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A year before the 2016 Assembly elections, M.K. Stalin, then DMK treasurer, embarked on a public outreach programme titled Namakku Naamey (We for Ourselves). In a cleverly tailored tour of the state, Stalin travelled to small towns and villages, often eschewing his usual dhoti-shirt garb for trousers and T-shirts, often on a cycle or two-wheeler, or on a bus. He met common folk and heard out their grievances at town hall meetings, even on a one-to-one basis. All this was aimed at young voters, presenting Stalin as a next-gen leader. Elections: Number Game
The tour footage was uploaded on Stalin’s social media accounts, packaging him as a popular leader in his own right, and not just as heir apparent of M. Karunanidhi. The entire show was orchestrated by Sabareesan (in pic, right), Stalin’s son-in-law. An IT engineer, Sabareesan realised the need to leverage digital media after Narendra Modi’s success in 2014. Sabareesan is the man behind Stalin’s stand-out presence on social media.
Not just this, Sabareesan got a team of data crunchers to analyse assembly seats before the 2016 polls, often shortlisting candidates. Though the DMK failed to win, it performed strongly, let down only by the weak show by its ally, the Congress. “There was a mere one per cent difference in voteshare between the AIADMK and DMK. In fact, the DMK won more seats than the AIADMK in direct contests,” points out a senior DMK legislator.
Soon, Sabareesan emerged as the man to approach if one needed to have Stalin’s ear, more so after he became DMK president after Karunanidhi’s demise. Sabareesan’s out-of-the box thinking was on display when he recently convinced Stalin to hold “gram sabhas” in villages to increase DMK’s rural footprint.
Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Sabareesan and his team have drawn up the DMK battle plan. They are for younger candidates, even if they were children of DMK leaders. Though it risks the usual charge, Sabareesan felt that the change of guard should happen with the blessings of seniors who would work overtime. Unlike Stalin’s son Udayanidhi, Sabareesan has no political ambition. He remains an important cog in Stalin’s inner circle—proven when he accompanied his father-in-law to his meeting with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi in December 2018.