The inexorable speed with which the family drama in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is playing itself out would put to shame any prime-time soap opera. Only a year after declaring his third son, M.K. Stalin, a likely choice for taking over the party’s mantle, the DMK patriarch, M. Karunanidhi, has moved with lightning speed to strengthen the hands of his chosen one. Azhagiri, Mr Karunanidhi’s older son, who openly contests Mr Stalin’s standing in the party, has been suspended for his alleged anti-party activities. Mr Azhagiri has decried the party’s attempts to ally with the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam that has eaten into his fiefdom in and around the Madurai district. For what has been interpreted as gross indiscipline, the Madurai unit has been disbanded and five of Mr Azhagiri’s loyalists suspended from the party before the suspension orders were received by Mr Azhagiri. He had been inviting trouble by going against the party’s decision to make an alliance with the DMDK, the only way it could mount a challenge against the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls. But, in sending out a warning to him about what could happen if he failed to toe the party line, Mr Karunanidhi has also tried his best to draw the curtains over a long-festering feud between two brothers and two rival contenders for supremacy in the party. Mr Stalin, who has been given a free hand to re-organize district units of the party before, now has the opportunity to consolidate his hold in an area that has often proved discordant, given the aims and ambitions of its recalcitrant controller. Although the party might emerge from this experiment as a more coherent unit, there is also a chance that it might backfire on the DMK if it fails to chasten Mr Azhagiri. Inside or outside the DMK, the rebel may scotch the party’s chances in southern Tamil Nadu.
The political fortunes of a party that had once crusaded for social justice now depend on its ability to control the bad blood between feuding members of the DMK patriarch’s family. But, for a long time now, the party has been synonymous with the family. The “lack of democracy” in the party (as Mr Azhagiri put it), nepotism and personality cults are uncontested truths in Tamil Nadu’s politics. They become inconvenient only when the narrow interests of politicians are challenged.