On July 29, 94-year-old Muthuvel Karunanidhi completed half a century as the president of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) – a rare feat by any measure. Or perhaps not so rare for the man who’s been the chief minister for five terms, an MLA for six decades and someone who’s written over two lakh pages over his life. Much clichéd as it might sound, in his passing away Karunanidhi leaves a vacuum that is hard to fill. For over half century, Karunanidhi held an unassailable sway over the socio-political milieu of Tamil Nadu. A prolific writer, a successful scriptwriter and an avid theatre-person, there is perhaps no aspect of Tamil life untouched by his genius. He passed away on Tuesday evening.
Yet it was in his era as a politician that Tamil Nadu underwent defining changes. From banning hand-pulled rickshaws to enacting a law that gave property rights to women, from increasing reservation for OBCs to constructing samathuvapurams (villages of equality), from enacting a law that allowed people of all castes to become priests to introducing 33% reservation for women in panchayats, Karunanidhi introduced measures that consolidated Tamil Nadu’s position as a rational and progressive state.
In his passing away, Karunanidhi might leave crores of his cadres in distress, yet unlike his bête noir J. Jayalalithaa, he would not leave his party directionless. Unlike Jayalalithaa, who never named an heir for the party, Karunanidhi had announced that his son M.K. Stalin would step into his shoes.
“If AIADMK could survive after M.G. Ramachandran died, without naming a successor, I don’t see why DMK will continue to survive and thrive after Kalaignar,” reasons K.S. Radhakrishnan, a senior DMK leader. “Stalin has been trained by Kalaignar himself, and among the current crop of second generation leaders across India that includes Akhilesh Yadav, H.D. Kumaraswamy and Naveen Patnaik, he is easily the best.”
With over 40 years of experience in public life, Stalin had earlier proved his mettle as Chennai’s elected mayor in 1996. In 2009, Karunanidhi made him the deputy chief minister. Significantly, the same year Stalin was also made party treasurer – a post held by Karunanidhi himself before he became the party’s first president. Karunanidhi had repeatedly made it clear that Stalin will be his heir but not until ‘he is around.’ In 2014, Karunanidhi had also expelled his elder son M.K. Azhagiri from the party, clearing the way for Stalin. Besides criticising the party leadership, Azhagiri had voiced his opinion against Stalin.
Interestingly, Stalin was made the party’s working president only in January 2017, when Karunanidhi was becoming inactive. It was after Kalaginar’s inactivity and Jayalalithaa’s death that Tamil Nadu politics saw new players including actors Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. “Like I said, Stalin is a trained leader. Novices like Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan are no threat to us,” Radhakrishnan reiterates, even while maintaining that one is yet to know the reasons ‘behind their political entry’.
But in Karunanidhi’s passing away, Stalin might have to face a few formidable challenges. Ever since he took over as party’s working president, Stalin has often been judged in comparison with Karunanidhi himself – something that observers feel is ‘unfair and harsh’ on the former.
“In many ways, Stalin has risen to the position of a nearly undisputed leader of the DMK. He has himself said that he should not be compared to his dad who belongs to a different leadership genre. Stalin is impressively energetic and has grown seasoned over the years. Under his leadership, the party is most likely to return to power,” says R. Kannan, biographer of C.N. Annadurai and M.G. Ramachandran.
Kannan sees a difference between when Karunanidhi took over as party leader in 1969 soon after Anna’s demise and Stalin’s ascension to leadership now.
“In many ways, Karunanidhi resembled Anna, except he stepped into Anna’s boots when he was only 45 years old. MGR called him a ‘second Anna’. If he was yet to become a statesman and an undisputed leader, he made up for his young age with his prodigious energy, multifaceted talent and carrot and stick approach in leading the party. If Anna embraced even those who were undisciplined, Kalaignar ran a tight ship. Yet, he sagely managed groups opposed to each other in districts, counseling them and addressing their grievances. It is to his leadership skill that we should credit the party’s success and MGR accepting him as leader, helping him succeed Anna over a senior-figure like Navalar Nendunchezhian. This leadership kept the party intact through the Emergency and for another 13 years when it was out of power,” Kannan says.
Perhaps the most formidable of challenge for Stalin could be to evolve his own style of leadership. DMK spokesperson Manuraj Shunmugasundaram contends Stalin is already doing that. “He works with different leaders across the country and continues to espouse the core values of Dravidian movement including federalism, state autonomy and multi-lingual equality. He has not deviated or much less compromised on the traditionally held positions of the party. Also Kalaignar has made a strong base; a leadership that has covered three of four generations has been immensely useful for the party.”
Manu also points out how Karunanidhi went back to Anna in everything he did – political or administrative. “We can now expect Stalin to carry the legacy forward. He will shadow Kalaignar’s steps.”
Interestingly, Manu also thinks it is important for Stalin to forge the right kind of friendships like Karunanidhi did. “He had someone like professor K. Anbazhagan behind him. Together, they had a strong partnership as president and general secretary for over five decades. In a sense, Anbazhagan was his strength. I would be curious to see who will be to Stalin what Anbazhagan was to Kalaignar.”
Stalin could also face a potential challenge from within the family – with an already sidelined Azhagiri possibly trying to reclaim his political identity within the party in the absence of the patriarch.
But neither party cadres nor observers think Azhagiri can pose any threat to Stalin in the absence of the patriarch. “The party is overwhelmingly with Stalin,” says Manu.
Over the years, Azhagiri has not just found himself sidelined, but reduced to a non-entity as far as the party is concerned. Many staunch Azhagiri loyalists have thrown their lot behind Stalin over the past few years. “He lacks focus and leadership qualities. Stalin has seen it all in politics. His first major position came only after three decades in the party, I don’t think Kalaignar’s absence will make any difference in that sense,” says a senior leader who switched over to Stalin’s camp a few years ago.
With attempts to prep up Stalin’s son Udhayanidhi Stalin in the party, one has to wait and watch the course that Kanimozhi – who currently heads the DMK’s women’s wing – is likely to take.
But with Karunanidhi’s passing away, Tamil Nadu might usher in a new wind of change – something the state might need time to be acquainted with.
Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.