On July 27, Karunanidhi achieved a feat few political leaders can boast of — being at the helm of a political party for 50 years. He would have been hoping that his successor, if not in terms of longevity, at least in terms of ease with which he controlled the party, would have the same felicity.
But that appears tough, given the ill will between his nominated successor, MK Stalin, and his other children.
Consider the last major electoral test the party faced. RK Nagar in Chennai was an assembly seat held by chief minister J Jayalalithaa before she died. When by-elections were held in 2017, with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) split into two factions and each of them putting up their candidates, it was predicted as an easy win for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
When the results came in, the DMK was in the third position. Party president Karunanidhi’s second son MK Alagiri blamed his younger brother and working president of the party, Stalin, for the defeat and said: “Not just RK Nagar. The DMK will not win any polls till he is at the helm. This would not have happened if Thalaivar (referring to Karunanidhi) had been in charge.”
The comment indicated that despite Karunanidhi’s best efforts to ensure a smooth family succession to the party’s leadership, the sibling rivalry smouldered on. For the longest time, Stalin had been his father’s understudy, the chosen one to eventually succeed.
Karunanidhi groomed him first as the mayor of Chennai and later inducted him into his cabinet and made him the state’s first deputy chief minister. Known for his low-key manner and ability to take party seniors along, he was a study in contrast to his elder brother.
Alagiri, who used to be the DMK’s strongman controlling the southern districts of the state, is known to be brash. His supporters had attacked the Madurai office of Dinakaran, a daily owned by his cousins Marans, when it published a survey that didn’t portray him in a flattering light.
“The DMK is the first regional party to win on its own in an Indian state and it has never ever faced a leadership crisis. Unlike the AIADMK, which witnessed leadership crisis, things will be fine for the DMK,” asserted the party’s south Chennai district secretary and former mayor M Subramanian.
“There is no alternative to our leader Kalaignar, but the only relief is that he leaves Stalin as his political heir,” he said.
Having worked as a Union minister in Manmohan Singh’s cabinet during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) -2 regime, Alagiri can claim administrative experience. However, he was expelled in 2014, just ahead of parliamentary polls because of alleged anti-party activities.
The DMK, founded in 1949, will be hoping that the party will be spared the succession chaos that plagued the AIADMK after the death of its founder MG Ramachandran in 1987 and that of J Jayalalithaa in 2016.
Political analyst A Marx said it is unlikely that the party will split after the death of Karunanidhi. “Karunanidhi has shaped Stalin for the past five years to drive the party. Stalin is also doing well in the recent years when compared to his past. Since cadres and office bearers have accepted Stalin, there will not be any split post-Karunanidhi,” he said.
“Since Alagiri is out of politics for some time, he will not be in a position to control the party. Initially, he had strong supporters based in southern Tamil Nadu but most of his loyalists have now migrated towards Stalin. Unlike AIADMK, DMK will function smoothly under the leadership of Stalin,” he added.
Stalin has been functioning as the party’s working president for several years now and, in the absence of Karunanidhi, has taken all the key decisions.
The ‘Thalapathi’ (or commander), as Stalin is fondly known, will be hoping that senior guard of the party will stay loyal and aid him in establishing control.
Though side-lined, Alagiri and half-sister MK Kanimozhi, apart from the influential cousins, the Maran brothers, will inevitably have some say on who will control the party.
While Stalin holds control, whether he is able to retain it or a battle for succession will break out remains to be seen.