Since the DMK predictably won the Tamil Nadu elections, although with far less of a sweep than the party and its supporters and the Delhi-centric media had expected, there has been some jubilation across India—three states, we say, have resisted the manipulations of the BJP and voted in the opposition.
West Bengal, despite the elections being staggered over eight phases in a manner that people believed would allow the BJP to undermine the popularity of chief minister Mamata Banerjee, opted for another five years—and a third term—under the Trinamool Congress and “Didi”. The victory of Pinarayi Vijayan was no surprise either. Both have been chosen by a large section of the public for the faith they have inspired and the work they have done.
In the case of M K Stalin, the situation is rather different. He has never been a chief minister. He has not even been in power for the last decade, even under the shadow of his father Karunanidhi. His being voted into power is not so much a vote for stability as a vote against status quo. Stalin’s will be a new beginning, a test that he must pass.
Among the reasons for the DMK dethroning the AIADMK are the death of Jayalalithaa, her party’s alliance with the BJP and the current situation.
Both the DMK and the AIADMK lost their leaders since the last election—Jayalalithaa suddenly and unexpectedly, very soon after she had been crowned chief minister for a second time in a row; Karunanidhi after a long illness. The difference was that the latter had appointed an heir in Stalin, much to the chagrin of his older son Azhagiri, while Jayalalithaa had never groomed one. She may have been the first Dravida party leader to have failed to choose a successor, and the party is paying the price now.
There has also been some fear that the void may be filled by her constant companion Sasikala, who has just served a prison term in the disproportionate assets case. Sasikala has also been blamed by many of Jayalalithaa’s supporters for leading her “astray”. The alliance between stand-in chief minister O Paneerselvam and eventual chief minister Edappadi Palaniswamy stitched together a fragmented AIADMK and prevented the party from breaking into further factions after Jayalalithaa’s death. But without an enigmatic leader or a chosen successor, there was no real face to the party and that worked against them.
Having scraped through to a win in 2016 despite the public’s rage at the state government’s mismanagement of the flood situation, the Covid-19 crisis may have proven too large an obstacle for the AIADMK this time.
The anti-incumbency was exacerbated by its alliance with the ruling party at the centre. Tamil Nadu has never taken kindly to bigotry. There is no wave of anti-Muslim or anti-Christian sentiment in the state.
The AIADMK has been accused of “using money power” by the likes of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi president Thol Thirumavalavan, but the DMK’s ad spend on social media, particularly on YouTube, cannot have been much less.
There is little point claiming that the public has put its faith in Stalin. The fact that this was not a sweep for the DMK, despite the factors working against the AIADMK, is evidence of some hesitation—and even resignation—on the part of the public.
In the DMK’s previous terms in power, when it was led by Karunanidhi, Stalin was criticised for commissioning the construction of a plethora of bridges which did not particularly serve to ease traffic bottlenecks. The DMK found itself in a soup with the 2G scam. And the severe shortage of coal for power supply was blamed on the constant felicitation festivals held for the patron Karunanidhi, for which entire roads would be lit up through the night.
Stalin has much to prove to convince the public that he does merit their trust.
First on the list, of course, is the management of the Covid crisis and availability of vaccines. It is not easy for opposition states to secure access to goods that are distributed by the centre and hard to come by. After the vitriol of the campaigning, and the barbs against Narendra Modi and Amit Shah by the DMK cadre, Stalin will have his task cut out in re-establishing amicable relations with the centre.
Next on the list is the management of the floundering economy and the power shortage. We cannot afford power cuts at a time when people are dependent on oxygenators and other machines that run on electricity. Lockdowns will also have to be handled so that the economy is not hit as badly as last year.
More than anything else, Stalin will have to be a bigger person than any of his predecessors. It has been a tradition in Tamil Nadu for governments to be voted in through anti-incumbency and then to spend years undoing all the work of the previous regime rather than building on what is feasible. Such small-mindedness has no place at a time of regional or national crisis.
It remains to be seen whether Stalin can be more than his father’s son.
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com