Chennai: Nobody tracking Tamil Nadu politics was surprised when the DMK chief M Karunanidhi hinted that his third son Stalin will be his successor in the Party. Predictably, at such times, his other son MK Alagiri, who thinks he deserves the honor, invoked the DRS (Decision Review System) .
As it happened last Thursday. Speaking at an event where Dalits belonging to Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) crossed over to his Party, the veteran politician said, “I will struggle to help the downtrodden as long as I live. For the question 'who after that', Stalin who is seated here is the answer, don’t forget."
The subtlety was not lost on anyone, least of all on Alagiri, who, in the past, has clearly said that while he accepted his father unconditionally as the president of the Party, anyone else aiming for that post will have to get past him. Not surprisingly, a day after Karunanidhi’s hint that Stalin was his hand picked man to succeed him, Alagiri said, “The DMK is not a mutt (a Hindu monastery) to appoint a successor," he said quoting a statement made earlier by Karunanidhi himself.
Political observers say that Alagiri has always been an extra constitutional authority with the mental make up of ‘an old time party boss.’ Clearly, there are no signs that the long standing rivalry between the two brothers is going to end anytime soon. Their father had tried his best. He sent the older son Alagiri to Delhi as a Member of Parliament, and kept Stalin in Chennai. Now, Karunanidhi, the field umpire has ruled in favour of Stalin, but Alagiri wants the party to be the third umpire.
However, the cadre are not mere spectators. Not least because DMK is one of the most democratic parties in the country, with a highly evolved system of grass root level participation.
Experts say that Stalin has made inroads within the Party, even as he undertook extensive field visits in all the districts over the years. Unlike typical dynastic politics, Stalin did not get a leg up in the Party from day one. His political baptism happened when he was arrested under MISA during the Emergency.
Yet, for years he was a small fry. During the 70s, 80s and 90s, the family members of Karunanidhi were never pushed to the forefront as there were many ‘Seniors’ in the upper echelons. In 1989, Stalin was still only a MLA. It was another seven years before he moved up as the mayor of Chennai. It was not until 2006 that he got a ministerial berth in the state assembly.
Brother Alagiri meanwhile had been dispatched to Madurai, where he enjoyed building himself a reputation as the party ‘strongman’. It was also the rallying point for many cadre, and Alagiri nurtured the grass root level support there. It was only in 2009, that Alagiri got a ticket to contest in the Lok Sabha elections, and gained himself a ministerial berth in the Chemicals & Fertilisers ministry.
Today, that has changed, with both brothers apparently vying for the post of the party president. In recent years, Stalin has emerged as the go-to man for the party that took a massive drubbing in the last Assembly elections, but continues to be a major ally of the UPA government in Delhi. His strength is his administrative capability, say political observers. However, he has never had to face severe political challenges on his own. With the groundwork for the 2014 Lok Sabha election on the cards, the DMK has a lot of work to do in its yard.
Will the simmering saga of sibling rivalry affect the Party?
“Stalin will have to overcome the Alagiri challenge," says S Murari, political commentator and author. “The greater challenge for him is to be accepted outside of the DMK as a charismatic leader who can lead a coalition to face elections, something that Karunanidhi always enjoyed. Plus, people have to vote for him as they used to vote for Karunanidhi.”
Being a wily politician, none of these would have escaped Karunanidhi. It is quite possible that he floated the succession ball as nothing but a ‘trial balloon.’ What is clear is that nobody is getting promoted, right now. It is back to the basics — of building consensus among the cadre.
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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist