Dynastic politics in India is growing stronger with the leaders of political parties naming their family members to succeed them even as their parties have been docile to accept it. Leaders like Sonia Gandhi, Parkash Singh Badal, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav, K. Chandrasekhara Rao, and Nara Chandrababu Naidu, and Farooq Abdullah, to name a few, believe in dynastic politics. The latest to join this club is the 93-year-old DMK supremo Muthuvel Karunanidhi, who has declared his younger son M.K.Stalin as his political heir. "From his prison days where he faced a lot of hardships, he has himself worked very hard and elevated himself systematically to the position of future president (of DMK). In that aspect, he remains my political heir apparent today,” he said in a recent magazine interview.
Stalin may not have the charisma or the literary reputation of his father nor his colourful life, but he has moved up by sheer hard work playing his cards well by working under his father for over four decades now. No doubt that the DMK went through the democratic motions of electing its office bearers all these years. Karunanidhi had all along said that the party would elect his successor. So declaring Stalin as his political heir apparent is not in the style of the original DMK. The issue of Karunanidhi handing over the baton has been a subject of speculation in DMK. His assertion that Stalin will succeed him has brought relief to the cadres and may put an end to the sibling rivalry in the party.
Strangely enough, the DMK was not a party which believed in dynastic politics. When the first DMK chief and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister C.N.Annadurai died in February 1969, although Nedunchezhian was his number two, Karunanidhi succeeded him. He went on to win elections in 1971 but once M. G. Ramachandran (MGR) split the DMK by launching AIADMK in October 1972; it became tougher for Karunanidhi. The DMK remained out of power for 13 long years, but Karunanidhi’s leadership, and organisational skills kept the party intact.
The DMK has weathered many a political storm in the past. During the Emergency, it faced an existential crisis. After MGR’s death in 1987, the DMK wrested power from AIADMK in 1989 and from then on, both the AIADMK and the DMK have ruled the state alternatively. In the 1991 general elections, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the DMK won just one seat. But the party bounced back in 1996 and 2006. But all these were comebacks made by Karunanidhi. Today, it is for Stalin to boost the morale of the party. From 2011, after losing the Assembly elections and facing allegations in the 2G-spectrum scam, the DMK has been on the back foot. The consecutive loss of the Assembly polls in 2011 and 2016 has made the party workers gasping for political oxygen. After his hard work in the 2016 Assembly elections, the party won 100 seats, which was seen quite creditable for the DMK.
At the family level, Karunanidhi has chosen Stalin ignoring the claims of his elder son Alagiri who one time asked if the party was a “mutt” where the senior pontiff could anoint his successor. For years Alagiri and Stalin had been engaged in a tussle for their father's favour and clout in the party. But Stalin trumped his elder brother when it came to winning the trust of their father, as also of the party rank and file. The sibling rivalry had been playing out as there is another claimant – Karunanidhi’s daughter and the Rajya Sabha M.P Kanimozhi, who is also in the fray. In the '80s, Karunanidhi’s eldest son, M.K. Muthu, was declared persona non grata in the DMK when he fell out with his father. An angered Muthu joined AIADMK and has been in the political wilderness since. Karunanidhi promoted Stalin in the nineties in preference to the firebrand leader Vaiko, who floated his MDMK.
Alagiri, the elder by two years, had been aspiring to lead the party.
He was not only expelled from the party in March 2014 for alleged anti-party activities but also lost the patronage of his father. The dispute gained fresh momentum in 2013 when he insisted that the DMK continue in the United Progressive Alliance government, but Stalin wanted to pull out.
Stalin had used the small window of opportunity after his brother was dismissed from the party and captured the party.
Karunanidhi’s move comes at a time when the AIADMK leader and Tamil Nadu Chief MinisterJ. Jayalalithaa is ailing in the hospital. The DMK and the AIADMK are ideologically from the same stable of the Dravida Kazhagam of Periyar Ramaswamy Naicker. There were apprehensions that the AIADMK might split if Jayalalithaa continues to remain incapacitated. That was one of the reasons for Karunanidhi announcing his crown prince.
Secondly, there are apprehensions within the party that if he did not name his successor, in the post-Karunanidhi era it might split. Thirdly, Karunanidhi wanted to bequeath his entire party to his son.
Despite naming his political heir, Karunanidhi is clear that he will remain the party chief till he dies. With Jayalalithaa ailing and Karunanidhi getting on in age, Tamil Nadu politics is at an exciting stage as there are no strong leaders in sight.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)