The main Opposition party — the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) — is organising a mega political event on 3 June to mark the diamond jubilee of its leader M Karunanidhi’s entry into the state Assembly. It is also the 94th birthday of the leader, who has been the chief minister of the state five times and still continues to be the president of the party.
It was in 1957 that he was first elected to the state Assembly and has never tasted defeat in any election since, even when his party was mauled in the 1991 election that immediately followed the assassination of the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. A massive rally is planned and this is being seen as a show of strength by Karunanidhi’s son and heir apparent MK Stalin. It has been a long wait for Stalin, who is now the executive president of the party — a post created for him as Karunanidhi isn't in the best of health.
He is believed to be unable to speak or recognise people, suffering from almost total memory loss. He reportedly also has breathing difficulties and needs respiratory support through a tracheotomy. It is as yet unclear as to whether Stalin's takeover of the party had his consent.
Stalin's ascension to the top post of the party was expected, but Karunanidhi was not ready to abdicate. In fact, at one of the rallies — televised by the party's official TV channel — held a couple of years ago, he started with his customary greetings to all party functionaries by their designation and when he came to Stalin's name, he referred to him as "my dear boy who has so far been the treasurer of the party and hereafter..." He trailed off when the cameras focussed on Stalin's beaming and expectant face. But Karunandhi left it to the imagination of the roaring crowd.
Stalin was evidently becoming impatient and his supporters had once compared Karunandhi to Aurangzeb. Had the DMK had won the elections in 2016, the wheelchair-bound Karunandhi would have sat in the seat of the chief minister for the sixth time, but that was not to be. Open differences between the son and the father began cropping up on many issues as Stalin started to assert himself.
Now that Stalin is firmly at the helm of affairs of the party, his leadership will be inevitably compared with that of his father. Karunandhi is known for his political acumen and even fox-like strategies. He was able to keep a crowd spellbound with his oratory. To him, only personal and political interests mattered.
In 1976, his government was unceremoniously dismissed and his party leaders including his son were put behind bars under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). But in 1980, he had no qualms with forging an alliance with Indira Gandhi to fight the polls declaring, "Nehruvin Makale vaa, Nilayaana aatch thaa (Nehru’s daughter Indira, please come and give us a stable government)." But everyone knew that the alliance was in fact to escape from the corruption charges found to be true by the Sarkaria Commission appointed by Indira.
Again, he used to call the BJP the Hindu fundamentalist and Hindi chauvinist upper caste party, describing it as a party of Pandara Paradesikal — a party of beggars and saffron sadhus. But he had no hesitation in aligning with the very same BJP to be a part of the NDA when it came to power — power to which Karunanidhi would cling until the final days of the term. He declared that the BJP was not untouchable.
IN 1991, his party was dismissed on allegations that he gave a free hand to the Sri Lankan Tamil rebels, the LTTE, which resulted in Rajiv's assassination. But when the Congress formed the UPA government, the DMK was back as a coalition partner, demanding and getting lucrative ministerial berths. When the civil war in Sri Lanka was at its peak, Karunanidhi, who claimed to be the world leader of the Tamil race, suddenly undertook a fast to force India to intervene, but ended the fast in just two hours. However, he had already lost the goodwill of the people for not doing enough to prevent a genocide on the island.
He has always had the quick wit and sharp brain to justify anything he did. His critics may call it political opportunism but he always believed in the Machiavellian doctrine: That the end justifies the means.
Stalin has to prove a lot and the path ahead is a difficult one. The party is no longer a party of workers who worked for just a cup of tea and nothing else in return. The prominent leaders of the party have their own vested interests to look after — their sons and grandsons occupying important positions amid a lot of in-party squabbles. Stalin is considered a bit brash. Even while his father was active, he made the popular actress Khushboo quit much against the wishes of Karunanidhi. Her sin: She said the the successor to Karunanidhi should be democratically chosen.
Stalin, of course, has proved an able administrator as Mayor of Chennai Municipal Corporation, but a state is not a municipal corporation and there was also his father as chief minister to support him through his mayoral tenure. Already there are murmurs in the party that he has not been clever enough to exploit the split in the ruling AIADMK following the death of party supremo J Jayalalithaa. It was, his critics say, Stalin's tactless approach in forging an alliance that resulted in his party's defeat in 2001 in spite of the good governance the DMK gave the state.
Stalin's elder brother MK Alagiri is still a thorn in the flesh. He was expelled from the party as he had been voicing opposition to Stalin being anointed as the heir apparent. He is licking his wounds. Although for now he is contained and is lying low, his hold on the southern district cannot be totally overlooked.
For the event on 3 June, Stalin has invited leaders of all political parties and chief ministers of all states. But he has not invited the BJP, which is seen by many as a tactless act drawing comparison with his father’s approach. The AIADMK government can rule for another four years, but is in the middle of a very precarious existence. Stalin has to pad up and get ready, because this will be a massive test of his leadership.
The author is a member of senior faculty, Asian College of Journalism
Updated Date: May 22, 2017 07:52 AM