Karunanidhi Stalin, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) newly-minted president, used to be fertile material for Tamil Nadu’s formidable army of social media meme-makers. With Stalin’s frequent gaffes (during a speech some months ago, he struggled to recollect the date of Republic Day), repetitive use of sentence connectors such as ‘aaga’ (“therefore” in Tamil), his 34-year stint as the party’s youth wing head, that ended only in 2017 when he was 64, the jokes often wrote themselves.
His political opponents mock him as the eternal bridesmaid. O Panneerselvam, Tamil Nadu deputy chief minister and the coordinator of the DMK’s main rival, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), too can’t resist jibes on these lines. “In 2016 you went around wearing shirts of different colours because some astrologer told you. Even your father [M Karunanidhi] couldn’t finish off the AIADMK despite repeated attempts. It is simply not possible for you, Mr Stalin,” he said at an election rally in Coimbatore earlier this month. But in the first election, the DMK is fighting without Karunanidhi (DMK supremo till his demise last year), people aren’t laughing at Stalin so readily anymore.
By most accounts, the 2019 election is DMK’s to lose. In addition to a big haul of LS seats that would make Stalin a key player at the centre, if the DMK wins around a dozen of the 22 assembly seats going to polls on April 18 and May 19, Stalin could well be Tamil Nadu’s next chief minister. However, party workers admit it’s not a priority for the DMK. With only two years remaining for the next assembly elections, a backdoor entry to office isn’t an attractive proposition. “Stalin would prefer a full-term mandate that he can win on his own. Only that would befit the new image he’s trying to build for himself,” says Stalin Rajangam, a Madurai-based Dalit writer and researcher.
Among the first statements, Stalin made as part of the image overhaul was sartorial. He reverted to the standard attire of Dravidian politics—the starched white shirt and veshti with red-and-black DMK borders. In the 2016 assembly election campaign, Stalin would often break into an impromptu song. Now he speaks in a tone fashioned after his father. Back in 2016, Stalin was seen as a leader incapable of accommodating allies. He reportedly spurned an alliance with actor Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) that cost him the election. The party is now part of the AIADMK-NDA alliance.
The impression Stalin Mark II is desperate to convey is that he is now mellow yet uncompromising on the Dravidian movement’s key tenets such as social justice, secularism and federalism, and a practitioner of “clean”, corruption-free politics. Instead of roadshows and street-corner meetings he preferred in 2016, Stalin now addresses mega rallies. He arrives early, along with the leaders of all eight parties that make up the grand UPA coalition in the state. Stalin, the last to speak, sits through the long-winded speeches. In contrast, at the big NDA rallies, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah is usually the last to arrive, and often just in time to deliver his translated speech. The show gets over when he leaves.
Wiser from his mistakes of 2016, Stalin has been generous in seat sharing too in 2019. He offered the Congress10 seats and, the CPI, CPI(M) and Thol Tirumavalavan’s Dalit outfit Vidudalai Viduthalai Chituthaigal Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) two seats each. Many political observers feel he has been too generous. Post demonetisation, Stalin was among the first regional leaders to take a strong anti-Modi position. He was first off the block to endorse Congress chief Rahul Gandhi as a prime ministerial candidate. Stalin remains one of the fiercest critics of the BJP and PM Narendra Modi for trampling over Tamil Nadu’s rights and self-respect on issues such as dithering on setting up a Cauvery Water Management Board in accordance with the Supreme Court’s 2018 verdict on the river dispute, the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for medical education that Tamils feel is designed to benefit students from northern states, and the failure to close down Vedanta’s controversial copper smelter in Thoothukkudi. Stalin claims the AIADMK government in the state is nothing but Modi rule by proxy. The DMK tagline for 2019 —“aadhikkamum vendaam, adimaithamum vendaam” (we want neither domination nor slavery) — reflects the anger against Modi that Stalin is keen to encash.
Favoured by fortune
In the eight months since Karunanidhi’s death, Stalin has established himself as the party’s unquestionable leader. He quelled any prospect of a rebellion from his elder brother MK Alagiri, a former union minister and a Madurai strongman. Erstwhile critics such as Vaiko, the founder of the breakaway Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), who once said Stalin was less aware about politics and current affairs than even a run-of-the-mill DMK local ward head, are now happy to accept his suzerainty.
“Stalin’s campaign in 2019 is certainly better than his three previous efforts. But his politics can at best be described as opportunistic or pragmatic. There is nothing ideologically Dravidian about it. DMK had nothing much to say about NEET, but after Anitha’s suicide [a 17-year-old Dalit girl who couldn’t secure admission to medical school because of poor NEET score despite excelling in class 12 board exams], Stalin jumped on to the anti-NEET bandwagon. It was Stalin who signed on the deal, as minister of industries, to exploit hydrocarbon reserves in the Cauvery delta region, but the DMK now opposes it. Stalin is simply trying to ride on the anti-Modi sentiment in Tamil Nadu,” says Rajangam.
“Image building takes time; it takes compelling stories. This election will create those stories for Stalin… The opposition NDA alliance has money power and the power that comes from being in office both and at the centre and in the state. They are trying to polarise voters on caste lines. Stalin is fighting this chakravyuha like Abhimanyu,” says Anthony, the producer of Neeya Naana, one of the most successful talk shows in Tamil TV history, and head of programming for the DMK-owned satellite broadcaster Kalaingnar TV. Sitting in his third-floor room directly above the DMK office, Anthony is helping create some of those stories. He’s finalising ideas for a new election special live show called “En Annan, En Thalaivan” (My elder brother, my leader) that would feature Stalin in an audience made up largely of women and youngsters asking him questions. According to Anthony, there is no party better than DMK nationally in getting their ideological issues implemented as policy at the central national level and at the most opportune time. “The Congress manifesto for 2019 reflects the many progressive ideas that DMK has long championed,” he says. Others aren’t as convinced.
“This is an issueless election…except for the strong anti-Modi sentiment. Stalin capitulated early by offering Congress 10 seats. If he somehow managed to bungle this election up, he’d be finished,” says AR Venkatachalapathy, a professor of history at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.