Will Machiavelli and a makeover win MK Stalin the power he dreams of?

  • Sandhya Ravishankar, Chennai
  • Updated: May 13, 2016 15:55 IST
DMK leader Stalin during his Namakku Naame tour across Tamil Nadu. (Picture courtesy: DMK)

On May 10, Stalin must have gnashed his teeth.

His father and DMK party leader, M Karunanidhi, had just told a TV channel that he planned to become chief minister for the sixth time if the party won in the 2016 assembly elections. His 92-year-old father added, “If he [Stalin] has to get a chance [to become CM], nature has to do something to me.”

Perhaps Stalin didn’t gnash his teeth. He is 63 years old and knows his father – perhaps better than anyone else. He knows that there is truth to what writer ThoParamasivam, one of Karunanidhi’s bitterest critics, once said to me during an interview. He called Karunanidhi, “the biggest narcissist in the country.”

Is the knowledge that his father’s frail body determinedly blocks his path to power why Stalin is said to have phoned it in for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections? If you can call campaigning all over the state, travelling over 8000km by road phoning it in. But it was as if every decision Stalin made on behalf of the DMK in 2014 was primed for failure. The candidates were his pick, the decision not to ally with the Congress was his and the direction the campaign took belonged to him. The DMK was washed out in the election, not winning even a single parliamentary seat.

But Stalin barely seems to have paused for a breath before working towards 2016. Is this finally going to be his election year?

The long game

Stalin is lean, tall and with a ready, albeit crooked smile. He walks rapidly, shaking hands with cadre and saying vanakkam to others who smile at him. Stalin is always neatly turned out – the 63-year-old ensures that his hair is dyed black and not one is out of place. His lower lip quivers a little at times when he speaks with passion or anger.

Despite the debacle of 2014, Stalin is in charge of the DMK’s 2016 strategy. It is a more thoughtfully crafted one. He planned a multi-pronged attack as early as in 2014, when he and his close associates began work on breaking movie-star turned politician Vijaykanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), should an alliance not materialise.“A few of us have been talking to Stalin’s men because we wanted to leave the DMDK and join the DMK,” one dissatisfied DMDK MLA told me mid-2014, on condition of anonymity. “They told us to wait. We will do something when the time comes, they assured us.”

That time has finally come. In March 2016, ‘The Captain’ Vijaykanth, after almost sealing the deal with the DMK, suddenly announced that he would join the Third Front instead, as its chief ministerial candidate. Shortly afterwards,12 of his MLAs and district secretaries, key party leaders, held a press conference, pleading with Captain to ally with the DMK instead. The Captain kicked out the rebels and they formed what they called the MDMDK (Makkal or People’s DMDK) and landing three seats to contest as part of the slim DMK alliance. This was a déjà vu of 2015 when, another party, Vaiko’s MDMK, saw an exodus of its key leaders to the DMK. “Stalin is trying to break the MDMK,” said a furious Vaiko, a charge that a smiling Stalin refuted.

However Machiavellian and successful his plotting so far, Stalin has not been able to break his father. A senior DMK leader tells me he had been an emissary between father and son in 2015. “Both of them are adamant that they should be the chief ministerial candidate,” says the DMK leader. “Finally Stalin backed down after we all told him that this is likely to be Kalaignar’s last election. Ponaalpogattum, vittukoduthudunga[Let it be, just make way for him], we told Stalin. He was very angry but powerless to do anything in this regard against the old man,” he says.

DMK leader Stalin campaigning for the Congress candidate ‘Karate’ Thiagarajan in Mylapore constituency in Chennai in May, 2016. (Picture courtesy: Sandhya Ravishankar)

The Makeover

Perhaps Stalin did catch a breath at this point and contemplate a seemingly endless future as a second-rung leader. Whatever he saw in the crystal ball must have been good. Because Stalin hired a campaign team of (now predictably) IIT-IIM types led by K Sunil, a member of the Prashant Kishore team that had spearheaded Narendra Modi’s 2014 election campaign. They set about an image makeover. His close associates say that he knew he could never be another Karunanidhi with his storied past that is tied to the roots of the state itself. Wisely, he didn’t want to be Karunandhi Lite either.

Stalin 2.0 was revealed in Kanyakumari in September 2015. Stalin had always toed the party line wearing the DMK’s trademark white shirt and white karaveshti with the border in party colours. The public perception had largely been contemptuous towards a man seen as the clueless, personality-less son of a brilliant man. Into this blank space now arrived not a ready-for-cult-worship Tamil Nadu-style politician. Instead came an unprecedented Everyman of Modern Tamil Nadu.

A nattily clad Stalin sporting shirts with the sleeves rolled up, trousers and Puma sports shoes, jumped into an autorickshaw, waving at people while hanging out of it. He even drove the vehicle briefly. In the political world, many jokes and memes were made about Stalin trying too hard to look young. But over the next few months he’d dance with the Badugatribals of Nilgiris, take selfies with members of the public, drink tea in roadside shops, ride scooters and till fields as part of the NamakkuNaame (Us For Us) tour of all 234 Assembly constituencies of Tamil Nadu.

Simultaneously a social media connect campaign was launched. In the real world, Stalin never speaks in English, but online, MK Stalin was responding to the public on Facebook, tweeting and using Periscope for live broadcasts of his rallies. He released a video talking about the 400,000 petitions he received during this journey – petitions largely asking for intervention in unemployment and asking for prohibition and old age pensions. In Manapparai near Trichy, one self-proclaimed Communist voter was standing by the roadside awaiting Stalin’s arrival in October 2015. “It is good to see that a top leader like him is taking the trouble to come and meet the public,” says 62-year-old Pandurangan. “Our local MLAs and MPs behave as if they are kings and doing us a favour by coming to the constituency. This kind of an outreach can only help Stalin,” he says, eagerly showing this reporter his handwritten petition about drinking water shortage in his area.

DMK leader Stalin (Photo courtesy: DMK)

Political commentators think that this new Stalin has tapped into something fertile. “NamakkuNaame has definitely helped him,” says RK Radhakrishnan, senior journalist and political critic. “With the entire DMK leadership being in their late 80s and early 90s, for the past 5-7 years, they have not traveled and met people. For the first time since then, an active leader has taken the trouble to travel all over the state. For Stalin himself, it’s been an opportunity to understand local issues without the pressures of being in government. It has been a learning curve and prepared him for the role of being the person at the helm of affairs if the party comes to power. For the DMK it has been a way to reconnect with the people,” he says.

And the party also expresses approval as if all Stalin is doing is standing in for his father, not as if he isn’t striking out on his own. “He works hard, he is with the people, he walks with the party cadre,” says TKS Elangovan, DMK spokesperson, tells me. “That attracts the cadre towards him. As long as one is with the cadre and goes along with the leader’s dictum, there is nothing else to be managed. There is nothing detrimental to Stalin’s rise in the party or in politics,” he says.

All in the family

Before the launch of Namakku Naame and his public emergence as a proxy for the ageing Karunanidhi, Stalin had other management problems to solve that perhaps the Borgias and other politically minded Italian families would have appreciated.One, his raucous older brother Azhagiri publicly objecting to Stalin’s growing importance in the party. MK Azhagiri, Madurai strongman and elder son of Karunanidhi, was supposedly the inventor of the ‘Thirumangalam Formula’ where potential voters received wads of cash with their newspapers in southern Tamil Nadu – sweeping the party to victory in 2009. But at Stalin’s insistence, Karunanidhi first suspended Azhagiri from the party in January 2014 for criticising the DMK’s invitation to Vijaykanth to join the alliance (earlier, he had criticised the party leadership for suspending five of his loyalists in Madurai), and in March that year, dismissed him. Stalin moved in swiftly as the party’s internal elections were announced, installing his own loyalists in the southern districts, ensuring that Azhagiri was incapacitated and rendered powerless on his own turf.

This February 2016 as the campaign for state polls picked up steam, rumours of an Azhagiri comeback were also fuelled. Stalin dismissed the questions. “It’s a rumour. He was expelled from the party several years ago. There is no compulsion for me to answer such questions,” he said.

Problem number 2 turned out to be less of one than anticipated. Stalin’s half-sister, Kanimozhi, daughter of Karunanidhi’s third wife Rajathi Ammal, was quick to capitulate when she realised which way the wind was blowing.

“My brother wished me for my birthday,” said a smiling Kanimozhi in 2014, referring to Stalin at her home in Chennai during a public celebration. Kanimozhi, now 48, didn’t mention Azhagiri, the brother that she had been closer to in all the preceding years.

When Stalin Gives Them Those Ones

In October 2015, Stalin did a startling thing. At one of his Namakku Naame events he apologised to voters in Madurai – his brother’s former turf – for rowdyism and land grabbing by DMK leaders between 2006 and 2011, when the party was in power.

In an interview, Stalin told me, “I suspected that the reason for our loss [in 2011] was because of mistakes made by us unknowingly. I am apologising for the mistakes made by us, with or without our knowledge and intent. I have assured them that such mistakes will not take place again. We promise a corruption-free, collection-free rule,” he said.

What Stalin lacks in a cinema-crazed state used to adulation of cult personalities as leaders, is charisma. What he does to make up for this lack of charisma, is pure hard work. Bureaucrats who have worked with MK Stalin when he was Chennai mayor (1996-2002) and later, deputy chief minister of the state (2009-2011), say that Stalin is an efficient administrator, surrounding himself with efficient and intelligent officers and taking their advice seriously. He is credited with a number of civic schemes and building of flyovers to ease traffic congestion in Chennai.

“Stalin’s plus points are his hard work,” agrees Elangovan. “His negative though, is that he believes everybody – he must be more careful in choosing opinions. That is his only weak point.” Older members of the party have plenty to be disgruntled about. Like Stalin, they too had done their decades for the party. But Stalin has now displaced many of them with new, younger politicians, several of them lured away from the AIADMK just a few years ago.

Stalin has been careful to maintain a relatively clean public persona, something that now stands him in good stead in an election where corruption cases against leaders is a key talking point.

Not that this has always been true. When he was younger, allegations abounded about Stalin and his henchmen harassing college women and television anchors. No complaints were ever filed, but the rumours remained strong. Stalin was accused of forcing a Chennai resident, Seshadri Kumar, to sell a property in Chennai under duress. An out-of-court settlement was reached with the original owner with Stalin paying him Rs 1.75 crore. The case, however, went up to the Supreme Court in August 2014, which dismissed all charges against the DMK treasurer. Stalin’s name surfaced once again in relation with the 2G scam, with allegations that he had met Shahid Balwa, one of the accused in the case along with A Raja, former DMK MP and a key accused in the alleged scam.

Radhakrishnan has an illuminating flashback. “By the time he was in his late teens, his father was already chief minister, so he actually had a relatively easy time in politics until 1975 when the Emergency happened. The police sorted him out during the Emergency. It was only in jail that he realised that what goes around comes around.” He continues,“Since then a lot of rumours have done the rounds. Anything that has involved Stalin has never stuck to him, even when his party was not in power. Even the man who stood up against Stalin over the land grabbing case backed off. This was when the DMK was not in power. I think we have to give the benefit of the doubt to Stalin since nothing has been proved,” he says.

While initial scepticism abounded within the DMK about Stalin being unofficially anointed the next leader of the party, the mood has largely settled into acceptance of the fact. Staunch Karunanidhi loyalists like Trichy strongman KN Nehru, Villupuram strongman Ponmudi and Dindigul heavyweight I Periyasamy have all fallen in line, although grudgingly. With the replacement of many district secretaries with Stalin loyalists, the party is on the cusp of change. Only his father’s ambition remains his roadblock.

“There has been no obstacle to Stalin’s rise at all,” argues Elangovan, disagreeing that Karunanidhi posed an obstacle to his son. “We have a much more experienced leader with us. Everyone wants to follow him and take his advice, including Stalin. There is no impediment to Stalin becoming CM, but with a more experienced leader and thinker at the helm of affairs, it is natural for the party to want him to lead,” he says.

But his close associates are less polite. Stalin’s driving force, they say, is to go down in history as a chief minister who was “greater than Kamaraj”. The years of Congress leader Kamaraj as chief minister of the state between 1954 and 1963, are known as the “Golden Years of Tamil Nadu” and still form nostalgic value in political speeches of all parties in the state today.

“He is traveling on a beaten path – a path laid down by Periyar, Anna and Kalaignar before him,” says Elangovan. “He just has to travel along the path. For the past 60 years these leaders have beaten the forests down and made the path. Stalin’s work is much easier. Cult status is something no politician of this generation has at present. It is upto Stalin to carry on the DMK’s legacy for 50 years more – he knows his destination and direction.”

May 16 is by and large a referendum on MK Stalin and the perception of him that the people of Tamil Nadu have. He has sent across the message to the people that while his father may wear the crown if the party comes to power, all the work will, in reality, be done by him. On May 19, Tamil Nadu will find out if the son has finally risen.

This story has been published in arrangement with GRIST Media.

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