ALL IN THE FAMILY: DMK president M. Karunanidhi (sitting) with M.K. Stalin
There is an excited buzz at Anna Arivalayam — the sprawling headquarters of the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) in Chennai. M. Karunanidhi, the DMK’s 88-year-old president, is closeted with journalists and visitors. Karunanidhi, who has ruled over the party for four decades after the death of its founder C.N. Annadurai, has announced that he would second the candidature of the party treasurer, his third son M.K. Stalin, as the DMK’s next president. For all intents and purposes, he has proclaimed Stalin as the heir to his political mantle.
The man in focus — 60-year-old Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin, popularly known as Thalapathy (lieutenant) — emerges from his rooms clad in the trademark white dhoti and a crisp white shirt. A band of party workers trails behind him. And S. Manimaran, a DMK old-timer, who has written a book on Stalin’s political career, is waiting to gift him the eulogistic offering.
“I wrote this book as a fitting reply to critics like Vaiko who criticise Stalin’s role in the DMK,” he says. (Vaiko is a fiery Tamil nationalist, who, some say, was expelled from the DMK because Karunanidhi saw him as a threat to his son).
Stalin, a thin, wiry man, seems composed and relaxed — probably because the question of succession has been settled at last. He listens respectfully to Manimaran. “This is what endears him to us. He mingles with us and does not behave like the leader’s son,” says Manimaran obsequiously.
Of course, political observers contend that it’s outrageous the way Karunanidhi has named his son as his successor in the DMK, as if the party were a piece of family property. Veteran journalist Cho Ramaswamy, an AIADMK supporter, says, for instance, that this is akin to “writing a will”. And “he might change his mind tomorrow,” he adds sarcastically. Others are equally dismissive. Says D. Pandian, state CPI leader, “It is no longer a party but a family affair. He is just inheriting the post.”
So will Stalin reward his father’s faith in him and lead the DMK back to power in the next elections?
That remains to be seen. However, nobody can deny that Stalin, unlike his other brothers — Muthu, Azhagiri and Tamilarasu — worked hard to keep his father’s faith in him alive. Unlike Muthu, who faded into oblivion after he failed as a film actor, Stalin quickly dropped the idea of acting after a few lacklustre stints in plays and TV serials and concentrated on politics. And, unlike his other brother and central minister M.K. Azhagiri, whose political influence seems restricted to the district of Madurai, Stalin has worked his way up the party hierarchy and has the support of the party cadre and leaders across Tamil Nadu.
Stalin’s foray into politics happened when he was a mere teenager. In 1968, fired by inspiring leaders of the Dravidian movement such as C.N. Annadurai, V.R. Nedunchezhiyan, K. Anbazghan, the 15-year-old Stalin organised his first public meeting to felicitate Annadurai on his birthday.
Party old-timers remember the young Stalin as an enthusiastic political organiser. Says R.S. Bharathi, a DMK party member for 50 years and head of the party’s legal cell, “I first saw him canvassing for M.G. Ramachandran during an election campaign in 1967. I found him good at organising meetings even at that young age.”
In 1971, Stalin carried a torch and walked from Chennai to Chengalpet (a distance of 16km), to the DMK conference in MGR’s presence, recalls Bharathi.
Stalin started to play a prominent role in the party after MGR’s exit in 1972. (The latter went on to found the AIADMK party.) In 1973, Stalin was elected a member of the DMK’s general council and started spearheading the party’s youth wing.
One incident, which propelled Stalin into the limelight, was his arrest under the infamous Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) during the Emergency in 1975. He, along with some others, was badly beaten up in jail.
However, even as he was laying the foundation of his political base, Stalin’s private image was getting a knocking. Says columnist and political observer Gnani Sankaran, “Until the 1980s, he behaved like the typical spoilt son of a rich family.” He got married in 1975 but stories of his excesses abounded.
As a child Stalin, like his other siblings, did not get much attention from his father. Says Sankaran, “Karunanidhi did not have time for his sons. He left his children’s upbringing to the mothers.” Stalin studied in the Tamil medium section of a prominent Chennai school — the Madras Christian College school. B. Jayaraman, a retired teacher at MCC, remembers him as a quiet, average student but a keen observer of people. “He never bragged that he was the chief minister’s son. Once he helped an old teacher who wanted his Rs 19 pension increased. I passed the petition to Stalin, who in turn gave it to his father, and his pension was raised to Rs 100.”
P. Raju, MCC Old Boys Association co-ordinator, says, “Stalin’s classmates remember him as a friendly boy who used to share his humungous tiffin which used to come from his home at lunchtime.”
If Stalin sowed his wild oats in his younger days, by the time he became mayor of Chennai in 1996 — a post he held till 2001 — he seemed to have got down to the business of becoming a serious politician. “It is here that he made a name for himself as an able administrator,” says former mayor M. Subramaniam (see box). Stalin has also penned a book called Payana Siragugal about his travels as a mayor.
Stalin has had stints in the legislative Assembly too — 1989, 1996, 2001 and 2006. He served as minister for local administration and rural development from 2006-2011 and then in 2009 was elevated to the post of deputy chief minister.
Though Stalin is not a powerful orator or a literary personality like his father, he is certainly much more accommodating, say those who know him. “It’s unlikely that he will continue the infamous rivalry with Jayalalithaa that his father has,” says Sankaran. “After the tsunami in 2004, Stalin had met her to give a donation. Karunanidhi would have never done that,” he points out.
Congress party leader C. Gnanasekaran agrees that Stalin listens to opposition members. “He is certainly receptive. Two years ago, I called him at 4.30am to help me with the sudden arrest of a Congress MLA in Thiruvanamalai. He responded immediately.”
Whether Stalin will be able to lead the DMK after his father’s demise is anyone’s guess. He may lack his father’s political flair but he has the party’s backing, and many feel that he has actually earned his position in the DMK.
And Karunanidhi at least may have long known that of all his sons, it was Stalin who had what it takes. When the police came to arrest the 23-year-old Stalin on February 1, 1976, under MISA, the DMK leader tapped his son on his back and said impassively, “Indira Gandhi is making you a leader to reckon with by arresting you.”
Will his words be prophetic? Tamil Nadu waits to find out.
Achievements as mayor
Flagged off the singara (beautiful Chennai) slogan and won a Hudco award for clean city
Built 10 overbridges in Chennai
Privatised garbage clearance by handing it over to a Singapore company
Revamped corporation schools