Bengaluru: It’s been a year since Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch and former Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi passed away, a death that put a big question mark on a party that seemed to be getting by solely on his political capital.
But it’s been a year of metamorphosis for the DMK, now led by Karunanidhi’s younger son and chosen heir M.K. Stalin, 66.
Since his father, 94, died on 7 August last year, Stalin has injected young blood into the DMK and pushed the party to adopt social media and other technology, to stellar results. Older leaders, meanwhile, have been told to keep with the times or face oblivion, say sources.
Party insiders claim that while the loss of Kalaignar, as Karunanidhi was lovingly addressed by followers, will never cease to sting, the DMK is in safe hands under Stalin, who, according to them, is not very different from his father.
“A leader like Kalaignar, a man so entrenched in Tamil and Indian politics, with deep knowledge of different issues as well as literary talent, is irreplaceable,” DMK’s Madurai Central MLA P.T.R. Palanivel Thiagarajan told ThePrint.
“His passing was the end of an era, but also the beginning of a new one,” he added.
Thiagarajan would know. He is one of the younger leaders promoted to active electoral politics under Stalin. The son of former assembly speaker and renowned DMK leader P.T.R. Palanivel Rajan, who died in 2006, Thiagarajan is a former investment banker whose career kept him abroad for years, including a stint at the now-notorious Lehman Brothers, and has an American wife.
He took a full-time plunge into politics with the 2016 assembly elections, which saw Stalin lead the DMK campaign before he was officially handed the reins. Thiagarajan won, scoring a seat in the assembly from Madurai Central.
A gamble pays off
Stalin, say party insiders, has taken on his role as leader with much confidence.
According to them, he has made it clear to his elder brother M.K. Alagiri, the former union minister expelled from the DMK in 2014 for anti-party activities, that he is the boss.
Meanwhile, he has mended fences with his half-sister M.K. Kanimozhi, giving the former Rajya Sabha member her first Lok Sabha ticket this year.
The recent general polls marked her first election, and she won.
Senior DMK leader T.K.S. Elangovan, who worked with Karunanidhi for several decades, told ThePrint that the transition to Stalin as party chief was so smooth that the cadres never objected.
“Stalin gained a lot of experience under his father. We don’t see much difference between the two of them,” he said. “The way Stalin has led the DMK, it has only fortified people’s trust in the party… that it is in safe hands, especially with his (Stalin) stand on issues such as (the proposal for mandatory Hindi lessons) in the New Education policy (draft), attack on minorities…”
Alagiri, he added, was not a factor at all in the DMK and had no relevance.
The 2019 general election served as Stalin’s first test after his father’s death, and he took up the challenge with a gamble on fresh talent.
Of the 23 seats the party contested (out of Tamil Nadu’s 39, others went to allies), 16 were first-timers (Vellore, whose results are awaited, not included). Never during Karunanidhi’s rule were so many new faces fielded at once. The risk paid off for Stalin, and all the party’s candidates won, making Tamil Nadu a rare oddity in bucking the Modi wave that landed the BJP a second stint in office.
This, say insiders, was meant as a message to the old guard, including powerful district secretaries such as E.V. Velu, K. Ponmudi, and I. Periasamy, that they would have to evolve with the new generation or take on the role of a ‘margdarshak’, like senior leaders had been forced to do in Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s BJP.
“There is a move to create a new, vibrant, young DMK with the help of experienced leaders to guide the way,” said a senior DMK leader.
This move to give youngsters tickets is also an indicator of the rising influence wielded by his son Udhayanidhi Stalin, an actor, who is being groomed to take over the reins in some years. Most of the new candidates were Udhayanidhi’s recommendations, according to sources in the DMK.
One such choice was D.N.V. Senthil Kumar, the DMK candidate from Dharmapuri constituency.
Under Karunanidhi, the district secretary of the DMK would have had the final say on candidates for his turf. The Dharmapuri DMK has traditionally been controlled by the powerful Velu, a former state minister, but Senthil was not his choice. Even so, Udhayanidhi’s recommendation got him in. A political novice, Senthil entered the race against former Union minister Anbumani Ramadoss, and defeated him.
When the third-generation politician of the Karunanidhi clan was made youth wing secretary in early July, observers said it was Stalin’s way of putting his “legacy” in place.
Getting with technology
Another major change the party has seen under Stalin is a clear thrust on becoming tech-savvy, with the DMK even engaging field experts to master social media.
It has helped: Apart from the vast outreach the party established, as evidenced in its performance this general election, the DMK is said to have saved big bucks by moving much of its advertising online.
“Whatever was spent on communications and advertising in the 2016 assembly elections, we spent around 35-40 per cent of that in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections,” said Thiagarajan, who is also the head of the DMK’s IT wing.
“The biggest difference being the effective uses of technology and social media to reach out to the people on the ground.”
The ruling AIADMK, however, says that Stalin’s rule is taking the DMK to pieces.
“The elevation of Stalin’s son Udhayanidhi, just as Karunanidhi promoted Stalin, has hurt several senior leaders in the party and it will implode soon,” AIADMK spokesperson Kovai Sathyan said.
“Sidelining M.K. Alagiri and Kanimozhi has also set the DMK back, and they don’t realise that the party will come to a point that the differences will be out in the open and it will spell their doom,” he added.
The biggest point in Stalin’s favour is the total control he wields over the organisation. That is where Alagiri lost out and Kanimozhi quietly fell in line.
The challenge before the party now, say analysts, is to live up to the expectations the DMK has created with its stand on issues like NEET, where it has spoken stridently for Tamil Nadu board students they claim are disadvantaged by the central exam, and the Sterlite Copper controversy over the pollution caused by a Vedanta plant in Tuticorin.
Chennai-based political analyst Aazhi Senthilnathan said the anti-BJP stand taken by the DMK had paid rich electoral dividends.
Painting the BJP as a “fascist” party with an authoritarian leadership looking to force Hindi on Tamilians, among other things, and reinforcing the DMK’s traditional pro-Tamil call has helped Stalin project himself as one of the few alternatives to the saffron party, he added.
“In the last one year, the DMK has successfully incorporated various political demands and slogans. It helped the DMK immensely during the general election,” said Senthilnathan. “However, it may be a short-lived tactic if the DMK fails to honour the demands that they supported.”