Tamil Nadu's smoother succession

A file photo of DMK chief M Karunanidhi (left) and his son M K Stalin. Photo: reuters
The contrast could not have been starker. In Lucknow, the Samajwadi Party was convulsing over a generational leadership clash. Here, though, another succession was smooth as Kanjivaram silk.

Last month, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)’s chief  Muthuvel Karunanidhi told a Tamil magazine his younger son, Stalin, 63, would be his successor. Supporters of his elder son, Alagiri, simply kept quiet. Nor was there even a murmur of protest from the more senior leaders of the party.

This, though, is not a sudden development, suggesting that as in big corporations, such plans in political parties are most successful only if introduced incrementally, preparing workers for the changes – but, once announced, need to be followed through ruthlessly. Karunanidhi had announced on January 4 last year that Stalin would be his heir. Although this was a reiteration of a reality that everyone in the party was prepared for, Alagiri said: “DMK is not a mutt (monastery) for anybody to nominate a successor.” He showed his hand too soon – he and his supporters were dismissed from the party. Re-entry efforts were repulsed strongly. Stalin moved to gain complete control over the party apparatus.

“When Stalin was very young, he formed the youth wing and worked tirelessly. Then, from the time of MISA (the then draconian preventive detention law) for protesting against the Emergency in 1976 when he went to prison, he has undergone torture, worked by himself and attained the position of the DMK’s future leader, step by step. Given this, he is today my political successor,” said Karunanidhi, explaining why he chose the younger son over the elder one.

Who is this man, at 63, still the Ilaya Thalapathi (Commander of the Young)?

Stalin was born in 1953, the year Soviet supremo Josef Stalin died. Karunanidhi was an admirer and named his son after him. His first major political involvement was in the anti-Hindi agitation of the mid-1960s. Then, in 1967, the year the DMK ousted the Congress party to rule the state, the 14-year-old campaigned for uncle Murasoli Maran, who was contesting a Lok Sabha seat.

After graduating in history from The New College in this city, Stalin in 1973 was inducted into the general council of the DMK, at 20. The real political breakthrough was in 1976, when arrested during Indira Gandhi's Emergency regime. The DMK government led by Karunanidhi was dismissed as soon as the legislative assembly’s tenure ended and President’s Rule declared; Stalin spent a year confined in an 8’ by 10’ prison cell. On several occasions, he proudly shows the marks on his body, a legacy of his life in jail as a political prisoner. In 1977, when the Emergency ended, the DMK lost the state administration to actor-turned-politician M G Ramachandran (who quit the DMK towards the end of 1972 to start his own party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam). AIADMK won the Assembly elections and ruled the state for the next 10 years.

It was only in 1984 that Stalin fought his first election, from a constituency in Chennai. He lost by a narrow margin. Of the eight Assembly elections he has contested, he has lost only twice. Around this time, Stalin tried his hand at acting. He acted in two serials, one for Doordarshan and the other for his cousin-owned Sun TV. In fact, some people even today recall him more clearly as Soorya, the lead actor in that serial by the same name.

Anyway, 1989 (two years after MGR died) changed all that. The DMK rode on the anti-Rajiv storm across the country and won by a handsome margin. Stalin won from the same Thousand Lights seat he’d earlier lost, the constituency which was to elect him four times, subsequently. He became a party youth icon and got the title of 'Ilaya Thalapathi'. It’s stuck with him ever since. 

The 1989 election paved the way for a bigger role in the party. He had been put in charge of getting the DMK back on its feet. DMK representatives say it was Stalin's hard work that brought back the DMK to power in 1989. V Gopalasamy, later known as Vaiko, believed he should take the mantle from Karunanidhi, rebelled and was thrown out of the party in 1994, clearing the way for Stalin. During this time, Karunanidhi also asked his elder son, Alagiri, to go to Madurai for party work, away from Chennai where all eyes needed to be focused on Stalin. However, the DMK got decimated in the Rajiv Gandhi sympathy wave of 1991. Only two of its men won; Stalin was one. Five more years were spent in the wilderness till 1996, when Stalin, now 43, was elected mayor of Chennai (at the time, a direct election).

He announced a 'Singara Chennai' (Beautiful Chennai) campaign to improve the city, especially its infrastructure. His most famous contribution to its growth was privatisation of garbage clearance. The city also saw the mushrooming of a dozen-odd flyovers and many mini-flyovers.

“The real breakthrough for him came when he became the mayor. Before that, he had an image of a spoilt son of a political leader,” said Gnani Sankaran, a popular Tamil writer and political analyst. “Becoming a mayor repositioned him as a serious party organiser and he got good attention of the educated middle class. He also had some good officials to support him in his actions.” When he was the city mayor, he would plan his morning walks to cover one area in the city. He would visit each corner, identify problems and initiate steps to resolve these. He would repeat the walk six months later, to check if the problems had been solved. A ceremonial office was thus transformed into a political initiative.

But, none of this was good enough for victory in 2001 and the successor AIADMK regime, jailed him with his father and the ailing Murasoli Maran in June 2001, on corruption charges. This arrest helped reunite Alagiri and Stalin. However, in 2003, Alagiri was arrested for the murder of a DMK politician who was a Stalin supporter, P T Krittinan.

In the May 2004 election, Murasoli Maran's son, Dayanidhi Maran, was selected for a Lok Sabha seat from Chennai. Stalin managed his poll campaign. The DMK also came back to rule the state in May 2006 — again, the faithful said, due to Stalin's efforts. He was named minister for municipal administration and rural development, considered one of the most powerful portfolios, and given fourth rank in the Cabinet. Alagiri was released from jail. An officer who has worked with him says he used his position to grow the party, saying at the time “whatever development work you do in the rural areas will be converted into votes”. Stalin is a details man — if he is organising a conference, he will visit the conference hall two days prior to the date, will ask to be walked through every step and point out mistakes. He does not favour open-ended speech-making.  

In 2009, he was made deputy chief minister (his father being CM) and entrusted with another major responsibility, leading the party's campaign in the Lok Sabha election. It was part of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, though the DMK was the major partner in the state; they won 27 seats out of 39. In the 2011 state Assembly polls, though Karunanidhi formally deputed two senior ministers to oversee candidate selection, it was Stalin who really monitored the process.

Stalin does not have the pathological dislike for Jayalalithaa that his father does. He visited her in person, along with his senior party leader, Anbazhagan, to hand over the party's donation for tsunami relief some years ago. He attended the latest swearing-in-ceremony of Jayalalithaa as CM and, very recently, visited the hospital where she is undergoing treatment.

What he lacks is the oratorical and poetic skills of his father. Also, says Sankaran, “Stalin shares responsibility for all the negatives of the DMK. If the party is corrupt, he is also corrupt. It is a general rule that an honest man cannot stay in a corrupt party”.

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