WAS the DMK's recent Salem conclave the coronation of Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin? Going by popular perception, the third son of Tamil Nadu chief minister K. Karunanidhi has been nominated his legal heir. The fact that Stalin led the opening rally at the convention is seen by many as a clear pointer to this. But is the rising son really taking over the rising sun, the DMK's poll symbol? The DMK leadership, for its part, is stretching itself to dispel the notion that Stalin is the crown prince. But not everyone is convinced.
Indeed, the future-is-Stalin theme was echoed even among the cadres at Salem. Although Karunanidhi, in the course of his two-hour-long speech, categorically denied dynastic rule in the party: "I am neither a king nor Stalin a prince. The DMK is not a mutt to determine the successor. It's a democratic party and its future leader will be decided only by the party cadres."
However, there is no denying that the 45-year-old Stalin wields clout disproportionate to his position as mayor of Chennai. The issue of dynastic rule is nothing new and in the past too Karunanidhi has been accused of foisting his son on the party. In 1993, the party suffered a split on the issue, with V. Gopalsamy, a key functionary, leaving the DMK to float his own party. Says Gopalsamy: "Karunanidhi is reducing the party to his family property. The parliamentary party is a fiefdom of his nephew Murasoli Maran; the organisational structures are under the control of Stalin; and the southern districts are held on leash by his second son Alagiri."
Naturally, the DMK leadership denies this charge. Says party treasurer and health minister Arcot Veeraswamy: "In a democracy, one is not bothered about one's birth. The only factor that determines acceptability is the choice of the people. Maran has won his Lok Sabha seat thrice. Stalin won his assembly seat twice and lost it twice. But, Gopalsamy's tenure in Parliament was purely by nomination to the Rajya Sabba. Every time he contested, he lost badly." There is no denying that the DMK has a tradition of functioning like a family. And the children of virtually all the founding fathers of the party are today second-rung leaders. Theargument is that no son is guaranteed the top slot and that Stalin can hope to get it only if the cadres accept him as their leader. However, the prominence given to Stalin, the manner in which he has been promoted and the authority he commands within the party clearly point to the fact that he is being groomed for bigger things.
But even Stalin has had to go through the grind. In 1974, as a 21-year-old history student of Madras Presidency College, he enrolled as a member of the student wing. After the imposition of Emergency, the DMK government was dismissed and Stalin arrested under MISA. "1976 was a nightmare," he recollects. "Apart from physical torture at the jail, I was worried about my wife, Durga. I feared that she may be cursed by some relatives and friends for bringing ill-luck." The year in jail made him think, he says, and actually transformed him. "Unlike the present AIADMK leaders, I did not go to jail under any corruption charges. I was arrested because my party opposed the undemocratic rule of Indira Gandhi."
IT was after the electoral defeat in the 1980 general election that the DMK started focusing on the youth. At a party convention in Madurai, the youth wing was accorded special status and made
to function under the direct supervision of the party's general secretary K. Anbazhagan. Stalin's brief was to infuse young blood into the party, and he did this with such zeal that his detractors dubbed him a brat, a tag he has not quite mananged to shake off.
Even then Karunandihi was accused of imposing dynastic rule. To ward off criticism, Stalin was not given a free hand. While every wing of the party—be it the labour wing or the agriculture wing—had autonomy to decide its future course, the youth wing could not take any decision on its own. "Every decision I took had to be approved by the general secretary. Even appointments of ward-level functionaries had to be endorsed by Anbazhagan," recalls Stalin.
In 1984, Stalin contested the assembly elections and lost by a narrow margin from the Thousand Lights constituency in Chennai. But this only seemed to egg him further. He started touring the state and addressing endless public meetings. But politics was not his only interest. In 1987, he tried his hand at acting with a lead role in a 13-part TV serial. He had limited success in this new avatar and it was back to politics when elections were announced in 1989. This time Stalin won by a handsome margin from the same constituency. Everyone expected Karunanidhi to accommodate him in his cabinet. But the DMK chief refused. Says Stalin: "Being Thalaivar's son is not an advantage, politically speaking. It has slowed my pace. But this is the price one has to pay to establish one's own identity."
In the post-Rajiv Gandhi assassination wave in 1991, most DMK leaders, including Stalin, were defeated. Though the party's strength in the Legislative Assembly was reduced to one (Karunanidhi was the only victor), its youth base remained intact, largely due to Stalin's motivational skills. Meanwhile, Stalin did another television serial, Soorya, this time for the family-owned Sun TV.
Stalin really came into his own in 1996, when in the first local bodies election to the Chennai corporation after 25 years, he defeated the combined opposition's candidate, V.S. Chandraleka, by a margin of over four lakh votes to become mayor. It was an impressive victory by any reckoning but it was at the height of a pro-DMK wave. Of course, for DMK leaders it is proof enough of Stalin's popularity. "It will be brahminism to deny Stalin his due space in the polity on the basis of his birth," claims Anbazhagan.
But there is no gainsaying that the upward trajectory of Stalin's political career owes much to the fact that he is Karunanidhi's son. With his manipulative skills and minus his father's oratorial flair, his detractors within the DMK believe the party would fall apart under Stalin. Which is probably why the DMK leadership has made it clear that the son will not be foisted on the party. And no promise has been made to Stalin that he will succeed Karunanidhi. But then, should the cadres elect him as their leader, the top job would be his. This for many does constitute a son-rise.