3 June has always been an important day for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) cadre in Tamil Nadu and journalists in Chennai. It is the birthday of DMK chief M Karunanidhi, a day when all roads irrespective of whether he is in power or out of it, lead to his Gopalpuram residence. And for journalists, it has always been a calendar event to report on. On occasions when the DMK family tree was in turmoil, who was in attendance and who was not and the body language of the political honchos gave an indication of their standing in the party and in Karunanidhi's durbar.
This year was no different despite MK Stalin's request to party workers not to flock to Chennai. However, there were many a differences to mark, this year. Karunanidhi is not in the best of health and his semi-retired state has brought the curtains down on the Jayalalithaa-Karunanidhi political rivalry that was characterised by spite and rancour for the better part of the last three decades.
Saturday was less about the poet-politician and more about the rising sun. It was obvious in the manner Stalin occupied several vantage points in Chennai, keen to establish by way of optics that the baton for all practical purposes has been passed. Not that the former deputy chief minister of Tamil Nadu has not been in control of the DMK since 2014, when his elder brother Alagiri was shown the door. But two successive elections — 2014 Lok Sabha and 2016 Tamil Nadu assembly — where Stalin led from the front but failed to register a win, has meant he is yet to pass the leadership test.
This is perhaps the reason Stalin decided to use his father's 94th birthday party to announce that he has the party now. On the face of it, the presence of stalwarts from the opposition space — the likes of Rahul Gandhi, Nitish Kumar, Sitaram Yechury, D Raja, Omar Abdullah, Derek O' Brien — was meant to send a political message to Delhi from Chennai (or from the city of Parry's to Paris where the PM is visiting at present, if you please). But it remained just a hands up photo-op with the speeches delivered in Hindi by the likes of the Bihar chief minister with a poor translation, finding no connect with the audience.
For the DMK crowd, Stalin was the only one who mattered and understandably so. Apart from eulogising his father, Stalin spoke about himself and about his association with the DMK. The message was clear. That he is not on the dais only as the host or his father's son but that as a regional chieftain, he represents an important constituency.
At a time when the focus of the national media was on the meet due to the presence of the national leaders, Stalin used it to announce that he is the person to do business with, as far as the DMK is concerned.
And having taken on the BJP in recent days, he would be the fulcrum of any anti-BJP formation from south India. This particularly because the three other major state-specific regional parties in the Peninsula - the Telugu Desam, Telangana Rashtra Samiti and YSR Congress - have a more friendly equation with the BJP. While Chandrababu Naidu is an NDA partner, Jaganmohan Reddy and Chandrasekhar Rao have been warming up to the Prime Minister.
But Stalin has no intentions to go national. His aim is to strengthen himself on home turf and the national ambition is restricted to leaders in Delhi knowing that he is the DMK boss for all practical purposes. He had drafted sister Kanimozhi to personally invite many of the leaders but during the Chennai show, he ensured the spotlight was firmly on him.
In the past, Karunanidhi with the deftness of a streetsmart politician, did business both with Vajpayee's NDA and Sonia Gandhi's UPA. Stalin in contrast, has taken on Narendra Modi to allege that the BJP control the AIADMK by wielding the stick of the enforcement agencies. This means Stalin fancies himself at the head of an anti-BJP, anti-AIADMK formation that is likely to be formed in Tamil Nadu. And after the 2016 experience when the People's Welfare Front of Vaiko and Vijayakanth split the anti-Jayalalithaa vote to hurt the DMK, Stalin would want to get the arithmetic right in 2019. The Congress and the Left, even though miniscule in terms of their electoral contribution, will be his natural allies. Stalin also will be under pressure to get it right in 2019, or whenever elections are held next, because he can hardly afford a hattrick of failures.
Rahul Gandhi spent a considerable amount of time at Stalin's residence, getting to know his family better. The gesture was a way to make amends because on several occasions in the past, Rahul did not bother to call on Karunanidhi even though they were allies. The Congress vice-president also did not enquire about Karunanidhi's health in October when he airdashed to visit Apollo Hospitals to check on an ailing Jayalalithaa. It did not go down too well with the DMK, and Saturday's bonhomie was also intended to lay the foundation for a better working relationship.
But if the event at YMCA in Royapettah was the big political splash, AIADMK's TTV Dinakaran provided the sideshow. He had returned home after securing bail in the party symbol bribery case and his supporters, even if miniscule ensured they created enough din to make it seem VK Sasikala's nephew still mattered in the scheme of things. That his one month long Tihar jail stint does not take away from him, his position as the deputy general secretary of the ruling AIADMK.
Given Edappadi Palaniswami's slender majority in the Tamil Nadu assembly and Dinakaran commanding the support of at least 8 to 10 MLAs, the chief minister cannot rub Dinakaran the wrong way. His bail will be interpreted as a victory of sorts, with his supporters pointing out that while they accused Dinakaran of bribing, the sleuths could not produce the person who was reportedly bribed.
Saturday in that sense was about two men who have a fight on their hands. They have a common political foe in the BJP, even though the two at the same time, remain fierce rivals.
Updated Date: Jun 04, 2017 16:44 PM