The political life of DMK’s MK Stalin

Sixty-eight-year-old Stalin, who has waited in the wings for decades, is contesting as the chief ministerial candidate for the first time on April 6. This election is a test of Stalin’s leadership
DMK president MK Stalin addresses an election campaign rally in Tuticorin. (PTI)
DMK president MK Stalin addresses an election campaign rally in Tuticorin. (PTI)
Updated on Mar 26, 2021 02:39 PM IST
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ByDivya Chandrababu

After Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin became the first directly elected mayor of Chennai in 1996, he began going on morning walks with his political lieutenant M Subramanian, who would become the city’s mayor a decade later. From 5.30am, the duo would walk for an hour inside the IIT Madras campus where a vertically challenged man named Williams would come out of the staff quarters every morning to wave to them. While Stalin was away campaigning for the 2016 assembly elections, Williams succumbed to an illness. Stalin was back as opposition leader of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) having lost to All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)’s late J Jayalalithaa but he took a different walking route for three months. “I can’t pass by their house; it’s upsetting to know that he (Williams) won’t be there to wave at us,” Subramanian recalls Stalin telling him. They eventually shifted their walks to the campus of Theosophical Society. “He (Stalin) is a very sentimental person,” says Subramanian, who has been associated with Stalin since 1976 in the youth wing of the party.

This quality, leaders say, helped keep the DMK-led Secular Progressive Alliance formed in 2019 alive. Stalin is said to be risk-averse and cautious (unlike his father and five-time chief minister M Karunanidhi). The toughest of these negotiations was with the party’s old ally, the Congress, which wanted more than 50 seats. The DMK eventually restricted it to 25. “The DMK high command in-charge of seat sharing negotiations was willing to let go of the Congress but Stalin insisted that they find a solution because Congress has been with the party for many years,” said a DMK leader not wishing to be named. “Despite everything, the coalition did not break,” said Subramanian. The DMK is contesting in 173 seats and has allotted the remaining 61 to 12 allies.

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68-year-old Stalin, who has waited in the wings for decades, is contesting as the chief ministerial candidate for the first time on April 6. This election is a test of Stalin’s leadership. Though he led the DMK to a sweeping win in the 2019 parliamentary elections , with the party winning 38 out of 39 seats, owing to an anti-AIADMK-BJP wave following Jayalalithaa’s death in 2016, Stalin’s moment is yet to arrive.

After Karunanidhi’s death in August 2018, Stalin was the obvious and unanimous choice as DMK’s president. He was born on March 1, 1953, to Karunanidhi’s first wife, four days before Russian communist leader Joseph Stalin’s death. Karunanidhi named his son after the European leader during a condolence meet. Karunanidhi’s political evolution was in part influenced by Communist tenets, and though Tamil Nadu espouses a Tamil identity and language, names such as Stalin and Lenin are common among people in their 50s and 60s, harking back to a time when, breaking away from the practice of naming children after Gods, those imbued with the spirit of the Dravidian movement did so after scientists, freedom fighters, explorers, and political leaders. Names such as Gandhi, Nehru and Bose are not uncommon as first names in the state; nor are Kennedy, Lenin, Stalin; or even Armstrong (after Neil) and Livingstone.

Stalin’s political journey began when he was 13 years old; he started helping organise party functions. In his early 20s, he was arrested during the Emergency. He has often recollected that along with others arrested during the protests at the time, he was thrashed badly in jail. He was at the forefront of several DMK protests. In 1980, at Karunanidhi’s Gopalapuram residence, he formed the DMK youth wing when he was 27. He became secretary in 1983 and held the position until 2017 — which has now been passed on to his son Udhayanidhi. Stalin worked his way up to become party treasurer, Chennai mayor and then deputy chief minister. He was re-elected as mayor in 2001 and during his mayoral terms, developed 12 flyovers in Chennai – these became controversial later, because some were far too narrow — and privatised conservancy operations.

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Stalin completed a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Presidency College in Chennai. It boasts of alumni such as Nobel laureate CV Raman, former Union finance minister P Chidambaram but the institution, in recent years, has been in the news for the wrong reasons, such as violent student clashes.

Stalin lost his first electoral outing in 1984, when he was 31, from Chennai’s Thousand Lights assembly constituency. That was at the peak of the MGR-wave; the AIADMK, formed in 1972, when matinee idol MG Ramachandran left the DMK after a difference of opinion with Karunanidhi, captured power in 1977 and was undefeated till 1989 (MGR died in 1987). Stalin won the seat in the following elections, in 1989, but the DMK government was dismissed in 1991 by the Chandra Shekhar government. He lost again in 1991, but starting 1996, was elected for three consecutive terms from the constituency. Since 2011, Stalin has represented a new constituency, Kolathur. Karunanidhi publicly acknowledged Stalin’s efforts during his final years, at a public meeting where he said Stalin means “work, work, work”. Still, when the party went to polls in 2016, Karunanidhi, then 92, was the chief ministerial candidate. It was only during a celebration of Stalin’s 65th birthday that the patriarch said he would not want to be chief minister again.

In the 2010s, it became clear that Stalin would be Karunanidhi’s political heir. Until then, Karunanidhi had also given important positions (including a Central ministership) to his older son MK Alagiri and Stalin’s half-sister K Kanimozhi.

Stalin’s rise was marked by few challenges within the party and the DMK’s first family. For years, he and Alagiri were rivals. Alagiri is still considered a force in the Madurai belt, but the general impression within the DMK has always been that he is impulsive and quick to anger.

In the party, his rival was V Gopalsamy or Vaiko, a charismatic leader and strong orator. For years, he was considered Karunanidhi’s natural heir, and in the late 1980s and 1990s, he and Stalin jockeyed for power and position. In that period, recalls Subramanian, Stalin “toiled hard to prove himself as a dedicated partyman. He would go to villages, tie up rows of DMK flags on the streets.” “He built relationships with the people in villages. Between the 80s and 90s there wasn’t a single village in Tamil Nadu he did not visit.”

With Karunanidhi quietly signalling his preference for Stalin, Vaiko left to form the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), a party that is now in alliance with DMK, and which will also fight under the DMK’s Rising Sun banner – a move political analysts credit to Stalin.

As for Alagiri, it was becoming clear that the party could not accommodate both him and Stalin, and Karunanidhi expelled him in 2014.

“Within the family and party high command, it was obvious there could not be dual leadership,” said a party leader.

When Stalin took over, after his father’s death, he ensured that the latter’s loyalists retained important positions: After Stalin became party president, the party general council, DMK’s highest decision making body, elected TR Baalu, an MP, as treasurer while Durai Murugan became general secretary.

Stalin continues to consult with his father’s advisors, personal assistants, and some former few bureaucrats who became close to the family. “Stalin didn’t take being the son of Kalaignar for granted, he didn’t embarrass him or bring disrepute to him,” said a veteran DMK leader.

The party cadre had for long addressed Stalin as “Thalapathy” (commander) while Karunanidhi is referred to as “Kalaignar” (artist). Now as the president of DMK, Stalin has been rechristened “Thalaivar” (leader).

In January, Alagiri suggested he could start his own party and said that Stalin had betrayed him. Stalin had watched his estranged brother’s press meet on television, according to a senior DMK leader, but was certain Alagiri wouldn’t float a party. Stalin hasn’t spoken of their decade-long rivalry but in a recent television interview, when asked what he thought of Alagiri, he simply said, “he’s my brother.” Kanimozhi has been actively campaigning for Stalin and is his bridge to Delhi. Stalin rarely visits the national capital. His father, over time, built and nurtured relationships with Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi, although all went through some rough patches.

Stalin isn’t a natural orator or as witty as his father. Karunanidhi’s writing and creative mastery seem to have been inherited by women’s wing leader and MP Kanimozhi, who is also a poet. Though he has cultivated personal relationships with the party cadre (he has worked alongside many of the seniors), he does not have the ability to rally the masses in public meetings the way his father or J Jayalalithaa or MG Ramachandran could. “His speeches make sense but they seem well-prepared. He also isn’t as well read as his father,” said G Prakash, a voter supporting the DMK, speaking after Stalin’s rally in Salem on March 16.

Still, that holds for the AIADMK too. Neither chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami nor his deputy O Paneerselvam have these abilities. But some say Stalin’s son, Udayinidhi, an actor-producer, has them.

The veteran DMK leader cited above believes Stalin’s mindset is actually an advantage.

“He is measured in his words and not quick to judge or make decisions.”

Party members say Stalin is respectful and considerate. PK Sekhar Babu first met Stalin in the assembly in 2001, as a former AIADMK MLA. “I was sitting in the lobby; he wished me while passing by,” said Babu who joined the DMK in 2011 and is the sitting MLA of Chennai’s Harbour constituency. “I’m relatively new to the party so whenever problems crop up with the older partymen, ‘thalaivar’ speaks to us to iron out the differences. He wants the smallest of issues to be sorted.”

Despite his obvious charisma and mass appeal, Udayanidhi’s surge has clearly created some problems for the party. He has now inherited Karunanidhi’s Chepauk-Thiruvallikeni constituency for his electoral debut.

Sitting MLA Ku Ka Selvam from the Thousand Lights constituency quit and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party in August last year. He blames the rising clout of Udhayanidhi for his exit, not Stalin. After party veteran J Anbazhagan’s demise in June 2020, his post as the Chennai West district secretary of the party, a powerful post, went to Udayanidhi loyalist N Chittarasu. “He has been with Udhayanidhi for two years, I’ve been with him (Stalin) for 25 years,” said Selvam who joined the DMK in 1977.

“I won’t say anything against Stalin and his family, I’ve travelled with them. but it is clear that they are acting based on (what they are told) by new young people who ridicule and disrespect old-timers like me,” said Selvam. “I hadn’t planned on joining the BJP; I did so out of irritation.” Selvam said Stalin had asked to meet him before he went to Delhi and met BJP leaders. “But how can I meet and complain about his own son to him?”

Another DMK functionary, M Chinnasamy, quit on March 22 calling the party a “kitchen cabinet” in a veiled reference to Stalin’s wife pushing for her Udayanidhi’s candidature and his son-in-law also wielding influence behind the scenes.

The ruling AIADMK and its ally, the BJP, continue to attack Stalin for practising dynastic politics.

On Thursday, Stalin told his party cadre not to be swayed by opinion polls that predict a DMK sweep. “It is due to the lackadaisical attitude in some constituencies in the last elections that Tamil Nadu’s governance fell into the hands of slaves and is still suffering,” Stalin said. “We have to win this for Kalaignar.”

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Sunday, November 28, 2021