The first executive committee meeting of the DMK since M Karunanidhi’s death condoled the passing of the party’s founder-leader. It also became an occasion for the DMK’s senior leadership to endorse working president M K Stalin’s claim to head of the party. Karunanidhi held the post of party president for half a century, though he had passed on the reins of the organisation to his son when his health started to decline. It is expected that the formal elevation of Stalin to the president’s post will take place soon; it is unlikely that anyone in the party will seriously challenge it. For all the threatened dissent, M K Alagiri, Stalin’s elder brother and former Union minister, lacks the support, inside and outside the party, to derail the succession that Karunanidhi endorsed in his lifetime.
For the DMK, the transition comes at a time when Tamil Nadu politics is in a state of flux. Ever since MGR broke with the DMK and formed the AIADMK, the two main legatees of the Dravidian Movement have divided the political space among them; other challengers, including the Congress, left parties, PMK, Dalit groups, BJP, Vaiko, Vijayakanth have diminished over the years and are now forced to align with one of the Dravidian giants to win seats. However, the demise of J Jayalalithaa in 2016 and the split that followed in the AIADMK has upset political equations. The DMK, which appears to be a steady ship for now, is set to emerge as the pole of state politics and the rest of the parties, including the AIADMK factions, may have to recalibrate their preferences. While the DMK may hold its core vote despite Karunanidhi’s absence at the helm, a slew of parties, including those of filmstars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, are eyeing the space that once belonged to the AIADMK. In such a scenario, the next assembly election could be for the DMK to lose.
And that’s the first test for Stalin’s leadership: He will need to maximise the returns for the party, when the general election is held next year. With 39 Lok Sabha seats in the state, the party that sweeps Tamil Nadu can, potentially, influence the affairs at the Centre. The DMK should also not forget that Jayalalithaa had ducked incumbency to retain power in 2016, a first since MGR won three consecutive elections between 1977 and ‘87. Under Karunanidhi, the DMK drew its energy from its Dravidian Movement legacy and the patriarch’s political intelligence in reading the situation. Stalin may need the legacy and more than that to firm up the party’s pole position in the state.