There are winds of change in Tamil Nadu politics with both the Dravidian parties – the AIADMK and the DMK opting for a leadership change as the old leadership is fading away. While the DMK has its second- generation leaders in place, the AIADMK has none in the aftermath of the death of Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa last month. So it is clinging to her long time companion Sasikala Natarajan in an emotional moment. Whether Sasikala could transfer that moment into a political moment is yet to be seen.
Almost after five decades, the DMK is going in for a generational change. This is significant given the vacuum created by the death of Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu politics. Karunanidhi had been a long time player as he has outlived the AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran and now Jayalalithaa.
Despite the vulnerability, the DMK is in no hurry to split the AIADMK. It needs just 20 more seats to form the government, but the AIADMK has 135 members, and two-thirds of the party are required to split, which is difficult at present. The DMK leaders would like to see the AIADMK crumble under its weight. The BJP at the Centre also does not want to upset the apple cart right now. So for the time being, all are playing a ‘wait and watch’ game.
The Stalin era in the DMK has just begun after he was unanimously elected on Wednesday as the working president of the party by the general council. In recent months, Karunanidhi, who is 93, has been hospitalised twice and suffers from ill-health. Stalin will now cement his power. He has been functioning as the de facto chief for some time and even before the 2016 Assembly polls he campaigned for the party extensively. He has been given credit for the DMK winning 98 seats with the party emerging as a strong opposition in the Tamil Nadu Assembly. The DMK needs an active new leader to lead the party owing to the failing health of the 93-year-old party patriarch Karunanidhi who had steered the party since the late sixties.
Stalin has been in politics for four decades and has been his father’s shadow and a backroom boy. Karunanidhi has chosen him as his political heir despite the claims of his older son M.K. Azhagiri and also his daughter Kanimozhi. He had groomed Stalin carefully and given him positions in the party overlooking his seniors. The top leaders including Durai Murugan have accepted Stalin’s elevation.
Why is the DMK going for a change now? First of all, Karunanidhi sees a chance of good future for the party in the aftermath of Jayalalithaa’s death. Second and more important is that the DMK patriarch Karunanidhi is ailing and has been in and out of a hospital and was unable to do much campaigning in the 2016 Assembly polls. He would like to see that the succession is ensured during his lifetime.
Thirdly, the DMK is a cadre-based party and Karunanidhi never allowed the growth of second rung leaders except promoting his family members. He got rid of Vaiko in 1993 when he found that he could be a rival to his son Stalin. Vaiko floated his party the MDMK and is still around. The party has no one of stature who can take over.
Fourthly, the DMK patriarch has realised the need for a younger face to attract the new generation of voters who would not be just satisfied with the ideological slogans. They want development and expect the party to deliver. Stalin went for an image makeover before the 2016 elections and donned jeans and T-shirt to be in step with the younger voters and also went to temples.
Fifthly, though Stalin wants to become the party chief, Karunanidhi has consistently denied him that place claiming that he will remain in the post as long as he lives. So becoming the working president is the next best option.
As for the AIADMK, the party has lost its most charismatic leader who had brought it to power four times 1991, 2001, 2011 and in 2016. Now it lacks both second rung leaders or a powerful mass based leader. No doubt Sasikala has become the General Secretary of the Party, and O. Panneerselvam who has been nominated by Jayalalithaa herself twice before has become the chief minister, but neither can control the party individually. It is entirely possible that Panneerselvam could emerge as his own man or Sasikala would try to show the chief minister his place. Sasikala is untested, and it is not clear whether she can control the party the same way Jayalalithaa did. They are together for the sake of power now as the AIADMK has another four and a half years to go. The MLAs do not want to go for polls so soon.
While Stalin seems to be on a surer ground as far as politics is concerned, Sasikala too is supposed to have run the party through the backdoor in appointments and allocation of seats. There is also this question whether the BJP would support her or Panneerselvam in the event of a power struggle.
In any case, it is too soon to predict the future as it may take time for the new leadership in both the parties to find its feet and stabilise, but it is a turning point in Tamil Nadu politics.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)