Unlike Shasikala Natrajan, Stalin has been handling party affairs for some times and hence has an edge over AIADMK while dealing with smaller parties while going for a poll tie up
Following hot on the heels of the political upheaval in the AIADMK, the DMK has now sought to restructure the party and address pressing questions relating to succession. Whilst M Karunanidhi remains in charge of the DMK, his failing health has prevented him from being as actively involved as in the past. The General Council of the party has, therefore, elected his younger son, MK Stalin, as acting President. With this passing of the baton, Tamil politics has lost the two figures that have dominated state politics over the past 30-40 years: J Jayalalithaa, who died last month while Chief Minister, and Karunanidhi. What, then, does this mean for the DMK and for Tamil politics more widely?
For many years, the DMK and other parties have pointed to the centralisation of power in the AIADMK and foretold chaos and upheaval in the absence of Jayalalithaa. In the event, the AIADMK have acted swiftly and decisively in replacing Amma. Further tests await her successors, but prospects of an imminent collapse have receded. On the surface, the DMK are better placed to manage an orderly transfer of power. Unlike Jayalalithaa’s successor, Sasikala Natarajan, Stalin has been the second-in-command for some considerable time, and has cut his political teeth on the campaign trail and during his stint as Chennai Mayor and later as Deputy Chief Minister. His unanimous election as Working President indicates his stature, his closeness to his father, and the absence of obvious alternatives.
As with most aspects of Tamil politics, however, things are never that simple. Despite a creditable and credible political record, not everyone is happy with Stalin’s election and a number of obstacles stand in the way of his political ambitions. The party is still haunted by the sibling rivalry that threatened to tear the DMK apart. Stalin’s elder brother M K Alagiri does not have as distinguished a political record as his sibling, but made his reputation as a strongman and fixer who delivered a number of crucial electoral victories for the party. He built a support-base which clashed physically with Stalin’s supporters on several occasions and abandoned the party when Alagiri was finally expelled in 2014. Other family members, such as the Sun Media Network’s Dayanidhi Maran, have also been linked with the top job. All this has created the perception of nepotism within the DMK. Veteran politician Vaiko split from the DMK in 1993 to form the MDMK, claiming that he was being side-lined to make way for Stalin. Whilst supporters point to Stalin’s own track-record, his ascension to the post of party President, will re-open debates about family rule and favouritism.
Thirdly, Stalin will inherit a party that has been dogged by accusations of corruption and still faces allegations surrounding the 2G spectrum scam. DMK MP A Raja was Telecommunications Minister at the time and is accused of favouring certain companies at great cost to the public purse. Stalin’s sister, Kanimozhi, is alleged to have received kickbacks from the scheme, thus implicating Karunanidhi’s family in the scam. The twin issues of nepotism and corruption have been manipulated adroitly by the AIADMK in recent elections, and one of Stalin’s prime tasks will be to rebuild the battered reputation of the DMK.
Finally, Stalin’s leadership bid has not been well-served by his father, who hesitated to place him in charge ahead of state election in 2016. Irrespective of the intention, this was read as a vote of no-confidence at the time. For all his experience and political nous, therefore, Stalin will have to persuade voters that he is a worthy successor. At present, he is seen to lack his father’s wit, wisdom and lyrical oratorical skills which shaped the political practice of the state. Stalin is also seen as harder to negotiate with during alliance talks. Dalit party Puthiya Tamilagam President Krishnasamy, unfavourably compared Stalin’s approach to Karunanidhi’s way of handling alliance partners with dignity. Only time will tell whether Stalin will perfect the art of political negotiations or not. Even his much advertised Namakku Naame (We for Ourselves) campaign where he toured the state riding in auto-rickshaws, rubbing shoulders with common people and sipping tea from roadside stalls did not deliver the DMK the much-needed victory last time. For all his experience, in other words, the jury remains out on his leadership.
For many years, smaller parties in Tamil Nadu have waited for this moment, anticipating that a change of leadership might enable them to shift Tamil politics further towards multi-partism. Does the relatively smooth transfer of power in both parties mean that their hopes will now be dashed? Crucially, both Dravidian party leaders now have a period of grace before the next elections during which they can cement their hold on power and begin to shape the party in their own image. Whilst Stalin is only Working President and will relinquish his post should his father recover sufficiently, it would take something extraordinary now for him not to inherit leadership of the DMK in due course. Stalin for the moment would appear to have the advantage over Sasikala by virtue of the fact that he has hands-on experience of fighting election campaigns and has been elected as a representative on numerous occasions himself. The DMK, though, has traditionally relied more on grassroots organisation rather than charisma and his challenge will be to revitalise the supporters on the ground. Sasikala, meanwhile, will be hoping that Jayalalithaa’s popularity transfers to her.
In both cases, the leaders have significant issues to contend with and strengths. Other parties will be actively seeking to capitalise on this. At the very least, the smaller outfits will anticipate greater opportunities for alliances as the new leaders seek to build a reputation for themselves. Although Jayalalithaa had the confidence to go it alone in recent elections, it is unlikely that either party will take that risk again in the immediate future. The Congress and the BJP will be particularly keen to make inroads at this point and profit from the insecurity of the new leaders by extracting a greater share of seats than they have been afforded in recent elections. This attempt will be aided by the absence of political ideologues at the helm of either Dravidian party as neither Stalin nor Sasikala have gained their positions by virtue of political ideas. The BJP, in particular, will be anxious to gain a foothold in the state, and Modi’s words and actions around Jayalalithaa’s funeral suggest that they may be eyeing an alliance with the AIADMK. The Congress too will be hoping for an upturn in fortunes and a larger share of seats than their electoral performance has justified in recent years.
More immediately, the multitude of smaller parties in the state will be hoping to benefit too. Following the dismal showing by non-Dravidian parties in the 2016 state elections, there was a suggestion that alliance politics had run its course in the state and that many of the minor parties were redundant. A closer analysis of results, however, shows that those standing in non-Dravidian fronts returned a 16% vote-share in an election that was characterised by small margins in many constituencies. Given both this and the fact that neither Stalin nor Sasikala has overseen an election, it is probable that there will be more space for allies in future contests. The warm words with which leaders like Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi greeted the election of Sasikala to the post of General Secretary suggests that the manoeuvring for position has started already. The deep roots of the Dravidian parties in Tamil society and politics mean that changes are likely to be incremental, but the lesser political lights are now more hopeful of gaining a bit part in Tamil politics.