THE Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which has been contesting Lok Sabha elections in alliance with one national party or the other since 1977, is facing the 2014 elections to the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu practically alone. The architect of the DMK’s bold decision not to align with the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or for that matter the Left parties, is M.K. Stalin, one of the sons of the 90-year-old party president, M. Karunanidhi. Stalin had his way despite opposition from senior leaders such as N.K.K.P. Periasamy, Suresh Rajan and his own elder brother, M.K. Azhagiri, who argued that the DMK should ally itself with the Congress. Stalin was against the DMK joining hands with the BJP because he feared it would lead to the erosion of the DMK’s Muslim vote base. The decision against any electoral alliance was taken at the party’s general council meeting on December 15, 2013. Stalin’s eyes are set on the 2016 Assembly elections.
The DMK leaderships’ decision to yield to Stalin’s insistence marks a generational shift in the party’s politics. Stalin, who is the party treasurer, is virtually in control of the party now. He played a crucial role in the selection of the party’s candidates for the April 24 elections. He is spearheading the DMK campaign, tirelessly addressing election meetings in all the 40 Lok Sabha constituencies, 39 in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry. His control over the party tightened after the expulsion of Azhagiri on March 25 for acting against the party’s interests. Azhagiri and Stalin have carried on a feud with each other for the past several years on who should control the party after Karunanidhi.
Despite being a regional, Dravidian party with its core ideology centred on reservation for the Backward Classes, State autonomy, and opposition to the imposition of Hindi as the official language and the “preferential treatment” given by the Centre to the northern States, the DMK did not hesitate to join the National Front government headed by V.P. Singh. ‘Murasoli’ Maran, the DMK’s Rajya Sabha member and Karunanidhi’s nephew, became a Minister in the V.P. Singh Cabinet. The DMK had contested the November 1989 Lok Sabha elections as part of the National Front but failed to win any seats. The chemistry between Karunanidhi and V.P. Singh worked. Karunanidhi’s admiration for V.P. Singh grew manifold after the latter decided to implement the Mandal Commission’s recommendations on reservation for the Backward Classes in government jobs and educational institutions.
The DMK was not part of the Congress government headed by P.V. Narasimha Rao at the Centre from 1991 to 1996 because the two parties were on opposite sides of the fence in the 1991 Lok Sabha elections. Between 1996 and 1998, the DMK was part of the governments headed by H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. In 1998, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) headed by Jayalalithaa was a constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which had formed the government headed by A.B. Vajpayee. The DMK was in power in Tamil Nadu then, with Karunanidhi as Chief Minister. Jayalalithaa withdrew support to the NDA government in April 1999 because Vajpayee and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani refused to yield to her demand to dismiss the Karunanidhi government.
This gave a grateful DMK an opening to forge an alliance with the BJP in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections though ideologically they were on opposite sides. The NDA was voted to power, and the DMK was a partner in the coalition government headed by Vajpayee from 1999 to 2004. (In fact, in the election campaign under way, both Karunanidhi and Stalin have acknowledged Vajpayee’s decision to reject Jayalalithaa’s demand.) The DMK continued to be part of the NDA government even after the Gujarat pogrom against Muslims in 2002.
A few weeks before the Lok Sabha elections in 2004, the DMK abandoned the Vajpayee government and joined the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). This time, the AIADMK aligned with the BJP, but both parties were defeated in all the 40 seats by the rival alliance, which comprised the DMK, the Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). The DMK became part of the UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh in 2004. In 2009, the DMK again partnered the UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh.
However, the DMK pulled out of the UPA in March 2013, citing the Centre’s insensitivity to the demand that an international probe be held into the Sri Lanka Army’s killing of more than 60,000 Tamil civilians in the last stages of its war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009. The DMK Ministers in the Manmohan Singh Cabinet resigned.
It is against this background that the DMK is facing the elections now. The DMK has aligned with its trusted allies, the IUML, the Dalit Panthers, the Puthiya Tamizhagam (P.T.) and the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi (MMK). The DMK is contesting 35 seats, the Dalit Panthers two and the other parties one each.
The tenacity that he has displayed in his election campaigns proves that Stalin is a chip off the old block. He has a good sense of humour, and he deploys it effectively when he ridicules Jayalalithaa for hopping to campaign venues in a helicopter. There is no monotony in Stalin’s broadsides against the Chief Minister although he brings up the issue at meeting after meeting.
“Jayalalithaa has got into the helicopter. Over. She has gone up. Over. The helicopter has started flying. Over,” Stalin says at a meeting in Arani, mimicking the policemen radioing the control room about the Chief Minister’s arrival and take-off. He then tells the voters, “You should use the coming elections to say ‘over’ to Jayalalithaa’s regime”, at which the crowd rocks with laughter.
“We walk every street and travel from village to village because we want to reach out to the people. We do not fly in and out by helicopters.” He accuses Jayalalithaa of being afraid of meeting the people because they are fed up with three years of her regime. He reminds voters that the AIADMK government blocked the previous DMK government’s project to build a 19-kilometre flyover from Maduravoyil to Chennai harbour and points out that Jayalalithaa’s promise of a monorail project for Chennai is in limbo. “Jayalalithaa claimed that she would overcome the problem of power cut in three months. Did she? She said every family would get 20 litres of potable water every day. Did she provide it? She said she will introduce mobile clinics. Did she?” he asks. Her government is “a government of mere announcements” and “empty promises”, he says.
At Virudhunagar, Stalin refers to the Chief Minister’s melodramatic refrain at her meetings: “You should strengthen my hands to bring about a change of government at the Centre. Will you do it? Will you?” He says, after a pause, “People have started asking Jayalalithaa, ‘Have you done what you promised to do when you came to power?’”, and the crowd bursts into laughter.
Ridiculing Jayalalithaa’s description of the AIADMK as “Fort St George Express” train, which is all set to become the “Red Fort Express” to New Delhi, Stalin says: “But the train cannot travel beyond Bangalore. It cannot go past the court in Bangalore” in a sarcastic reference to the trial under way in a civil court in Bangalore in the disproportionate assets case against Jayalalithaa.
Although the DMK began the campaign late, it has gone on the offensive, forcing Jayalalithaa on the back foot on issues such as the AIADMK’s decision to send its cadres to take part in the “kar seva” at Ayodhya, reservation for Muslims, its volte-face on the Sethusamudram project, its inability to overcome the power crisis bedevilling the State, the flight of industries from Coimbatore to Karnataka, and the disproportionate wealth case against her.
Although Karunanidhi, party general secretary K. Anbazhagan, Stalin, and some former Ministers are touring the State and galvanising the cadres, party workers are unhappy that the party has nominated “outsiders” and not those who have risen through the ranks These candidates include C. Devadasa Sundaram (Tirunelveli), S. Rathinavelu (Virudhunagar), S. Mohammed Jameel (Ramanathapuram) and H. Pavithravalli (Erode). The cadres are reluctant to work for these candidates.
Azhagiri, who was suspended from the party on January 24, had alleged on March 17 that many DMK candidates were “not selected by the leader”. “How will the party cadres accept them?” he asked.
If the DMK high command calculated that Azhagiri’s expulsion on March 25 would put an end to his outbursts against the party, it has not happened. He continues to torment the party with his periodic fulminations. On April 2, he accused “some persons” in the DMK of trying to usurp the party leadership by making Karunanidhi a “prisoner”. Azhagiri alleged that Karunanidhi was reduced to the state of a “prisoner of circumstances” and said that his (Azhagiri’s) aim was to save the party and not to start a new party. “This is our party. We are the DMK. Why a new party then?” he asked.
Unmindful of Azhagiri’s constant provocations, Karunanidhi began his campaign from Chintadripet in the Central Chennai constituency on March 26. He threw a spanner in the works when he declared at that meeting the DMK’s readiness to support the Congress after the elections if it stood firm in its secular principles. Although the DMK had suffered much at the hands of the Congress despite being its ally, Karunanidhi said the DMK would back the Congress if Congressmen “regretted” their mistakes and kept away from communal forces. Incidentally, he caused a flutter on an earlier occasion when he described the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, as his friend and a hardworking man.