The white campaign van slowed down to a halt at Vaniyambadi—a town famous for its leather industry—amidst a flurry of flags of DMK and its allies. A rousing cheer from the waiting crowd filled the air as M.K. Stalin emerged through the roof top. The first glimpse of the DMK leader in a sparkling white shirt sent the crowd into raptures as shouts of “Thalaiva, Thalapathy” reverberated. He smiled, waved and did a namaste relishing the warm reception.
He then spoke for ten minutes, taking pot shots at the Modi government and the EPS dispensation. “Modi never cared to visit the state after the Gaja cyclone. He made you stand for days in front of ATMs after demonetisation, made small industry shut down due to GST and imposed NEET on Tamil Nadu against the people’s wishes. It is time to punish him. We know Modi is a dictator. But what about our chief minister Edappadi? He is an ‘udhavaakarai’ (useless person).” That description of the state’s chief minister had the crowd applauding spontaneously. Stalin paused and smiled as the message sunk in. He is happy, his punches are landing.
These days, the self-belief that radiates from the 66-year-old’s demeanour and the force of his speeches contrast with his hesitant, even bumbling, style of the past that had been the butt of social media jokes. As he gets a firmer grip on his party and is its sole pilot of the election campaign (after Karunanidhi’s demise) Stalin has quickly emerged as his own man.
“Even for us who have seen him over three decades the transformation is obvious. The world knows that Stalin has always been his father’s devoted son. Growing up in the political patriarch’s looming shadow, Stalin learnt his politics at the veteran’s feet and inherited the legacy after his passing away. In the past, if anyone bounced an idea, his reflex reaction would be: ‘I will speak to ‘thalaivar’ (Karunanidhi)’. But the buck stops with him now. He has to claim ownership to the final decision,” says a senior DMK MLA.
His willingness to correct past mistakes is another refreshing change. In 2014 he was instrumental in dumping the Congress on the Lankan Tamil issue but now he is pitching for its leader as the PM candidate. Stalin learnt that in a national election, one needs to be aligned with a national party. “He has also been quite accommodative of the allies. One reason is to put up a formidable front and another is to become acceptable to leaders of other ‘friendly’ parties. His flexibility in allotting two seats each even to minor allies with less than two per cent votes is aimed at not letting any ally down. That’s a positive trait he has got from his father,” observes political commentator Ravindran Duraiswamy.
The new Stalin is not only more decisive, he is also accessible, friendly and relaxed. His public outreach looks more natural as he interacts informally with people during his morning walks of the campaign tour. The stiffness and inhibition that characterised his campaign ahead of the 2016 assembly elections has given way to more friendly banters with strangers. When a tea shop owner in Krishnagiri refused money for the tea, Stalin joked, “Take it otherwise the media might report that Stalin cheated a chaiwallah.” At Madurai when a man sporting a T-Shirt with M.K. Alagiri’s picture asked for a selfie, Stalin posed with a smile. And probably hinted that his elder brother did not matter any longer.
Duraiswamy says that the reason for Stalin’s new found self-assuredness is that he sees no further threat to his leadership. “In the past, Stalin used to see his own shadow as a rival. He was justified since the likes of Vaiko and Alagiri had challenged him. Even Kanimozhi was being encouraged by a group. But now that he has become the leader, this insecurity has disappeared. He is even ready to encourage the second line leaders in his party to the extent that he has given Lok Sabha tickets to their children. That is another way to cement his leadership in the party—by keeping the seniors on his side.”
Stalin has also displayed greater dexterity in dealing with allies. When he used to head the negotiating team during Karunanidhi’s time, he would often be inflexible on the number of choice of seats. The allies would ultimately have to knock on Karunanidhi’s door to push their case. But this time around, Stalin used data and past performances to convince the allies about winnability. “For example, the way he persuaded the minor allies, with no reserved symbols, to contest on the DMK symbol to improve their winning chances, was truly impressive. When our leader Thirumavalavan wanted to contest on a free symbol, Stalin relented and did not stand on prestige,” says Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi general secretary D. Ravikumar.
Stalin also leverages technology to back up his party’s traditional election machinery consisting of grassroots functionaries and booth management. A war room has been established at the DMK headquarters to spot the latest trends, the reach of the party campaign, weak spots in a constituency and also render legal assistance for any candidate. Before Stalin campaigns in a constituency, a team of his data analysis group OMG, tours the place and comes up with a list of local issues to be highlighted in his speech. The images of his campaign and important points are immediately uploaded on his social media platforms. And, of course, a dedicated team from Kalaignar TV ensures maximum TV coverage. If his father believed in the power of the spoken word, Stalin supplements it with the immediacy of visuals.
Among the party cadres too, the acceptability of Stalin is total. “After the spectacle in the AIADMK following Jayalalitha’s death, Stalin ensured that the succession within the DMK was smooth and trouble free. While he has shaped the DMK as per his need by appointing new office-bearers, he has also kept Kalaignar’s memory alive rather than impose his own image unlike Jayalalitha who quickly pushed MGR to the background,” says K. Vijayan, a DMK functionary in Ambur town
Stalin makes sure that his father is never forgotten during his travels across the state. He regularly highlights how “Kalaignar” had tackled an issue, introduced new schemes and had kept his election promises. The mention of his father invariably evokes loud cheers from the crowds proving that the DMK patriarch is still fondly remembered by the party’s supporters. And Stalin can use it as a cushion for improved support like an extra shock absorber. No wonder Stalin winds up his speech with the words, “Kalaignar would promise only what he could accomplish. I am Kalaignar‘s son. I will also do the same.”
- Greater confidence, improved oratory skills
- No insecurity about challenges to his leadership
- Gives space and importance to second line leaders
- Accommodative of allies
- Employs greater use of technology
- Informal approach during public outreach paying off
- Keeps Karunanidhi’s memory alive
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai