DMK in transition

The political situation created by Jayalalithaa’s death presents a new set of challenges before the DMK.

Published : Dec 21, 2016 12:30 IST

M.K. Stalin casting his vote in the Assembly elections at a polling booth in  Chennai on May 16, 2016. His wife, Durga, is also seen in the picture.

M.K. Stalin casting his vote in the Assembly elections at a polling booth in Chennai on May 16, 2016. His wife, Durga, is also seen in the picture.

THE Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which shaped Tamil Nadu’s politics for over half a century, are in transition as two new leaders are set to assume charge.

For the first time since the DMK, a Dravidian party, was voted to power in Tamil Nadu in 1967, the party and its offshoot, the AIADMK, will be led by new leaders at a time when there is no apparent requirement for them to clearly articulate their ideological moorings.

The dictates of electoral politics have changed drastically over time. Winning an election involves an intricate handling of a host of local-level management and administrative issues. Voicing a party’s standpoint on an issue is important too, but that does not become the defining difference between winning and losing.

V.K. Sasikala, who is at the helm of the AIADMK merely because of her association with the former party supremo, Jayalalithaa, does not have any ideological legacy to carry forward. M.K. Stalin, DMK president M. Karunanidhi’s son and heir apparent, is all set to take the party’s reins. He is known to be willing to make his ideology malleable enough to gain wider acceptance among voters.

On December 15, Sasikala’s leadership role was one step closer to being formalised in the AIADMK. Stalin is expected to formalise his position at the next meeting of the general council of the party. He has been running the party for more than three years now and seems to be on track to hold an unprecedented two of the three senior leadership positions in the party, working president and treasurer, which would give him almost absolute control over the party apparatus.

The DMK has never before seen such open accumulation of power in the hands of one person. Karunanidhi was keen to be seen as a democrat and a consensus person. Though an all powerful leader for most of the 48 years that he has led the DMK, he never held more than one party post. The 65-year-old Stalin, on the other hand, is both party treasurer and youth wing head. Thus the DMK seems to be moving closer to the AIADMK model of leadership—one clear leader who stands tall merely because of the power he or she wields.

As the Justice Party, the precursor to all the Dravidian parties, enters its centenary year, there is no escaping the thought that there has never been a time of such ideological dilution in the Dravidian movement, which was once distinguished by leaders with clearly articulated ideological stands. Every decision was backed by a theory that laid emphasis on the core principles of self-respect, social justice and regional autonomy.

For instance, when Karunanidhi, as Chief Minister in 1996, insisted that only women who passed Class 8 could be granted financial assistance for marriage, there was opposition from within his own Cabinet. “Why only for Class 8, why not for all?” asked a colleague. Karunanidhi drew upon a speech by the party founder, C.N. Annadurai, and said that at least because of this edict the girl child might get schooling until Class 8. He later made attending Class 10 mandatory for getting the assistance.

The DMK, founded with ideals borrowed from Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, the tallest Dravidian ideologue, was much more than a political party, with its emphasis on self-respect in all aspects of an individual’s life and place in society. Stalin, however, has sold himself as a modern politician who is not averse to adopting technology and the methods of the newer generation of leaders. One hardly sees him harking back to the party’s Dravidian ideology. Within the DMK itself, it is easy to identify two camps: the Periyarists and those who believe in social change as Annadurai, the party’s first Chief Minister, visualised it.

Many of the ideological hardliners, who believe that social transformation should precede political change, belong to the Periyar school of politics. But there are many others who believe that politics itself is a compromise of sorts and there should be a kind of ideological fluidity to absorb changes in society to reorient the political organisation in such a way as to adapt itself to the larger realities and move ahead in a rational, practical manner. The latter group upholds Anna’s legacy.

Karunanidhi, who combines personality politics with practical, sensible if compromising ideological positions, is a staunch believer in the Anna school. In fact, when he wants to make a promise to someone, he does so in the name of Anna. That, for him, is the highest form of promise from which he will not back down. Anna, for Karunanidhi, was bigger than himself and dearer than his own mother. In this context, it will be interesting to see how the DMK reshapes itself in a world in which the AIADMK, its principal rival, is rudderless and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ideological antithesis of the DMK, is at the helm of affairs at the Centre.

The scene today

Close to 48 years after he took charge of the DMK, Karunanidhi, the party’s president and six-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, will no longer wield wide-ranging powers within the party. The responsibilities will be taken over by Stalin. Ironically, it is difficult to say for certain if the ageing patriarch, who turned 94 this year and was admitted to hospital on December 15 after an episode of breathlessness, will be able to comprehend the turn of events. On one occasion when the question of a working president was posed to him, Karunanidhi asked this correspondent: “What’s a working president? Do you mean to say that I am incapable of working?”

The ailing leader (in hospital when this report was written) is now confined to his Gopalapuram home in Chennai—a house that marked one of the many defiant moments in Tamil polity because it was situated in the heart of a Brahmin enclave and Karunanidhi bought it to prove a point. Now the fight is ebbing out of Karunanidhi, ironically, in the same house. His first-floor bedroom does have a steady stream of visitors, filtered by his daughter Selvi. Most visitors are his friends from an era that defined Tamil Nadu’s politics, art and culture and shaped its society. It is heart-rending to watch a man who got ahead from nowhere to lead a party on the strength of his intellect and wile submit to the slow ebbing of life.

But it was Karunanidhi who steered the party to its present course. Karunanidhi groomed his son as successor and cut to size other second-line leaders, including the firebrand V. Gopalasamy (later Vaiko), who was ousted in 1994. It all happened as part of a carefully nurtured plan. It was always as a result of consensus that Stalin was promoted within the party and outside. For instance, even though the DMK was elected to power in 1996 and there was a clamour to make Stalin a Minister, Karunanidhi wanted him to first prove himself as a good manager of a small administrative unit. He picked the Chennai Corporation.

Stalin was the youngest Mayor of the city at 44 and also its first directly elected one. Armed with the highest ever grant outlay from the State government run by his father, he changed the face of Chennai in the five years of DMK rule. But the 2001 elections saw the AIADMK return to power. The new government passed an amendment barring MLAs from holding a second post. Stalin gave up his mayorship and decided to stay on as MLA. A few years of hibernation followed. But Jayalalithaa’s repeated misadventures—the dismissal of more than 1.75 lakh government employees, the jailing of Vaiko over a speech under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, the raids on the offices of The Hindu to arrest five of its editors/journalists, and the ban on animal sacrifices in temples—gave the DMK and the rest of the opposition a fresh lease of life.

The DMK-led opposition bounced back to win all the seats in the Lok Sabha elections in 2004 and romped home in the 2006 State Legislative Assembly elections. Stalin was initially made Local Administration Minister and later elevated as Deputy Chief Minister. Within the party, too, though there was no space at the top, treasurer Arcot N. Veerasamy was persuaded to make way for the fast-rising Stalin.

By 2009, even as the scam over the allocation of 2G spectrum began unfolding, Stalin was firmly entrenched in the DMK hierarchy. His growth and popularity within the party appear to have alarmed even his father. Karunanidhi brought into active electoral politics his other son, M.K. Azhagiri, to counter Stalin’s growing influence. Azhagiri, mercurial, wayward and distracted, squandered the opportunity as Union Minister, much to the disappointment of his father. By the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Stalin was firmly in control of the party: the entire second rung had retreated to their fiefdoms, and the second tallest pan-Tamil Nadu leader in the party in 2014 was a person who was pushed into the party in 2006, Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi.

In manoeuvring to get his son to be his heir, Karunanidhi let down a host of people along the way. Here are a few instances from a long list: the not-so veiled verbal attacks from within on the DMK strongman from Salem, Veerapandi S. Arumugham; the refusal to take cognisance of the complaint of the only DMK MLA in the 1991-96 Legislative Assembly who took on the AIADMK government, Parithi Ilamvazhuthi; the murder of a former Minister Tha. Kiruttinan; and the attack on a Tamil newspaper (owned by his grand-nephew) which led to the killing of three innocent employees.

As the DMK began concentrating on the First Family, it had a mimicking effect across the party. Across many districts, secretaries in charge of the geography got their sons or next of kin involved. In one meeting soon after the death of a district secretary in Chennai, Karunanidhi, in a public meeting, said that the DMK was a family and that after the death of the district secretary, the son would take his place. With such a strong endorsement coming from the top leader, the family takeover of the party was complete at all levels.

Stalin inherits a party that is shaky at many levels. Outwardly the organisational structure appears robust, but many of the relationships that held the party together do not exist any longer. For instance, the insecurity that all levels of leadership exhibit prevents free and fair discussion of the problems within the party; there is no longer the camaraderie that was evident in the era gone by. Even the self-respect marriages that once distinguished the weddings of DMK functionaries are now rare. When DMK functionaries now get married, leaders are usually invited for the reception while the wedding is conducted by priests. Stalin himself has stated that 90 per cent of DMK men are Hindus—something that no other DMK leader before, or since, has said.

Blunders and the past Electorally, too, the party has suffered. It performed badly in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and in the 2016 State Assembly elections under Stalin’s leadership. Murmurs about his leadership style are slowly emerging. While Karunanidhi’s greatest fault was that everyone in his extended family dabbled in politics, it does not escape notice that Stalin keeps his family away from politics. But the irony is that Durga, his wife, and Sabareesh, his son-in-law, are among the most powerful people in the DMK though they are not members of the party.

Hopes soared in the DMK after Jayalalithaa was admitted to Apollo Hospital on September 22. Just ahead of the November 19 byelections to three Assembly constituencies, one senior leader went to the extent of saying that there would be a change of government in Tamil Nadu by January 2017. The message was clear: With Jayalalithaa gone, the AIADMK would break up and the field would be left open for the DMK

But seniors advise caution. A senior DMK leader and former State Minister said the path forward should be constructed on the lessons of the past. “The DMK should not do the blunder that it did in 1989-90. Had they not published [AIADMK general secretary] Jayalalithaa’s resignation letter in haste, she would have automatically opted out of politics. The DMK was so desperate to take quick action, which had only adverse effects. Jayalalithaa came back with full determination and vengeance and toppled the DMK government. If the DMK does anything of that sort now, it will completely lose credibility and will be rejected by people. We need to watch patiently or engineer a split in the AIADMK, if possible. We should prepare the ground cautiously so that people think that the DMK is the only option,” he said.

But there are other factors that must be considered. The DMK should first make sure that its MLAs will not cross over to the other side in the event of an all-out MLA-buying spree by both sides. More than a dozen DMK MLAs whom this correspondent spoke to were distraught over the manner in which the DMK approached the elections, which put the onus on them to fight their own battles. The party was barely in the picture, and almost all the money was spent by the candidates. This does not automatically mean that all these MLAs will switch sides for an enticement, but both the leading Dravidian parties have in their wings high-ranking office-bearers who have switched sides.

“The DMK should also realise that it should keep its own organisation intact. We may be eagerly waiting and wishfully thinking that infighting or an eventual split in the AIADMK will help us, but at the same time any discontent or even a possible split, if not vertical, in the post-Kalaignar [Karunanidhi] leadership will equally damage the DMK,” said a leader who has held positions of responsibility at various levels.

The other major problem is the undercurrent of a strong anti-DMK feeling in some sections. Leaders from parties that share this feeling will not cross over to the DMK, no matter what the bait. “The DMK must also keep in mind that the strong anti-DMK sentiments are still alive at the popular level. It will prevail forever. The DMK’s victory is rejoiced over only by the DMK, but its defeat is celebrated by many. It has more foes than friends in the political arena,” said a leader. “Stalin may feel proud that he is going to head a strong alternative option. But that’s not sufficient for an election victory. His ability to build a strong and viable alliance, his efforts to bring like-minded opposition under one banner and keep them in unison, will pave way to success, not his mere individual image or charisma,” he added.

‘Tread cautiously’ “In a nutshell, it’s time for the DMK to tread cautiously,” the leader summed up.

The passing away of Jayalalithaa poses as much a challenge to the DMK as it does to the AIADMK. Some leaders in the DMK believe that the party will now have to take on the AIADMK plus the BJP as the AIADMK’s policies are starting to realign with the Centre’s on issues such as National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and food security. This may allow it to effect a reorganisation of parties and resurrect a combined opposition. “With the AIADMK rudderless, it is to be seen how the party tackles important inter-State issues such as Cauvery and Mullaperiyar. The DMK must voice popular support for these struggles,” said an emerging leader.

In this post-Jayalalithaa scenario, in which the party’s reins are no longer with Karunanidhi, the DMK and the AIADMK could come together in the interest of the State on larger issues, said a political observer, adding that the DMK, being in the opposition, could offer to work with the government. “The DMK can help usher in a new political culture where both major parties work together in raising State issues. But the party should be interested in this,” he said. The situation that the DMK is in now is not new to the party. “They are in a strong position to strike at the right time. But this is not the time for immature reactions that could backfire. This is the time to consolidate for the DMK. The BJP might play along with the DMK if assured of a good alliance in 2019,” he added.

“They [the DMK] will have to learn to share the spoils; if they become arrogant it will be their undoing. All other forces will unite to ensure that the DMK does not take the cake fully. In order to negate smaller party consolidation, they should form a rainbow alliance at the right time and not postpone it till the last moment,” he said.

The DMK should be able to create the “Us versus Them” syndrome to keep the national parties out, said another leader. “The narrative should be that the Dravida movement is under threat from external forces and that the DMK is now its custodian. It has to be driven home that the AIADMK is no longer capable of stepping into this role,” a southern district leader said.

To put its own house in order should be the first thing on the DMK’s agenda, said a former Minister. “There is a need to do something about the black sheep, especially poorly performing and unpopular district secretaries. Cadres feel office-bearers at Anna Arivalayam [the DMK headquarters] are biased. Many cadres have told me that it’s like entering a tahsildar’s office ... corrupt. Cadres want a leadership change. The DMK needs to get back to grass-roots politics. Local leaders should propagate the party’s ideals through innovative and new methods. We have to reorganise our election strategy. To this end we should encourage the student wing, the youth wing and the women’s wing, etc. to work on the ground,” the leader said.

Another leader pointed out that organisationally, there was not much that was right with the DMK. In the AIADMK, even though Jayalalithaa made all decisions, there was a semblance of all wings of the party being catered to, and not just the main party. In the case of the DMK, no action has been taken by the leadership after the general elections or the byelections. “We need three posts of Kazhaga organisational secretaries. In the AIADMK, it was teamwork; even women held these posts. Today we have only R.S. Bharathi,” the leader added.

“There was nothing more important for the DMK than to safeguard the rights of the State. Both Jayalalithaa and Kalaignar were the same in this aspect,” said a former Minister. “We need to take an aggressive stance against demonetisation, NEP [New Education Policy] and NEET. Above all, we need to rebuild and be patient,” he said.

All its leaders are of the view that the DMK must be patient and wait for the AIADMK to make mistakes. In the past it was an automatic choice: if the DMK made blunders, the AIADMK was in the reckoning, and vice versa. But with the next Lok Sabha elections just over two years away, and Tamil Nadu bereft of its tall leaders, the major national parties will try once again to stage a comeback in the State. The BJP is hopeful that the Narendra Modi magic will sell in Tamil Nadu and is certain that the people of Tamil Nadu will give the party “a great victory” in the State. A rejuvenated BJP is working towards this. The Congress high command does not inspire any great hope, but it has the right person at the helm in Tamil Nadu: Su. Thirunavakkarasar, who was among those responsible for packaging Jayalalithaa as leader material in 1989-90, is aware of the ground realities in Tamil Nadu and is capable of putting up a good fight.

The DMK has a choice to make because of the uncertainty that surrounds the AIADMK. Without a “vote-catching” charismatic figure, the AIADMK will start with a major handicap. The DMK’s choice of partner in 2019 will decide which way the State will head.

As of now, the signs are ominous.

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