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M.K. Stalin: Reluctant leader

Print edition : Jun 14, 2022 T+T-

M.K. Stalin: Reluctant leader

In the past year, Stalin has deliberately underplayed his role at the national level, while trying to create an ideological base for the larger struggle against the BJP.

When the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) won the Assembly election in Madras State in 1967, it was the first regional political party, and the second non-Congress party after the Communist Party of India in Kerala in 1957, to come to power in independent India. It trounced the mighty Congress by pushing the idea of a collective but exclusive regional Tamil identity that was founded on the ideals of social justice and empowerment of all sections of society, particularly women.

From the time it first came to power to now, the DMK has been led by only three persons: C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi, and M.K. Stalin. Annadurai and Karunanidhi were unquestioned leaders at the top, with no serious challenger in sight once they occupied the top post. And Stalin did not have a competitor to the post even before he formally took over the party.

Stalin is the most secure head of a political party in India. And that is the reason why, as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, he does not hesitate to call out the BJP or take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi even on a public stage.

Much before the May 2021 Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly election, it had become clear that the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which had been in power in the State for a decade, would not be able to hold its own against the DMK without its charismatic leader Jayalalithaa, who passed away barely six months after the 2016 Assembly election.

On its part, the DMK had tied up all the loose ends (it had even hired political strategist Prashant Kishor), even though opinion polls clearly indicated that the DMK was ahead and that it was likely to unseat the AIADMK.

The AIADMK did put up a surprisingly good show, but the arithmetic was skewed too much in favour of the DMK and its alliance partners. The DMK contested 188 seats and won 133 (with almost 43 per cent vote share); the AIADMK contested 191 and managed to win 66 (25.47 per cent vote share). The Congress, the DMK’s most important ally, contested 25 seats and won 18; the BJP, which was in partnership with the AIADMK, contested 20 seats and won four.

Despite the numbers in the State Assembly, the AIADMK has struggled to get its act together because of its dual leadership and because of the raids on many of its Ministers by the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption. (Edappadi K. Palaniswami and O. Pannerselvam, both former Chief Ministers, run the party together.)

Secure leader

In effect, the AIADMK is in disarray, and the opposition space has largely been appropriated by the BJP, which has not made much headway in Tamil Nadu. Hence, Stalin the DMK president and Stalin the Chief Minister are both secure in the knowledge that there is no need to worry about challenges from outside or within the party.

In 1996, after he was elected Chennai Mayor, Stalin took a series of steps to improve the city via the Singara Chennai initiative. In 2006, after the DMK formed the government, he made a name for himself as Local Administration Minister.

From the time that Stalin assumed office as Chief Minister on May 8, 2021, it was clear that he would be constantly compared to his father, the man who guided the party through its best and worst years, from 1969 to the disastrous 2014 Lok Sabha election. Soon after assuming office, Stalin’s twin focuses—on the Dravidian model of development and keeping communal politics at bay—have ensured that he has scored well in this comparison. He has not only taken up ideological projects but has also been seen as the leader who constantly talks about development, while keeping a firm eye on ensuring that this development is equitable.

Government initiatives

One of Stalin’s first initiatives was to grant free travel for women in government buses. This has had a massive impact on the ground. Finance Minister P.T.R. Palanivel Thiaga Rajan announced in the Assembly that the allocation for the project was being revised upwards from Rs.1,200 crore for 2021-22 to Rs.1,520 crore for 2022-23.

Another scheme the government has begun is to provide girl students with Rs.1,000 a month from Classes 6 to 12. The government has also amended laws to increase women’s representation in all levels of governance in municipalities and panchayats—the reservation level was hiked from 33 per cent to 50 per cent. The move is clearly aimed at women voters.

It is no surprise, given the history of Tamil Nadu politics over the past four decades, that Stalin caters to special interest groups and even collectives of people with marginal vote share in the State. He is on overdrive, creating additional facilities for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in the State, and even chose to meet A.G. Perarivalan, who was convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, after he was released by the Supreme Court.

There is an administrative and political calculation here: the administrative calculation is that Stalin is sending a message to the fringe groups that they do not need to remain on the sidelines and that he will engage with them. The political calculation is that by keeping the Tamil nationalist groups on his side he has taken care of a constant source of headache.

In Tamil Nadu, good governance also makes for good politics. To keep the minor lobby of environmentalists on his side, Stalin launched a series of initiatives: Meendum Manjappai (cloth bags), Green Tamil Nadu Mission, the first-ever special purpose vehicle called Tamil Nadu Green Climate Company, instructions to civic bodies to improve waste management across the State, purchasing e-cars for the use of some officials, and his own personal interest in cycling.

At the macro level, Stalin is seen as a leader who stands up for federalism and the rights of the State, who is also firmly against Hindi imposition, and who will not hesitate to take issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi. (For the second time in three months, the Chief Minister met the Governor on June 2, demanding that he consider the Bills forwarded, as mandated by the Constitution.)

National-level ambitions

Stalin has not disclosed his national-level ambitions but he has certainly tried to get opposition party leaders onto a platform on issues such as Goods and Services Tax, reduction of fiscal autonomy, and the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test for medical college admissions (he wrote to 12 Chief Ministers on the issue).

At an ideological level, in February this year he wrote to leaders of 37 political parties requesting them to join a forum called the All India Federation of Social Justice to preserve and protect the gains made in independent India. In April, the inauguration of the DMK’s Delhi office became a platform for major opposition party leaders to come together. In that meeting, Stalin requested opposition parties to unite to “save India”.

In the past year, Stalin has deliberately underplayed his role at the national level, while trying to create an ideological base for the struggle against the BJP. For this to work, it is critical that the government he runs is seen as among the best performers in the country. This is where fielding articulate and knowledgeable Ministers, such as Thangam Thennarasu and Palanivel Thiaga Rajan, in press conferences helps in an image makeover of a party that was once buried in one scandal or the other.

With so many leaders in the national fray—including mercurial Mamata Banerjee, the combative K. Chandrashekar Rao, the regional Hindutva proponent Uddhav Thackeray, and the Samajwadi scion Akhilesh Yadav—Stalin is a reluctant national leader, willing to wait in the background. After all, he waited more than four decades to take on a critical position in his own party.

On completing a year in office, he admitted that there was a lot of work to do. But he made it clear where his main strength lay: “I am not engaged in politics on the basis of the strength of others. I engage in politics on my own strength. And my strength lies in my goal and I will reach that goal.”

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