Thursday, 7 July, 2022
HomeOpinionAfter Karunanidhi, can Stalin saga be a fitting sequel like Godfather II?

After Karunanidhi, can Stalin saga be a fitting sequel like Godfather II?

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If Karunanidhi built his career solely on his own abilities, opportunities were created for Stalin at every stage by his father.

After what has been a long wait, the heir apparent M.K. Stalin has been anointed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president.

But if one turned to Stalin for any glimpse of his illustrious father M.K. Karunanidhi’s capacious skills, one is likely be disappointed. It has been said, perhaps unfairly, that the sum total of all his children’s capacities would not measure up to Karunanidhi’s.

Unlike the school dropout Karunanidhi, his son Stalin went to college. But erudition is not his forte. Fortunately, his wayward youth was cut short by the Emergency. Imprisoned under the draconian MISA, police brutality was mitigated only by the intervention of Chittibabu, a sitting MP, who died as a result. It was a baptism by fire.

If Karunanidhi built his career solely on his own abilities, the path was cleared and opportunities created for Stalin at every stage by his father. In 1980, a youth wing was started, of which he became the secretary. This was not the only time that new posts were created for his children. In the 1989 elections, Stalin contested from a safe Chennai seat: soon the Thousand Lights constituency became his pocket borough.

If Karunanidhi felled titans in his ascent to leadership, emerging competitors were now nipped in the bud. Despite this, in the late 1980s, Vaiko emerged as Stalin’s competitor, culminating in a split. However, it was Karunanidhi who fought the challenge. Vaiko was soon outsmarted. In retrospect, that a vacuous and impetuous Vaiko was seen as a rival perhaps speaks for Karunanidhi’s estimation of Stalin’s abilities.

Also read: Under Stalin, DMK will take on BJP & its brazen bid to bulldoze established institutions

It was during this time that Stalin had an image makeover. He acted as an idealist Aravindan in a TV serial based on Na. Parthasarathy’s Kurinji Malar. The mayor of Chennai came in 1996. Nominated first as deputy general secretary of the party, he became its treasurer in 2008. A cabinet position came in 2006. Soon he was elevated to deputy chief ministership overlooking the octogenarian leader K. Anbazhagan.  

From the time of DMK’s victory in the 2006 elections, word was rife that Karunanidhi would abdicate in favour of his son. But it didn’t come to pass. However, Stalin has been de facto chief since 2011. But he has lost all three elections. DMK has done little in capitalising on the post-Jayalalithaa vacuum. Despite being the leader of the opposition with 89 members in a 234-member house, the DMK has barely tested a weak Edappadi Palaniswami government.

Within the party itself, Stalin faces no challenge. Karunanidhi more or less settled the succession issue by expelling his eldest son, M.K. Alagiri, who now has little more than nuisance value. Kanimozhi is reconciled to her present position as the DMK’s point person in Delhi. But Stalin’s demeanour conveys little assuredness.

For some years now, there have been complaints about his being partisan in intra-party feuds. Karunanidhi needed little advice, which is not the case with Stalin. Will he seek right counsel or fall back on his kitchen cabinet? It will be while before cadres and public alike stop speculating how Karunanidhi would have reacted to a political situation if he were alive. That perhaps cannot be helped.

Karunanidhi was, after all, a self-fashioned and astute leader like no other.

In this story of success, Karunanidhi was his own man. Caste, class, pedigree, education, benefactors … he could count on nothing. He relied on his own skills, a rootedness in an ideology, a keen sense of social dynamics, a consummate skill in stitching political alliances, and an understanding of larger political forces. Added to this was his knack of capitalising on opportunities.

Also read: The challenge for Stalin will be to win elections, not his ‘lonely’ brother

Using his film scripting skills, literary writing abilities, and public speaking talents, Karunanidhi had built his own following under Periyar’s social reform campaign. This was no mean achievement. Unlike the present party, the DMK then was spoilt for choice with a galaxy of leaders. Karunanidhi’s political acumen was evident in not confronting the top leadership but identifying potential rivals of the future to spar with. In Periyar’s nephew, the immensely talented E.V.K. Sampath, he saw his biggest challenge. From the late 1950s, he conducted a barely visible campaign, provoking Sampath to make mistakes, and finally in 1961 ensured his exit from the party.

Not only DMK’s senior leaders but the second rung too underestimated Karunanidhi. That he came from a stigmatised community of temple dancers also led them to delude themselves that he could never be accepted as a popular leader.

But the political landscape in Tamil Nadu for Stalin is vastly different today.

The current unsettled political situation may not be the best moment to takeover for a long-time-in-waiting leader like Stalin. The AIADMK is in a crisis facing challenges from both within and outside. Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan are waiting in the wings. A plethora of smaller parties are biding their time waiting to strike a good bargain. Modi’s popularity seems to be on the downslide without a commensurate upswing in the Congress mood. But a revival of Modi’s fortunes could greatly alter BJP’s bargaining power in forging potential alliances. Unfortunately, history offers no choices.

As images of Stalin’s ascension flashed across the TV screens this week, Godfather II (1974) came to my mind.

Francis Ford Coppola’s fitting sequel to a cult film employed an interesting narrative technique. The rise of Vito Corleone from humble beginnings in Sicily to godfather in New York parallels his son Michael’s attempts to safeguard the empire after his father’s death. The two narratives are structured as a comment on one another.

Will the Stalin saga be a fitting sequel like Godfather II? Or will it turn out to be a convoluted middling exercise like Godfather III?

The author is a historian of the Dravidian Movement.

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  1. Comrade Stalin has had everything delivered to him on a platter, although that can be a mixed blessing, as the sons of many great men have discovered. Neither national party has a snowflake’s chance in Tamil Nadu. The two film stars have left their entry into electoral politics too late in their – dare one say fading – careers. The AIADMK was not designed to be seaworthy after JJ, and that is showing up. So M K Stalin must look deeply into his soul, rustle up some greatness. As much for the state as for himself.

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