Chennai: On a July morning last year, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M.K. Stalin, dressed in cycling gear, was ready for one of his frequent weekend rides down Chennai’s East Coast Road.
Although Stalin had cycled down the same stretch many times in the past — starting as early as 5.45 am and heading to his usual pitstop, Café 4 U in Kovalam — this ride was special.
It was Stalin’s first since he was sworn in as CM in May 2021, after the DMK had spent 10 years in opposition.
Son of the late former Tamil Nadu CM and DMK chief M. Karunanidhi, Stalin started his ride as usual. The security huddle around him was tighter, the convoy following the bikes — including those of his security officers — longer. But CM Stalin was happy to stop and pose for selfies with admirers along the way.
This Saturday marks one year of the DMK assuming office, and Stalin, who has kept up with his weekend rides, has fashioned himself into a ‘People’s CM’ along the way — with a conscious emphasis on public outreach.
Last month, the Tamil Nadu CM announced a compensation of Rs 10 lakh for the family of 25-year-old V. Vignesh, who died in police custody after being arrested for alleged possession of ganja. Stalin has also assured a thorough and fair probe into his death.
Three police personnel have since been booked for murder.
In the past twelve months, he has been out and about — on surprise visits to fire stations, schools, hospitals, outlets for the public distribution system (PDS), and visiting marginalised communities in their hamlets.
On 30 April, he was at Andipatti in Theni district, inspecting a fair price shop. “The goal of the Dravidian model is to build a better Tamil Nadu,” he tweeted soon after.
“Stalin has had to create his own contest zone in the fight against the BJP and he has chosen to fight it in an ideological way by reconsolidating the DMK,” Professor Ramu Manivannan, former head of the department of politics and public administration at the University of Madras, told The Print.
Manivannan added: “He has had the opportunity to remodel and redefine himself after spending several years in his father’s shadows.”
Stalin’s five decades in politics — including stints as student leader, legislator and Chennai mayor — have also drawn him a fair share of criticism.
However, since becoming CM, Stalin has been praised for his administrative skills and artful negotiations with coalition partners — 12 parties including the Congress, Communist Party of India and CPI (M), under the banner of the Secular Progressive Alliance — and within the DMK. Electorally too, the DMK has held its ground in the past year, comfortably winning the urban local body elections in February.
“In the presence of the BJP, the DMK has become more cautious, and it is moulding its image back to the party’s politics of the 1950s and 1960s with a core focus on social justice,” Trichy-based academic P. Ramajayam told ThePrint.
The DMK has also made efforts to consistently push for federalism and state autonomy, said Professor Manivannan.
“We see it in the way the Union government and the DMK interact on federalism, reservations, social justice, Centre-State relations including language issues, financial decentralisation,” he added. “All of these are the stamp of the DMK.”
Handpicked civil servants, advice from domain experts
After the DMK won the 2021 assembly elections in Tamil Nadu — aided to an extent by the Prashant Kishor-founded political strategy firm I-PAC — Stalin handpicked top civil servants to craft policies and guide his government.
He has also opted for advice from domain specialists — some of whom have been appointed to his cabinet, like MIT graduate and former banker Palanivel Thiagarajan, who was named the finance minister — while others have been made a part of myriad committees.
One example is the economic advisory committee, with former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan and Nobel laureate Esther Duflo as members, or the Justice A.K. Rajan committee.
Perhaps, the most controversial panel has been the temple advisory committee, set up to streamline maintenance of famous temples under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment (HR&CE) Department.
The move has brought the DMK in direct and constant conflict with the BJP.
Over the past year, the HR&CE Department has been speeding up the process of retrieving temple land, and has issued 200 orders to appoint archakas (people who perform rituals at temples) from all castes, and taken over the administration of the 64-year-old Ayodhya Mandapam in Chennai, amid protests from Hindutva groups that accused the government of being “anti-Hindu” and “anti-Brahmin”.
A week ago, however, the Madras High Court directed the government to return the mandapam to the society concerned.
Another face-off involves the government’s ban on the Dharmapuram Adheenam mutt ritual, scheduled to be held in Mayiladuthurai later this month. The issue involves carrying the chief of the mutt in a silver palanquin by devotees, a practice that the government has said is a “violation of human rights”.
‘Not everyone same in how they fight the BJP’
Meanwhile, the BJP has lost no opportunity of mounting pressure on the Stalin government.
Tamil Nadu BJP chief K. Annamalai termed the ban on Dharmapura Adheenam’s “centuries-old ‘Pattina Pravesham’ an affront to TN’s civilisational culture”.
“I’ll be personally there to carry the Adhinam on palanquin on my shoulders. We will request the Adhinam to allow us to conduct the event by overturning this illegal order,” he tweeted.
Both the PMK and the AIADMK supported this view, with opposition leader and AIADMK joint coordinator Edappadi K. Palaniswami raising the issue in the Tamil Nadu assembly, pointing out that it was “wrong to ban a centuries-old practice”.
Commenting on the current opposition forces at play against the Stalin-led DMK, Professor Manivannan told The Print that Stalin is countering a “strategic fight laid down by the BJP.” He said that a lot of issues are “designed by the BJP”, which has also managed to weaken the AIADMK.
But political analysts note that Stalin is steadfast in his ideological fight with a strong focus on “social justice”.
In October 2021, Stalin put together a social justice committee headed by Dravidian ideologue Suba Veerapandian. The committee has been asked to monitor and recommend policies to the government that will make social justice the core issue in implementing employment, education, and promotions, among other things, across the state.
“Social justice has been the core principle of the Dravidian parties, particularly the DMK, and in a way what we see today is social justice itself, an unfinished agenda of what it set out to do in the beginning,” academic Ramajayam said. “There are many most backward and Dalit castes that are still left out of representation in politics, which is something the DMK is hoping to change.”
Another relentless fight against the Union government is the pushback against the National Entrance-cum-Eligibility Test (NEET) for medical aspirants. In September last year, a committee set up by the state under Justice A.K. Rajan concluded that the exam should be eliminated.
The Tamil Nadu assembly has passed the Anti-NEET Bill to seek exemption for students from the state.
In April, speaking at a ‘Dravida Kazhagam against NEET’ event, CM Stalin took on Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi who had allegedly delayed forwarding the Bill to the President, by saying: “I’m not asking for approval of the Governor. He doesn’t have the power to approve. I’m asking him to send the Bill to the President.”
The matter led to an open war of words with the governor. The Bill has since been forwarded to the President of India.
Stalin has also emerged as one of many non-BJP chief ministers who are uniting against the Modi government at the Centre.
In January 2022, Stalin joined Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to speak against the Union government’s proposed changes to the IAS (Cadre) Rules, 1954, which would enable it to post IAS officers on central deputation without consulting state governments. The two chief ministers joined their counterparts from West Bengal, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand — all led by opposition parties — who had written to the Union government to scrap the plans.
“Not everyone is the same in how they fight the BJP,” said Manivannan.
“Stalin may not be the same as Mamata (Banerjee, West Bengal CM) or the Congress chief ministers in parts of the country. But what is important to note is how the DMK contends to be in opposition, in a way others are not,” he added. “In my opinion, Stalin is yet to figure out the limitations of dealing with (its long-time ally) the Congress, which is seeing a lot of confusion within its ranks.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)