t have command over language like him,” he told the cadres. “But I stand before you with guts to try and implement it.”