POST TIME: 26 August, 2018 10:25:07 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 26 August, 2018 10:27:34 AM
The legacy of Karunanidhi
The patriarch of politics in south India, Karunanidhi was a kind of a demi god
Kumkum Chadha

The legacy of Karunanidhi

All eyes are on August 28 when the DMK is all set to elect MK Stalin, as party chief following a bitter war of succession in one of the foremost parties down south. As of now its working president is M.K.Stalin, the younger son of late party patriarch M Karunanidhi.
Karunanidhi who died on August 7 after a prolonged illness, had during his lifetime positioned Stalin to be his successor. Stalin, who is 65-years-old had held several party posts, including that of treasurer and youth wing secretary.
The patriarch of politics in the South, Karunanidhi was a kind of a demi god. He failed in class tenth and took to writing scripts before he made it big in films and politics in that order. He also dabbled in journalism after Periyar, an iconic figure, zeroed in on him to edit a magazine. He later joined films and made an indelible mark before plunging headlong into politics. Once the DMK rode to power in 1967, Karunanidhi started off as a minister to later occupy the post of Chief Minister of the state of Tamil Nadu. A five time Chief Minister, Karunanidhi dominated the state’s politics and later impacted politics of the Centre and had a great following in and out of power. Charges of corruption have always haunted the DMK custodians with some of them having served a jail sentence.
Till he was alive and even with a frail health, Karunanidhi remained an undisputed leader. Though the cracks were visible, it was after his death that a bitter battle broke out. It was one between brothers and expectedly over who will lead the party even though the writing on the wall was clear.

The two brothers, Azhagiri and Stalin were never on the same page but father Karunanidhi deftly played peacemaker hoping the enmity would soon subside. He separated them geographically, by dispatching Azhagiri  to Madurai  in the late 1980s to oversee the party in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. Stalin, Azhagiri’s younger brother, remained in Chennai, and in one sense was mentored by Karunanidhi.

Azhagiri, on his part, became notorious for allegedly bribing voters and came down heavily on newspapers for propping up Stalin as the preferred successor to Karunanidhi. Things came to a head in 2014, when an altercation with his father resulted in his expulsion. He was later re-admitted against the advice of many senior leaders. Karunanidhi is reported to have said that he had to tolerate Azhagiri even as stories of the hatred among brothers were doing the rounds.

That Stalin was a clear favourite of Karunanidhi was a given but Stalin too strategized and worked his way up the DMK ranks. As against this, Azhagiri receded to the  background, coming into focus off and on.

Against this backdrop a war of succession between the two was a foregone conclusion. Except that it was not a battle among equals with Stalin’s supporters outnumbering his brothers and clearly indicating that the path for Stalin’s coronation is clear.

Stalin's growth has been steady and he became party deputy general secretary in 2003. He was re-elected treasurer for the second five-year term in January 2015. He became an MLA for the first time in 1989 from Thousand Lights constituency from where he was re-elected thrice.

In 2006, he became the municipal administration minister in the DMK government and went on to become the deputy chief minister in 2009.

Stalin gets his name from the Soviet Communist leader. A second child from his second wife, the day M K Stalin was born, his father was at a condolence meeting for Joseph Stalin. When he was informed of his birth, Karunanidhi instantly named his son after the Soviet Communist leader. Ironically, the Soviet leader died four days after Stalin was born. Stalin was born on March 1, 1953 and the Soviet leader died  on March 5, the same year.

Even though for record Karunanidhi refrained from actually announcing his successor on grounds that they grow for themselves, he did take a leaf out of Communist leader China’s Mao Zedong who wouldn’t name a successor. Even as late as 2016 assembly polls he had said, that Stalin can become Chief Minister if nature does something to me, Stalin’s elevation as working president in 2017 cleared the decks leaving little doubt that he would be Karunanidhi’s political successor.

Stalin’s path is clear. He will not entertain Azhagiri again in politics and has taken on board his stepsister, Kanimozhi who knows that her best bet is Stalin and therefore she has fallen in line. Therefore, even if Azhagiri is gearing up like he has said for a slice of the DMK pie, chances are he would not make much headway.

Azhagiri apart, Stalin’s challenges are forbidding and stakes very high.

For one he has to match up to his father’s larger than life image and the legacy that Karunanidhi has left behind. Many feel he has a long way to go while there is a section that says Stalin is not a patch on his father.

In any case comparisons are always forbidding and make it difficult for a successor to be on their own. The father’s shadow always looms large and Karunanidhi was a political giant and even in his sunset years had a party that could not be written off. Therefore, Stain’s hands are full.

Apart from making his party politically viable he will need to work overtime to keep his flock together and more importantly enemies at bay beginning with his brother who is waiting to strike.  Reverses in the recent by-polls will continue to haunt particularly the one in which the late Jayalalitha’s nephew T.T.V.Dhinakaran, a novice in politics, won as an independent and pushed the DMK to the third spot. At the national level, he would have to learn the art of coalition politics in a spirit of give and take particularly since 2019 elections would be a challenge that would test Stalin’s qualities as a leader without Karunanidhi for the first time. Stalin has support with the cadres but whether the people will accept him with open arms remains a question mark. Therefore, even if he has won the first round by tripping his brother, Stalin’s battles have just begun.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (kumkum91@gmail.com)