MK Stalin's transformation from Thalapathy to Thalaivar boosts his 2019 prospects, but seat-sharing with allies remains real challenge
MK Stalin's calculated moves appear to be paying dividend
For years, the formidable M Karunanidhi was the godfather of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). His son MK Stalin was content living in the shadow of the five-term Tamil Nadu chief minister. But over time, Kalaignar, as Karunanidhi was popularly known, meticulously crafted a space for Stalin within the party, at times brushing aside dissent from his loyal lieutenants, and even elder son MK Azhagiri. Three weeks after his father’s death this year, the heir was finally crowned king as Stalin took the DMK throne, with no real challenger.
Since then, his calculated moves appear to be paying dividend. When a former AIADMK minister and lieutenant of the AMMK’s TTV Dhinakaran, plays prodigal son and returns to the DMK fold after 18 years, it’s a sign of which way the political wind is set to blow in 2019. V Senthil Balaji made no bones about the reason for his defection, citing Stalin’s leadership as the principal draw, which translates into better political fortunes in the offing.
The psychological boost such switchovers give a party aside, Balaji, who hails from the Gounder community, a traditional bastion of the ruling AIADMK, will help Stalin bolster the DMK’s presence in the Kongu belt in western Tamil Nadu, a region where it has not done well.
Despite plunging heart and soul into the Assembly election campaign in 2016, when he crisscrossed all 234 constituencies, luck eluded Stalin. But the former ‘eternal prince-in-waiting’ will find the 2019 battle quite different. Having emerged from his late father’s shadow as the party boss, and without having to contend with the charisma of AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa, who passed away two years ago, Stalin realises that his day in the sun is not far off.
Post Karunanidhi, Stalin was able to almost effortlessly checkmate Azhagiri. The Madurai strongman attempted to throw his hat into the ring. But his show of strength in the form of a rally in Chennai turned out to be a damp squib. With that only threat having dissipated, the transition from ‘Thalapathy’ Stalin to ‘Thalaivar’ Stalin has been seamless.
The ability to stitch up a formidable alliance and keep the flock together had been the hallmark of Karunanidhi’s leadership. The rainbow coalition under the banner of the Democratic Progressive Alliance spearheaded by the grand old man of the DMK in 2004 created history by collaring all the 40 seats in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. Stepping into Kalaignar’s sandals, Stalin has demonstrated his ability to build bridges and mend fences with potential allies. So when Vaiko was miffed over a comment by a senior DMK leader on an alliance minus his MDMK, Stalin was able to keep the mercurial leader in good humour.
Leadership calls for a degree of flexibility and revisiting old positions. Stalin’s 2.0 strategy of diluting the party’s atheist stance, what with his statement that the DMK is not against those who believe in god, will go down well with certain communities that may be on the fence. With unstinting support from his sister and MP MK Kanimozhi, who was recently honoured with the Best Woman Parliamentarian Award, Stalin has also taken on the mantle of spearheading delegations to New Delhi to meet his national ally. The DMK has proven to be a trusted partner of the Congress. That has not changed post Karunanidhi, evident from the Congress high command spurning the overtures of TTV Dhinakaran.
Having been the party’s youth leader for decades, Stalin fields a group of feisty young lawyers such as Saravanan Annadurai and Manuraj S as spokespersons on national television debates. The DMK’s almost invincible legal team with the likes of senior advocates Wilson Pushpanathan, R Shanmugasundaram and NR Elango has delivered a series of significant victories for the party in court, including the right to a burial space for its patriarch Karunanidhi on Marina Beach.
Electorally, the biggest positive for Stalin is that the anti-DMK vote will be split between the AIADMK and its splinter group, the AMMK. The emergence of new players like actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam, perceived to be ideologically closer to the DMK, could be an X factor. The real challenge will lie in seat-sharing between allies for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. After tasting success in the three state Assembles of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress could be difficult to bargain with, leaving a smaller share of the pie for partners such as the Left, MDMK and VCK. But these parties know which side their bread is buttered. That the DMK did well in 2016 without the PMK, will be on its mind while parting with constituencies.
Faced with anti-incumbency and the notion that its strings are being pulled by the Centre, Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami’s denials notwithstanding, the ruling AIADMK in its post-Jayalalithaa avatar will see red, and black, as it tries hard to match up to a resurgent Stalin, who cannot wait to be seen as the DMK’s successful mascot, with a seven-year itch.
Sanjay Pinto is a lawyer, columnist, author and former TV journalist.
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