Youth may be the leitmotif in political discourse nowadays but that hasn’t diminished the relevance of ageing patriarchs VS Achuthanandan, 93, and M Karunanidhi, 92. Speculation about their succession plans has been on for long but they have shown little inclination to hang their political boots.
They remain indispensable to their parties, the CPI(M) and the DMK, as Kerala and Tamil Nadu head to the polls. The DMK’s first family has been witnessing an intense feud, especially between Karunanidhi’s sons Stalin and MK Alagiri. But, that’s not the only reason for Karunanidhi to hang on at this age. He remains the most credible and popular face of the party.
Unlike Karunanidhi, Achuthanandan’s path to becoming Kerala CM if the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front comes to power is strewn with uncertainties.
But Achuthanandan is no stranger to such odds and to making the rigid ideological framework of his Marxist party look malleable.
In 2006, the CPI(M) politburo had reversed its decision (usually such decisions are cast in stone) and made him the CM. This time, there are many claimants to the post from the CPI(M), including his rival and party politburo member Pinarayi Vijayan.
Achuthanandan has many advantages other than his ability to stay as fit as a fiddle. He remains hugely popular — perhaps the most popular politician in the state — despite always fighting his battles in the party alone.
He cunningly reinvented himself from the image of a disruptor within the party to someone who has a messianic zeal to fight all that is wrong. The shrewd comrade hails from the Ezhava community, a backward community that is a mainstay of the CPI(M) in Kerala. The BJP wooing this community will further strengthen his bargaining power within the party. Achuthanandan may or may not become the next CM but the next CPI(M) CM of the state will be elected on his terms.
Karunanidhi commands certitude. If his party comes to power in Tamil Nadu, there hardly exists any question over who would be the CM. He spends close to 10 hours at the party headquarters daily and almost single-handedly picks his candidates. He might be wheelchair-bound, but his speeches studded with poetry leave followers spellbound.
Karunanidhi chose his younger son MK Stalin as his successor — much to the chagrin of Alagiri. Stalin is steering the party campaign. Talks are on for Alagiri to return to the DMK fold, but there is no denying that there is no replacement for the patriarch. The DMK, in alliance, must win the election to regain its political significance.
Age, it seems, is no bar for the two veterans. Those who harp on demographic dividends might struggle to explain their popularity.