The passing of DMK president and five time Chief Minister, as at one a challenge and an opportunity for his carefully groomed son and working President MK Stalin.
The challenge is whether he can keep the flock together and lead the party to power now that the passing of two mass leaders, J Jayalalitha of the AIADMK and DMK’s Karunanidhi has created a leadership vacuum. The opportunity is to come out of the shadow of his father who attracted as much as he repelled the people and who frustrated his last bid for power in 2016.
Stalin came close to power winning 89 seats out 234 in the Tamil Nadu Assembly. And yet, he lost because he had to project Karunanidhi as the Chief Minister if the DMK was voted to power and the people preferred to give Jayalalitha a second term.
Such was Karunanidhi’s staying power that he ruled from 2006 to 11 though confined to the wheel chair. Even when Stalin led the campaign, Karunanidhi was not ready to give way to him and announced that he would serve the people till his last breath. Once mockingly called the rising son of the DMK, Stalin in later years came to be known Prince Charles of Tamil Nadu, ever the prince and never king. While Queen Elizabeth is around, Karunanidhi has at last given way to Stalin.
His immediate challenge will come from his estranged Madurai-based elder brother M K Azhagiri who had declared he would not accept his leadership so long as Karunanidhi was around.
Karunanidhi smoothened the way for Stalin long ago when he sent Azhagiri packing to Madurai to look after the Murosoli, the DMK organ.Yet, Stalin’s progress in the party was gradual and he worked his way up the ladder over a period of 40 years. Though Stalin’s detention under the MISA during the emergency and his torture in jail which propelled him into politics in 1977. For a long time, he remained only the youth wing president.
Then he proved his mettle by winning MLA seat in 1984. Like Karuanidhi’s political career, his was also marked by ups and downs. He won in 1984, 89, 96, 2006, 2011 and 2016. During Karunanidhi’s reign from 1989 to 91 and again from 96 to 2001 and from 2006 to 2011. Yet, Karunanidhi did not promote him over seniors in the party and Stalin served as Local Administration and held other portfolios though he ranked below seniors like K Anbazhagan, Durai Murugan and others. He served as Deputy Chief Minister only during what turned to be Karunanidhi’s last term that too towards the fag end from 2009 to 11.
In between, he won two times as Chennai Mayor, who is directly elected by the people representing the 14 Assembly constituencies in the city. In his rise in the party was equally gradual. He became working president only in January 2017. By when, Karuanidhi formally retired from public life, more so after he was admitted to hospital in the same Kauvery Hospital in July 2016.
Stalin has strengthened his hold over the party and extended his influence even in the southern district after Azhagiri, who was organising secretary of the region was expelled.
Such was love of Karunanidhi for Stalin that he eased out fiery orator Vaiko in 1993 after he was seen as a potential rival. When Vaiko, who floated the MDMK, wanted to forge an alliance in 2001, Stalin sabotaged his efforts. Even as Stalin rose in the party, his uncle and Karunanidhi’s eyes and ears in New Delhi Murasoli Maran gracefully withdrew from the race. His son and former Union Minister Dayanidhi Maran, who has learnt a lesson by pitting himself against Azhagiri, is now loyal to Stalin and his Sun TV network serves as his propaganda tool.
Stalin may have a firm grip on the party. The question is whether the people will accept him as a leader in his own right, now that Karunanidhi is no more. They nearly did in 2016. He has braced himself to face the BJP as a potential rival by firming up the alliance with the Congress, the left parties, Vaiko’s MDMK and Dalit leader Thol Thiruvamavalan’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal.
The next elections in Tamil Nadu, to the Lok Sabha or simultaneously to the State Assembly, will see a generation change. If stalin, who is 67, makes it to Fort St George, his only regret will be that Karunanidhi will not be there to see it.