February 22, 2020
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Bothersome Brothers

The DMK chief staves off an in-house war

Bothersome Brothers
Bothersome Brothers

Reaching Upwards...

  • At the Coimbatore general council of the DMK, M.K. Stalin’s supporters pushed for him to be made working president, No. 2 to patriarch M. Karunanidhi
  • Brother Azhagiri was totally opposed to any such move
  • Karunanidhi himself stamped out Stalin’s moves to get bigger
  • He introduced a new name in the succession race: Kanimozhi


The succession war in the DMK has been an elephant in the room since the Tirunelveli DMK youth conference in December 2007. Supporters of M.K. Stalin, former deputy chief minister and younger son of DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi, have been clamouring for their “thalapathi” to be made numero UNO in the party. It did not happen at the Tirunelveli meet, when the DMK was in power; it hasn’t happened now, when a battered and bruised DMK met in Coimbatore last weekend.

The difference between Tirunelveli and Coimbatore is that, at the latter meet, Stalin himself egged on his backers to get louder about their support, revealing his impatience. Finally, he was stymied by his own father. At the closed-door executive committee meeting attended by some 350 members, he is learnt to have said that his son’s supporters, in their “orchestrated enthusiasm”, were “trying to create a rift between me and Stalin. If anyone here feels I should quit, I will do so for the sake of the party”. There is one more significant difference—Karunanidhi seems to have introduced another claimant to his throne, his favourite daughter Kanimozhi.

For DMK cadres already grumbling that the Karunanidhi family’s domination had caused the party’s fall in the elections, Kanimozhi’s mother Rajathiammal’s presence, behind Karunanidhi, was not reassuring. Also, if partymen came prepared to blame the 2G scam for the electoral loss, then Rajathiammal’s presence helped squeeze out some sympathy (at one stage, Karunanidhi and Rajathiammal shed tears) for Kanimozhi. The mother’s presence also helped in the adoption of a resolution that the CBI was keeping Kanimozhi in jail because of an “ulterior motive”.

Karunanidhi’s tactic to stamp out Stalin’s overt moves to get anointed with his display of petulance the first day could not, however, keep Stalin’s supporters from chanting “Thalapathi, thalapathi!” again the next day at the general council meeting. This time, Karunanidhi abruptly wound up the proceedings for lunch.

Not shaken Stalin caused him embarrassment, but Azhagiri has held his own

M.K. Azhagiri, the elder son and a Union minister, miffed that Stalin overshadowed him at the meeting, went into a sulk and did not show up for the afternoon session. He had earlier threatened to boycott the Tirunelveli meeting altogether. In exchange for his presence, he had got his father to commit that there would be no change in leadership.

It has been whispered in party circles that in the run-up to the meeting in Coimbatore there were tempestuous scenes between Stalin and his father. At the DMK headquarters, Stalin is believed to have argued with his father and walked out in a huff, after which Karunanidhi left for Mahabalipuram to cool off. Clearly, Karunanidhi is fed up.

No one actually asked Karunanidhi to step down, but the idea was to create the post of “working president” for Stalin, a stepping stone to gradually taking full control. But there might still be a via media. Says Anbazhagan, a senior party leader, “Stalin will get his turn at the right time. I am senior to him (Stalin is No. 3 in the party hierarchy) but I will not compete with him after Kalaignar. I am glad he enjoys greater popularity than me. But we cannot imagine a DMK without Kalaignar. Kalaignar is the DMK.”

Stalin’s open moves against elder brother Azhagiri have upset Karunanidhi, who’s now caught in a bind.

The question is why Stalin, who was not only made deputy CM and party treasurer in 2009, is getting impatient and is openly taking on his brother. In the past, he has let his father handle the embarrassment that resulted from Azhagiri’s blatant efforts to challenge his succession. This time Stalin is even believed to have got supporters from the southern districts to write letters seeking the dismantling of the post of “South Zone organising secretary”, created by Karunanidhi in January 2009 for Azhagiri.

One G.V. Shah, who has been with the party for more than five decades, is believed to have written seeking the dismantling of the post to avoid “creating factions and confusion”. Stalin has also rallied to his side supporters like former minister Subbulakshmi Jagadeesan, who from her hospital bed told other Stalin backers, “We have been waiting for long. Please be with him and see that this time Stalin gets the post he deserves.”

A former minister said that after the DMK’s defeat “many feel that if Stalin had been chosen to lead the DMK campaign, the AIADMK would not have won by a landslide”. The feeling is that the party needs a strong and reliable leader, not a temperamental one (read Azhagiri). “Stalin is better than Azhagiri by a mile. No one believes Azhagiri will act responsibly,” says a DMK watcher.

Azhagiri is aware of that perception about him. Which is why he has never put himself directly in contention with Stalin, but repeated that “Kalaignar is able and active”. Stalin, unlike Azhagiri, has come up from the ranks, built up the youth wing since its inception 21 years ago, went to jail during the Emergency. He has been mayor of Chennai, and an MLA since 1991. He was made a minister only in the last government. “The party should now elevate him, at least as the working president,” says an ex-minister.

But Stalin may not have factored in his own father’s compulsions. Says a political analyst, “Karunanidhi wants to remain in power. Besides, his agenda now is to see Kanimozhi free.” Also, the DMK needs his presence at a time it is in crisis and faces a slew of land-grabbing cases filed by the J. Jayalalitha government, in which many party stalwarts have been arrested. Even Azhagiri is worried, and went to meet his friends in Palayamkottai and Madurai jails last week. Kalaignar is desperate, and the last thing he wants is a split in the party, should Stalin be declared his successor. So the status quo has to prevail. Stalin will have to wait.

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