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Southern Kurukshetra

It’s open season in the DMK as Alagiri sets his sights on stopping younger brother Stalin from succeeding M. Karunanidhi as party chief. Ramesh Babu & Shekhar Iyer report.

india Updated: Apr 04, 2010 23:52 IST
Ramesh Babu & Shekhar Iyer

Showdown or compromise?

DMK leaders and workers across Tamil Nadu are discussing the fallout of M.K. Alagiri’s open challenge to younger brother M.K. Stalin in hushed tones.

Can DMK patriarch and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi (86) broker peace between his sons? A section of leaders think he can. An equally large group isn’t so sure, but like the first group, is keeping its fingers crossed.

First, the background: Till recently, the succession issue in DMK had seemed all but settled in favour of Stalin (57),
deputy chief minister of Tamil Nadu. But on last Thursday, Alagiri (59) dropped a bombshell.

“I will contest for the post of party president if the Kalainagar (as Karunanidhi is called) steps aside,” he declared. “I can’t accept anyone apart from Kalainagar as my leader,” he added for good measure.

It was widely expected that the wheelchair-bound Karunanidhi (DMK president and Tamil Nadu chief minister) would step down on June 3, his birthday, in favour of Stalin to give him a year to prepare for the assembly polls.

Alagiri’s challenge may well result in a rethink.

“The DMK is a strong cadre-based party, facing another cadre-based party, the AIADMK. Dynastic succession in the DMK was never on the cards earlier.

But since exit of Vaiko in the mid-1990sKarunanidhi has built up Stalin.
However, his ascension to the top is far from certain,” says well-known political commentator Mahesh Rangarajan.

CHANGED SCRIPT
Soon after the May 2009 general elections, it seemed the succession issue had been amicably settled. Alagiri’s nomination to the Union Cabinet (as chemicals and fertilisers minister) seemed to pave the way for a smooth transition of power from Karunanidhi to Stalin.

It was assumed that the Cabinet minister’s position in Delhi was a quid pro quo for giving Stalin a free rein in Chennai.
But it soon became evident that the formula wasn’t working. Alagiri, who isn’t comfortable with English or Hindi, was found much more in Madurai, his home base in southern Tamil Nadu, than in Lutyen’s Delhi.

In fact, he even declared last year that he was the “chief minister of southern Tamil Nadu”. He wasn’t far off the mark.
As organising secretary of the DMK in southern Tamil Nadu, his writ runs across nine of the state’s districts, which send 99 MLAs to the state assembly. In fact, 42 of DMK’s 99 MLAs MPs are from this region. Most of them are loyal to Alagiri.

Such is his clout that the opposition couldn’t find a candidate to contest against him in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

COMPROMISE FORMULA
Alagiri, who recently changed his name from Azhagiri to make it more comprehensible to non-Tamils, seems to have a strategic plan ready.

DMK sources claimed that he might be amenable to a formula wherein Stalin becomes chief minister but he is given control of the party as its organising secretary. Dayalu Ammal, his, and Stalin’s mother, is believed to have conveyed this to Karunanidhi.

But this, feel Stalin’s camp followers, could be the thin end of the wedge.

“In the political culture of Tamil Nadu, the party is supreme. He who controls the party, will become the chief minister,” says a senior DMK leader.

So, if Alagiri is given effective control over the party, Stalin’s supporters suspect, it will just be a matter of time before he wins over or sidelines his opponents and seizes control of both party and (if it is in power) the government.

Right now, Stalin commands the loyalty of 57 of the party’s 99 MLAs. The Congress, on whose outside support the government survives, hasn’t yet said who it will support in case of a full-blown war between the brothers, but Stalin’s supporters believe that it will support him.

So, he is confident of winning the war as things stand now. But things could change after the next assembly elections due next year, especially if Alagiri is in charge of the party and responsible for distributing tickets.

The genesis
DMK insiders say relations between Alagiri and his father have been strained since the mid-1980s. His marriage, against his father’s wishes, only exacerbated the chasm, and led to his move to Madurai.

Here, Alagiri rebuilt his political career — brick by brick — to emerge as the DMK strongman in this crucial region.

But Karunanidhi’s elder son, whose brash style has alienated may people but paid the party rich electoral dividends in the nine districts he controls, believes that he has not been given his due.

NOW WHAT?
Officially, the party denies that there is any crisis. Says Mannan PM, deputy mayor of Madurai, who spoke to the HT after a brief session with Alagiri: “All this talk of sibling rivalry is a media creation. There’s no question of a succession debate as long as Kalaignar is alive. We’re not worried; so why are you?”

But the man on the street is not convinced.

“There’s nothing common between the two brothers. Their father is the only glue that keeps them together. Once he goes, I fear, it will be a free for all,” says P. Vadivelu, a grocer on Kakka Thoppu Street in Madurai, where the party’s district office is situated.

Some DMK leaders take solace from Karunanidhi’s handling of past crises — like when he expelled MGR in 1972 and when Vaiko left the party in 1992.

MGR, in fact, had pushed Karunanidhi into the political wilderness till his death in 1987.

“We’re absolutely confident that Kaliagnar has a peace formula in mind and there won’t be any succession struggle in the family,” says K. Issikki Murthy, chairman of the Madurai Corporation North Division, an Alagiri loyalist.

The opposition AIADMK, which has been floundering for a while, sees an opportunity in this fratricidal fight in its opponent’s camp.

But officially, the party is only willing to score political brownie points. “The chief minister only has time to settle the quarrel between his sons. The earlier he does it, the better it is for the state,” says Maithreyan, AIADMK Rajya Sabha leader.

The next chapter in this story will be written in a couple of days, when Alagiri meets his father in Chennai.