Chennai: When Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader M.K. Stalin walked on the T-shaped stage at Tiruchi earlier this month, adoring crowds broke barriers to get a closer glimpse of him.
Aerial shots of the rally, which took place on 7 March, with a stage that resembled a ramp for supermodels made it look like a rock concert. The carefully constructed demigod-like image makeover of Stalin hid his long struggle to fill the shoes of his father and former chief minister of Tamil Nadu — M. Karunanidhi.
As he braces for the biggest political battle, wiping out the massive image baggage from his five-decades-old political career — student leader to Chennai mayor to MLA and now the dynasty’s heir — was a year-long project.
As a youth leader, Stalin was seen as a spoilt DMK scion, feared because of his wild “lumpen” ways, and then lampooned by critics for incompetence, ignorance and sloppy oratory.
He routinely got dates wrong, even saying the freedom movement began in 1975. In a way, some say, he was a mix of Congress leaders Sanjay Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
The Times Now C-Voter opinion poll earlier this month has put Stalin as the top pick for CM of Tamil Nadu with over 38 per cent people preferring him for the job. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami was chosen by just 31 per cent of the people.
Political brand consultancy I-PAC (Indian Political Action Committee) was hired a year ago to humanise Stalin and at the same time elevate his stature for the DMK cadre. The former task was easier during the pandemic year, especially for an opposition leader.
A campaign called ‘Ondrinaivom Va (let’s unite)’, at the peak of the lockdown, was kicked off to provide the needy with over 20 lakh meals. A helpline number was also launched as part of the campaign, which received over 18 lakh calls.
Then the drive for online membership, titled ‘Ellorum Nammudan (all are with us)’ began, followed by the ‘We Reject AIADMK campaign’ in September 2020 and a ‘charge sheet’ against the government, accusing it of many things, including failing to “uphold Tamil pride”.
In a series of ‘People’s Gram Sabhas’, Stalin went to various villages and sat on the ground to hear people’s grievances. He even wrote scores of personalised letters to people across the state last September, commending them for their work during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Everyone wants to hold him and speak to him. Women pull his cheeks and hug him, men offer their blessings, children want to speak to him about personal issues,” explained an I-PAC member.
“At one of the campaigns, he spoke to a young girl thrice as she kept calling him back and he went and spoke to her and later made her stand on a chair to address everyone. These things cannot be scripted,” the member said.
At many of these events, Stalin did away with the stage. “The public no longer responds to the idea of a leader on a stage, they want them standing with them,” the I-PAC member said.
He has also used his Stalin Ani (Stalin’s army) mobile app to invite people to join him. Users get a phone call with a prerecorded message from Stalin, can access his social media handles, live speeches and know everything about the DMK on the app.
But despite the well-crafted campaign by I-PAC, Stalin still seems to be under the shadow of Karunanidhi.
During his campaigning in Chennai’s Gummidipundi Thursday, Stalin told a sea of crowd how his father as the chief minister provided free electricity to farmers and weavers, ensured right to property for women and paved the way for members of all castes to become priests in public temples.
Although Stalin spoke about issues such as student suicides over NEET, farmers’ crisis and unemployment, people clapped the most when he told the crowd, “I’m the son of Kalaignar (the word used for Karunanidhi), he is the man who opposed Hindi at 13 (years of age) and mobilised a large group of students to campaign against implementation of Hindi.”
Appayyu, 80, who came to Gummidipundi bus stop to have a glimpse of Stalin said, “I have been voting for the DMK since the time of Annadurai,”
He claimed he has been a DMK supporter since he was 16 years old and that he walks around with a photo of Karunanidhi pinned to his pocket.
People in the crowd at Gummidipundi wore headbands with images of Annadurai, Karunanidhi and Periyar on one side, and with Stalin’s image on the other.
The baggage Stalin carries
A renowned political cartoonist, who has been following Tamil Nadu politics for decades, explained that Stalin will never be a substitute for Karunandihi, and even he knows that. However, he showed great maturity when he was a state minister, he said.
The cartoonist, who did not want to be named, said Stalin has a “huge baggage”.
As a student leader in the early 70s, he had a bad reputation. He was known to get into scuffles with student groups and was considered a “lumpen element”.
Stalin was not considered a serious politician, but when he was jailed for six months under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) during Emergency, that became the turning point in his political career, said the veteran cartoonist.
However, many see no real change in the DMK scion.
“Those who think he was a moron, will continue to believe that and those who think that he has reformed will believe that,” said Srinivasan Swamy, chairman of the RK Swamy Hansa Group and former president of the International Advertising Association.
Swamy credits the high opinion poll ranking for Stalin to the fact that Tamil Nadu believes in rotational rule, saying the anti-incumbency factor acts in his favour as the AIADMK government has been in power for the last 10 years.
Swamy said he could in fact see quite an image makeover taking place for CM Edappadi Palaniswami. “In the past few months, a lot of money has been put in to show the work CM has done across the years and management of the Covid pandemic.”
Speaking about Stalin, he said there was no real image makeover as his interviews still seem scripted, and that his “attention span was that of a fly”.
‘Laughing stock’ at meetings
When someone would ask a question regarding one particular topic, Stalin would answer something entirely unrelated, recalled a Chennai-based businessman, who didn’t want to be named.
AIADMK leader and former MLA J.C.D. Prabhakar said Stalin would be a “laughing stock” at meetings.
“He cannot quote the correct number of his MLAs, he gets schemes wrong. The task is to enter the minds of people and touch them, which he is unable to do,” he said.
Prabhakar even took a dig at one of Stalin’s rallies where he reportedly told people to put their grievances in a big box, which he would lock up, and address them after becoming the CM.
“What happens when he doesn’t become CM?” Prabhakar asked laughingly. “I am sure some people even scolded him in letters they put in the big box.”
Asked if I-PAC had helped Stalin emerge as a leader, Prabhakar said, “I don’t think anyone can do that.”
A.S. Paneerselvam, a senior journalist and author of a new book, ‘Karunanidhi: A Life’, said it is unfair to use the word image-rebranding for Stalin.
“One then fails to understand the complexities. Stalin has been in politics since 1969,” he said.
At the time, his responsibilities were smaller and he was not the party leader. “It has been an extremely natural metamorphosis. An incremental shift from being a localised leader to a state leader.”
The 2019 elections where DMK won 39 of the 40 seats was also reflective of Stalin’s leadership, said Paneerselvam.
Two factors, which he believes, have shown Stalin as a leader is dealing with alliance partners and administrative skills in negotiating with bureaucrats.
Some senior journalists said Stalin had a knack of dealing with government officials through his tenure as the mayor of Chennai, a state minister and a deputy CM.
“He knows how to run a government,” said a senior journalist, who did not wish to be named.
But not everybody is convinced. One legacy from his tenure as the mayor of Chennai is the Napier bridge, near Marina Beach, which was inaugurated in 2000. But even that isn’t too widely accepted.
Mohan Lal and Shiv Ratan, labourers at the Chule Rubber Stamp Roller Company, were hanging out on the multi-colored lit bridge overlooking the sea on an evening last week.
Lal and Ratan have lived in Chennai for over a decade and say they come every Sunday and any other day they get free to stand on the bridge and enjoy the sea breeze.
Questioned about Stalin and whether they knew it was constructed under his tenure as the mayor, they refuse and say, “No he did not build it, Amma (former CM Jayalalithaa) did.”
Despite seeing the plaque mentioning Stalin’s name, Ratan said, “Amma built it, he just put his name to it. This is all a political game. The only person who has worked and helped us is Amma.”
(Edited by Debalina Dey)