It must be said to late M Karunanidhi’s credit that though he retained the leadership of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in his hands till his last breath, he did leave behind a clear successor, his youngest of three sons, M K Stalin, who he groomed assiduously and christened as working president in 2016.
That was not easy because his elder son M K Azhagiri was a contender for leadership and had to be ejected from the party to clear the field for Stalin.
On the stipulation that his political heir would be from within the family, Karunanidhi was never prepared to compromise. There was a time when Vaiko was riding high in the DMK. But it was the partisan attitude of Karunanidhi in favour of Stalin that forced Vaiko to quit the party since he found no future in it for himself.
This is reminiscent of late Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, who anointed his son Uddhav in preference to his nephew Raj Thackeray even though the latter was looked upon as being more dynamic and a better organiser and hence well suited as his political heir.
Stalin is accepted within the DMK as Karunanidhi’s successor by the DMK cadres and any attempt by Azhagiri to challenge him would not be acceptable to the party. Even within the extended Karunanidhi family, Stalin’s position is well recognised.
If Azhagiri does challenge Stalin, it would lead to a split in the party with only a small group from the former’s base in Madurai gravitating towards him. The other remotely possible challenger Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi has already reconciled herself to a subsidiary role of managing the affairs of the party in New Delhi.
However, so overweening was Karunanidhi’s influence that Stalin always lived under his shadow and never came out of it in his lifetime. Consequently, his ability or lack of it is essentially untested.
Stalin, indeed, has not held many positions during his over five decades in politics (he had plunged into student politics at the age of 14).
He was the mayor of Chennai Corporation between 1996 and 2002, was the minister of municipal administration and rural development in 2006. He was appointed Tamil Nadu deputy chief minister in 2009.
Initially appointed as secretary of the DMK youth wing in 1984, he was elected DMK deputy general secretary in 2003. Stalin has been the treasurer of the party since 2008.
Stalin has taken effective charge of the party at a time when it is poised to recover lost ground after the demise of his family’s arch-rival AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa, with her successors making a total mess of governance. It is now up to him to capitalise on the situation when there is a virtual power vacuum in the state.
It is more or less certain that he will go into the Lok Sabha elections in combination with the opposition alliance opposed to the BJP. While other parties in the alliance would make little difference to the fortunes of the DMK, it remains to be seen whether aligning or sharing seats with the Congress would bring his party any dividends.
With 39 seats at stake from Tamil Nadu, the party winning a lion’s share of the seats in the Lok Sabha can have considerable bargaining position in the Lower House. Stalin has a challenge on his hands in forging the right alliance and making the right moves.
The Assembly polls will come later and would be crucial for the party’s fortunes. The DMK must come up with a credible and effective campaign to win the hearts of the voters and to defeat the challenge of the AIADMK.
Stalin would indeed be on test, more in the coming months than ever before with Karunanidhi’s departure from the scene.