The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam patriarch, M. Karunanidhi, has finally bitten the bullet and named his political heir. It is to be his third son, M.K. Stalin. Although in the late 1990s, he had himself declared that the party is no mutt and that Mr Stalin is no prince, Mr Karunanidhi has never acted in contradiction to the great Indian political tradition that holds the political party to be synonymous with the family. In fact, the grand old man of Dravidian politics has taken that tradition to unprecedented heights through the cumulative enterprise of his extended family. But since the party is also the family, it has also had to bear the brunt of the bitter struggle for primacy among the DMK chief’s wives, sons, daughters and nephews. Mr Karunanidhi’s anointment of his successor, after years of denial, shows his realization of the problem and also his determination to deal with it. Mr Stalin has years of organizational and leadership experience. He has proved his mettle as Chennai’s mayor and Tamil Nadu’s deputy chief minister, and is one of the least controversial figures among the DMK’s current crop of leaders. So Mr Karunanidhi’s choice is not entirely unsound. As Mr Karunanidhi half expects it, Mr Stalin’s record may even be a fitting answer to the query — “What is wrong in naming Stalin…?” — that he throws at anyone questioning his decision. Yet, the choice can never stand the test of impartiality, and that is what is most wrong with it. Much like an illustrious son of the Nehru-Gandhi family being groomed to take over the mantle of prime ministership, Mr Stalin has been promoted, at times over equally promising leaders, to take up a job that the family claims for itself.
With internal democracy almost non-existent within the party, as is the case with most other political parties in Tamil Nadu, Mr Karunanidhi’s decision may not be contested by the party, but it is unlikely to go down smoothly within the family. His elder son, M.K. Azhagiri, has already expressed his resentment, and may pull away from the party, thereby aggravating dissension and further weakening the party. The flipside of this is that the party, without its pretenders, may emerge stronger. Mr Karunanidhi, with an eye on the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, has taken a calculated risk. But it will take years and several electoral battles, fought without his protective shadow, to decide the matter finally.