The day M K Stalin was born, his father Muthuvel Karunanidhi, then an emerging DMK leader, was at a condolence meeting for Joseph Stalin. As someone informed him about the birth of his second child from his second wife Dayalu Ammal, Karunanidhi instantly named his son after the Soviet Communist leader. This DMK fable is not without the contradictions that such lores are allowed — Stalin was born on March 1, 1953; the Soviet leader died four days later.
M Naganathan, one of Karunanidhi’s closest friends, who taught economics at the University of Madras and who accompanied the late DMK leader for his morning walks for about 25 years, is fond of recounting this story. Talking to The Indian Express the day Karunanidhi travelled out of Chennai for the last time — to address rallies in a few northern and central districts ahead of the April 2016 Assembly elections — Naganathan also compared Karunanidhi’s stand on his successor to that of another Communist leader, China’s Mao Zedong.
“Whenever the topic of handing over the reins to Stalin came up, Kalaignar (as Karunanidhi was fondly called) would say, ‘I don’t support anyone, they act and grow for themselves’. That’s just like Mao,” he said. Mao wouldn’t name a successor and even dared the ‘Gang of Four’ led by his wife Jiang Qing to capture power.
“But at the same time, Kalaignar knew what his son was capable of, and admired Stalin for that,” added Naganathan.
Thus, Karunanidhi, who is credited with giving Tamil cinema of the 1940s and ’50s some of its best lines, scripted much of his son’s life — from the unconventional name to Stalin’s entry into politics to deciding when he would take over the party.
At the peak of the May 2016 Assembly polls, when Stalin ran a much-celebrated campaign despite his father’s reluctance to declare him the chief ministerial candidate, Karunanidhi said, “Stalin can become chief minister if nature does something to me.”
Once again, the script worked unfailingly. It was only in January 2017, three months after Karunanidhi, then 93 years old, fell sick, that a high-level party committee named Stalin ‘working president’. With Karunanidhi’s death on August 7 at age 94, Stalin is now the undisputed chief.
A LONG CLIMB
From the image of “a bratty VIP kid” in his early years to ‘Aravindan’ — the character of a journalist that Stalin played in Doordarshan TV serial Kurinji Malar in the mid-1990s — and now, ‘Thalapathi (General, as he has come to be known)’, Stalin has come a long way.
His five-decade-long political career — he started as a student campaigner in the 1967 elections and went on to become deputy CM in his father’s 2006-2011 DMK government — has been no easy climb.
All along, there have been unflattering comparisons between father and son — that Stalin, politically, is not a patch on his father, that he is not the voracious reader or prolific writer that his father was. Yet, even his critics concede that it’s unusual for a dynast to wait this patiently, without a hint of revolt, for his turn.
Now that the 65-year-old has finally got his chance, the most pressing political challenge ahead of him would be to display the political acumen his father had in generous measure. “After Kalaignar, people will expect a lot from Stalin. But Stalin’s advantage is that he is a familiar administrator, people of Chennai know him and his work as mayor, and the state has seen him working hard while he was deputy CM,” says DMK organisation secretary T K S Elangovan, pointing to Stalin’s tenure as Chennai city mayor between 1996 and 2001 and his stint as rural development minister in Karunanidhi’s Cabinet in 2006-11.
As mayor, Stalin’s signature pet project, ‘Singara Chennai (Beautiful Chennai)’, is credited with sprucing up the city’s infrastructure. “Also, when he became deputy CM in 2006-2011, Kalaignar didn’t give him any of the sought-after portfolios such as PWD, highways and electricity. Instead, he gave him the Rural Development portfolio and that’s where Stalin picked up his administrative skills,” says a senior leader.
Elangovan says Stalin used this ministerial stint to strengthen Self Help Groups in the state and that he would stand on the stage for hours to personally hand over cheques to hundreds of women from these groups.
His critics, however, point to the two big defeats under his watch — the 2016 Assembly elections, which the DMK lost for the second consecutive time to arch-rival AIADMK, and last year’s R K Nagar bypoll.
The DMK lost the 2016 elections despite Stalin’s nine-month-long state-wide road trip drawing huge crowds. The DMK’s defeat was attributed to a third front comprising Tamil-Left-Dalit parties, a coalition allegedly floated by the late Jayalalithaa, which split anti-government votes and derailed Stalin’s plans. If Stalin managed to come out largely unscathed from that defeat, it’s because with 89 MLAs in the DMK alliance, he leads one of the most powerful oppositions in the state Assembly.
However, what stung hard was the RK Nagar defeat, with many DMK insiders blaming Stalin and the alleged coterie around him for the loss. T T V Dhinakaran, nephew of Jayalithaa’s aide Sasikala, then hardly a year old in state politics, became the first Independent candidate to win a bypoll in the state, pushing the DMK to the third spot. “Stalin was overconfident and assumed that people would vote for the DMK. But when voters saw a fresh face who had dared to take on both the BJP government at the Centre and the AIADMK government in the state, they voted for Dhinakaran,” says a former DMK minister.
That election also threw up a new rival for the DMK and signalled a redrawing of the state’s politics, with many political observers saying Tamil Nadu hasn’t seen the last of this Dhinakaran versus Stalin battle.
Another election battle looms — the upcoming by-poll in Thiruparankundram (possibly by December 2018) — and all eyes are on how Stalin handles this one. “Another defeat will be disastrous for him. He has to ensure the party wins this bypoll before gearing up for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls,” says a senior party leader.
Talking of how Karunanidhi was a “master in coalition politics”, the leader says, “In the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, S Ramadoss’s PMK demanded seven seats and the DMK agreed to share only five. As the talks looked like they would fail, Kalaignar decided to offer a Rajya Sabha seat to Ramadoss’s son Anbumani. While making the offer, Kalaignar joked that the Rajya Sabha seat offer was confirmed even if the PMK failed in all five Lok Sabha seats. That one line sealed the alliance and Anbumani later become a Union minister. Stalin will succeed if he learns this art of coalition politics.”
Stalin can’t lose any time in learning this art as his role in any possible coalition ahead of the 2019 elections will be keenly watched. Karunanidhi, a champion of federal rights, had been the glue for several coalitions that had taken on power structures at the Centre, and Stalin is already showing signs of taking on a more proactive role.
In May 2017, at the diamond jubilee celebrations of Karunanidhi’s career in the Assembly, he invited several anti-BJP leaders from across the country. He has sent out other signals too — in May, he met Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao, and a month earlier, endorsed on Twitter Mamata Banerjee’s “efforts” to “bring together various political parties to oppose the autocratic and anti-democratic rule of the BJP”.
Many senior leaders, however, say that while the BJP’s “communal” politics is “unacceptable” for the DMK, Stalin may keep his options open since he is aware that the party’s regional politics is above everything else.
Says a senior DMK leader, “Our main concern is maximum strength for us, irrespective of whether it is the Congress or BJP at the Centre. If Stalin wants to win more seats in the Lok Sabha, he won’t shy away from a Third Front, even if it weakens the Congress in Delhi.”
Veteran AIADMK leader and organising secretary C Ponnaiyan says they will “wait to see the DMK’s fate” under Stalin. “Stalin is liked by his cadres but not by the public. Moreover, there are rivalries within the family. In a state like Tamil Nadu, which is proud of its linguistic heritage, Karunanidhi’s eloquence in Tamil helped him connect with the masses and papered over all his other problems. The situation is now different,” he says.
Though there are several insiders in the party who are sceptical if Stalin will ever be his father’s son, they accept his status as the unchallenged leader of the party.
With Karunanidhi’s closest associates K Anbazhagan and Arcot N Veerasamy withdrawing from active politics, Durai Murugan, 80, is the only leader from the Karunanidhi era left in Stalin’s inner circle. “Durai Murugan has been playing the role of Bhishma for Thalapathi (general) Stalin,” says a close associate of Stalin.
Former DMK ministers E V Velu, K Ponmudy and K N Nehru, and former Chennai city mayor Ma Subramanian are known to be part of Stalin’s inner circle. So is Kanimozhi, Stalin’s half-sister from Karunanidhi’s third wife Rajathi Ammal. Kanimozhi, along with former Union ministers T R Baalu, A Raja and Tiruchi Siva, are expected to be the party’s faces in Delhi, a role Murasoli Maran played for Karunanidhi.
Party sources say that after Raja’s acquittal in the 2G spectrum case, he has grown closer to Stalin. “Raja is the face of Dalits in the DMK and cannot be ignored,” says an associate of Stalin. “But Dayanidhi Maran (former Union minister and son of the late Murasoli Maran, Karunanidhi’s nephew) will remain insignificant as Stalin hasn’t forgiven him for the 2007 survey,” he adds.
That year, a survey conducted by the Marans’ family-owned Dinakaran daily found 70 per cent of the people backed Stalin as Karunanidhi’s successor, and 2 per cent supported his elder brother M K Alagiri. The survey had led to Alagiri supporters going on a rampage at the daily’s office in Madurai, leaving three people dead. “Stalin blames the survey and thus the Maran brothers for having worsened the family rivalry,” says the associate.
Worryingly for Stalin, the family rivalry remains a steady undercurrent. “Stalin has to keep both Alagiri and Kanimozhi on board,” says a party leader and a long-time associate of Karunanidhi. “But Alagiri will never be a threat for Stalin because he has no strong constituency or mass support left. The only worry is that if Stalin keeps him in the dark, the Opposition might use him to talk about the rift in the family,” he says.
Kanimozhi dismisses any talk of trouble in the family and says, “I don’t work in the DMK as (Stalin’s) sister, but as a party member. So there is no question of family rivalry… There is absolutely no rivalry in the party.”
Although there has often been talk of conflicting interests between Stalin and his half-sister in the past, of late, there is an evident camaraderie between the two. Talking of how Stalin was in tears during Karunanidhi’s funeral, a member of the family recalls that the only other time he looked this shaken was when Kanimozhi was sent to Tihar jail in the 2G spectrum case. “They have had many differences, but the fact that she went to Tihar was unacceptable to him,” he said.
A close associate of Stalin adds: “When others tried to tell him that Kanimozhi would be alright, he said, ‘I know about prison life’. Stalin will never forgive the Congress for Kanimozhi’s imprisonment.” Stalin was jailed during the Emergency under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act.
While his siblings no longer pose a threat, Stalin will now have to worry about how he can distribute power among the next generation in the family.
With Stalin preparing to launch his son Udhayanidhi, 40, an actor and film businessman, into politics, sources in the DMK say this has been the cause of minor disagreement between Stalin and his son-in-law Sabareesan, 47. Sabaresan, until now considered the most powerful in Stalin’s camp, had played a key role in his recent election campaigns.
Ruling out any chance of revolt, the DMK’s Elangovan says, “The party is fully behind Stalin. Even if someone revolts, cadres will rally behind Stalin as he is the party leader.”
Anbil Mahesh, one of the emerging young faces in the party and a known orator, says Stalin is “Kalaignar 2.0”. “Whenever he takes a decision, he consults senior leaders like Durai Murugan. At the same time, he has absolute power in the party. As a person, he is approachable and is disciplined in his lifestyle and routine,” says Mahesh.
Stalin’s wife Durga will take some credit for this “disciplined lifestyle”, which includes his gym routine, morning walks in the IIT-Madras campus and a strict diet. “There are strict orders from (Durga) that he can only drink green tea. And he has to carry home-made food and dry fruits. Also, he is bound to listen to his wife on two things — an annual tour with family and a complete medical check-up in London,” says an associate.
A leader close to the family says she even has a say in many of his personal choices — including the Chinese-collar shirts that he has taken to wearing and his subtle shift in beliefs. “Earlier, the couple used to have disagreements over her demand that he accompany her to temple visits. But over the years, Stalin has started listening to her advice on astrology and even auspicious timings. But of course, like his father, he still doesn’t pray,” says the leader.
As he steps into his new role, Stalin will know such comparisons with his father are inevitable, the burden of a legacy that comes from being the ‘leader’s son’.
A few hours after Karunanidhi’s death on August 7, Stalin penned an emotional open letter to his late father. “I have always addressed you as Thalaivare (leader)… Can I call you Appa (father) just once?”