A short while after Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war came to an end in May 2009, Tamil Nadu’s then chief minister M. Karunanidhi had made one of his usual visits to the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) headquarters. But instead of meeting with visitors as per routine, the DMK patriarch left the party office in a huff. On enquiring about the reason, M.K. Stalin was told that the ‘thalaivar’ (leader) was reading a Tamil weekly and had chanced upon an open letter written to him by a Sri Lankan Tamil: the nub of the painful epistle was how the Tamils in the island had felt betrayed by the ‘Tamilina Thalaivar’ (leader of the Tamil people).
Stalin had the offending piece brought to him, read it, and, reportedly, could not fathom as to why his father was so upset! Apocryphal as it may be, the incident indicates what we have lost in the passing of a stalwart, and the chasm dividing the deceased patriarch and the son to whom the baton has passed on to.
Karunanidhi embodied various currents in India’s political and social landscape of the last eight decades, and, essayed no small part in how many of them played out. Ironically, once a leader of a party that demanded secession from India, he smoothened Tamil Nadu’s accommodation into the national mainstream.
Apart from dominating Tamil politics for half a century, he played a key role in the formation of at least three Union governments. With him, the last link to a strong, ideologically-oriented Dravidian movement is snapped.
How might this impact the future politics of Tamil Nadu? Though Karunanidhi was inactive for nearly two years, and the anointment of Stalin as the president of the DMK will only be a fait accompli, his mere presence added gravitas to the political landscape.
Political commentators, party cadres, and the public alike speculated how Karunanidhi might act in various political situations. The immediate challenge will therefore be Stalin’s.
For the present, Stalin is on firm ground. Alagiri is an epiphenomenon, even if he were to ill-advisedly challenge Stalin’s leadership. Kanimozhi appears comfortable playing the second fiddle to her half-brother. In all likelihood, in the medium-term, the Maran brothers may chart their own political course, with their business interests dictating their political strategies. Stalin will surely miss the Sun TV empire’s media clout, but he might already be preparing for it—there are clear signs of Kalaignar TV getting beefed up.
The party itself is comfortable with Stalin. In Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather, Michael, on taking over from the don, Vito Corleone, swiftly replaces his father’s lieutenants. Will Stalin take a similar route? Karunanidhi hardly needed advice, and when he sought it, he knew what exactly to ask for. Stalin is not a chip of the old block. Much will therefore depend on how he builds a new team of advisers.
Stalin’s immediate challenge will be in Tamil Nadu. In meanly denying Karunanidhi six-feet of hallowed land on the Marina Beach, the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) government has thrown down the gauntlet. Riding on a groundswell of popular support and judicial intervention, Stalin has won the first round. Over the last year and a half, chief minister Edappadi K. Palanisami has had an easy time and has been barely tested. In popular perception, the DMK has missed many opportunities—the Tuticorin police firing, the protests against the eight-lane Chennai-Salem expressway —to put the government on the mat.
To add to the uncertainty, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan are waiting in the wings hoping to capitalize on the political vacuum. Surely, time is running out. Far from seeing it as the last round in the ring, in popular perception, Stalin is yet to put on his gloves.
It is imperative to force the long overdue local body elections. This will test the popularity of the government, and help size up the strength of contenders and pretenders to political power. Why then is the DMK shying away from doing this?
Before the end of the year, the Rajasthan-Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh elections would have decided how national alliances will shape. What will be the DMK’s strategy? Will it go alone, avoiding a pre-poll alliance? What if simultaneous elections take place for the Tamil Nadu legislature?
Over the years, even under Karunanidhi’s leadership, the DMK’s vote bank has steadily eroded—first by the hugely popular MGR and then Jayalalithaa, whose fortunes admittedly fluctuated. Will Stalin try to shore up the DMK’s vote bank, and will he be adventurous, by trying to wean away the rats deserting the possibly sinking AIADMK ship?
Karunanidhi’s forte—and Achilles’ heel—was ideology. If his stature and strength lay in taking ideological positions, he was also judged by the principles he claimed to stand for and criticized when he fell short. Will Stalin take the same route as his father, or go the MGR-Jayalalithaa route of forging a non-ideological, leader-based party? Only time will tell.