Tamil Nadu elections: Can MK Stalin finally break away from Karunanidhi’s shadow?

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April 05, 2021 4:30 PM

Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections 2021, M.K. Stalin Latest News: Over the years, Stalin has established himself as the undisputed leader of the DMK. But the road was never easy. He first faced revolt in the family by his elder brother MK Alagiri and later in the DMK by Vaiko.

Tamil Nadu Elections 2021, DMK Leader M.K. Stalin NewsDMK President MK Stalin


Tamil Nadu Election 2021: In a state where politics is defined by towering personalities, MK Stalin has come a long way. From being a foot soldier to the head of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Stalin has had quite a journey under the mentorship of his father K Karunanidhi. But his rise in politics was often dwarfed by the shadow of the personality of Karunanidhi. Besides a politician, Karunanidhi was an artist by heart, and that put him in a different league — he was a novelist, gifted orator, and had a good command over Tamil language and literature. In Tamil Nadu, people who loved literature were charmed by Kalaignar (artist) — the title people gave to Karunandhi. On this yardstick, Stalin hardly comes close to his father, won’t even pass the basic test of skills that his father had.

Maalan Narayanan, a senior journalist who has covered Tamil Nadu politics for decades, says that Stalin doesn’t have that oratory skills and one allegation is that he mostly reads from written speeches. Stalin has, however, established himself as the leader of DMK in absence of Karunanidhi. He led the party’s campaign in 2016, when the DMK missed the opportunity very narrowly to come back to power. In that election, however, the vote share difference between DMK and AIADMK was just one per cent. Two titans of Tamil were still around, the only difference was that wheelchair-bound Karunanidhi was not that active while Jayalalitha was heading the AIADMK. The popular belief is that the DMK lost the election due to the Congress, which was a big drag on the alliance. Of 41 seats it contested, Congress could win just 8. The DMK, on the other hand, had won 89, 66 more than what it had got in 2011.

Over the years, Stalin has established himself as the undisputed leader of the DMK. But the road was never easy. He first faced revolt in the family by his elder brother MK Alagiri and later in the DMK by Vaiko. Stalin began his political career quite early in life. Born in 1953, Stalin was elected to the General Council — the highest decision making body of DMK — in 1973. He first shot to fame after going to jail in 1976 during the Emergency. Despite being the son of one of the tallest leaders in the South, Stalin faced police brutality in custody and that he took it on his chin gained him public sympathy. In 1982, Stalin became the youth wing secretary of the party, and continued to hold that position for more than four decades.

Stalin’s first electoral success came in 1989 when he won his first assembly election from Thousand Lights constituency. However, he couldn’t serve as MLA for a full five-year term as his government fell a year later. He contested again from the same constituency a year later but lost to KA Krishnaswamy of AIADMK. But he wrested back this seat from Krishnaswamy in 1996 and held on to it till 2011. But in 2011, Stalin changed his constituency and moved to Kolathur. He won the Kolathur seat twice, in 2011 and 2016.

During this period, Stalin also held key positions. He was the Mayor of Chennai city from 1996 to 2002 and first deputy chief minister of the state from 2009 to 2011. During his time as mayor, Stalin made roads, flyovers and put city infrastructure in the top of his priority list. His efforts in improving city infrastructure earned him the title of Managara Thanthai (father of the city). He had become Mayor by people’s vote, unlike in any other major city where elected members vote for the leader. In 2001, Stalin was elected back as mayor but he had to step down due to a law brought in (and made effective retrospectively) by then chief minister J Jayalalitha restricting a person from holding two positions — Stalin was also an MLA in 2001. Stalin served as rural development minister and took various initiatives to strengthen self-help groups in Tamil Nadu.

Stalin again led the party in the Lok Sabha in 2019, just a year after Karunanidhi had passed away in August 2018. In the absence of his father, Stalin scored a historic win by bagging 38 of 39 parliamentary seats with over 52.39 per cent vote share. Stalin took no time to establish his iron fist command over the party and side-lined those who came in his way (read Vaiko). Now, it appears he would be the next chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Several opinion polls have predicted a landslide for the DMK.

Narayanan, however, disagrees. He says Stalin may win but the the fight would be close. Palaniswami, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, he says, picked up in the last leg of his stint. He waived off farm loans and jewel loans – and campaigned well. A local survey showed the chief minister was just two percentage point behind Stalin in terms of popularity. But the time is on his side.

Tamil Nadu voters have so far maintained a tradition of alternating power between DMK and AIADMK. AIADMK has been in power for 10 years, so shouldn’t it be the DMK’s turn to govern? If DMK wins, who should one credit, voters or Stalin? There may be a longer wait, perhaps till 2026 before one could get clear answers to these questions. If Stalin wins this election, and beats the anti-incumbency in 2026, the answer may not even be needed. But if he fails, more power to Tamil voters who have mastered the craft of extracting maximum dividends (and freebies) by this unique blend of shuffle and pause — no leader has come to power for consecutive second term except for Jayalalitha in 2016 after MGR in 1987.

Professor Ramu Manivanan, Head of Political Department of Madras University, says Stalin has to prove that he can lead the party and carry forward – so it is both for party and leadership. “One of the problems faced by the AIADMK is that they don’t have the proven leadership at the top. So Stalin is able to make that distinction”.

Narayanan says that Stalin may win due to a series of factors like anti-incumbency, leadership vacuum in AIADMK and the ruling party’s alliance with the BJP. But the answer to whether he can break away from the shadow of Karunanidhi lies in the future — how he fares during this election and how he does in the office, if he is elected.

But will Stalin be able to make his own legacy after 2021? To this, Manivanan says the circumstances and conditions make a leader, and this was true for Karunanidhi as is true for Stalin. “Stalin has completely a new challenge, particularly standing up to the BJP. That should make him a leader on his own merit”. That takes one to another question whether it would be fair to compare Stalin with Karunanidhi? “No,” says the professor. “Karunanidhi had a history of making compromises with the BJP. But Stalin does not have that kind of circumstances before him to concede and make compromises with the BJP. So that makes him a leader he had to deliver.”

But then there have been questions about the leadership skills of Stalin, many even say that Stalin had been in politics for over four decades but he was declared the leader of the party only in 2013-14. Why did Karunanidhi take so long? Manivanan says that as long as Karunanidhi was the chief minister, “he was conscious and aware of the decisions”.

“Stalin has had considerable experience and exposure in handling the public affairs including as the mayor of Chennai city corporation as well as minister for local government and affairs, he also was deputy chief minister – so this question why Karunanidhi did not handover or make him the chief minister should rest with the fact that Karunandihi himself considered that he was competent to handle the office.”

So where did the ruling party go wrong? The AIADMK, the professor explains, has been largely controlled and influenced by the BJP. “So we need a leader and party that appears to be governing in control and representing the interest of the state. The AIADMK could have presented a better challenge and resistance to DMK. But the AIADMK spent the last five years in the shadow of the BJP. By that process, it diminished its stake in Tamil Nadu. It has to wait for another five years to rebuild that. Tamil Nadu has a tradition of Dravidian identity and politics. So people really don’t have to share that kind of submissiveness to the BJP in Tamil Nadu.”

However, Narayanan thinks that just attacking BJP won’t help Stalin. If Stalin comes back to power, the senior journalist says, he will need the Centre’s support. The state budget for salaries and freebies are not enough — “he will have to borrow either from the World Bank or the RBI, in both the case, he will need the Centre’s consent. But if he compromises, he would be termed as turncoat. If he doesn’t cooperate, there won’t be any development and Tamil Nadu would become another West Bengal”. Does he want to be in that situation? Well, it looks he doesn’t have a choice, his decisions as chief minister, if he becomes one, will determine his legacy. The real test of his knack and political acumen begins now.

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