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Lessons from the rout the DMK refuses to learn

By N Sathiya Moorthy
June 03, 2014 16:41 IST
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The DMK still wants to look elsewhere for excuses to its electoral debacle, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

By calling for general elections based on ‘proportionate representation’ and blaming the Election Commission for the poll-eve ban under Section 144 as the near-exclusive cause for the party’s debacle in the Lok Sabha polls, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu has once again sought to deflect serious issues that are eating into the vitals at the grass-roots as never before.

The high-level committee’s meeting called by party patriarch M Karunanidhi a day ahead of his 91st birthday (June 3), supposedly to address the poll debacle, papered over the concerns of the cadre.

Not only has Karunanidhi lost touch with the younger voter, but also the party cadre who comes from the same stock. He has been repeating the statement that a ‘Tamil should rule Tamil Nadu’ ad nauseum from the days of late bête noire M G Ramachandran, a Malayalee, and continued into the days rival All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who used to be a domiciled Kannadiga of Tamil-Iyengar Brahmin descent.

Multi-dimensional malaise

Even while retaining the core vote-share, which is close to a quarter of the polled votes through the recent past, the DMK still faces multi-dimensional malaise that the Karunanidhi leadership is unwilling to and/or incapable of addressing, precisely for the same reason. While staying on as party chief for a record 45 years, Karunanidhi, and hence the DMK, is faced with anti-incumbency, both from the cadre and the ‘non-committed voters’ in the state, who now number close to 45 per cent.

An able administrator and political strategist in his heydays, Karunanidhi can tire his cadres through such unimaginative and uninspiring repeats. Worse still, he has become predictable to political rivals. His solutions to the party’s problems exclude himself and his family, which has become as much a bane as used to be a boon until not very long ago. Brothers M K Stalin and M K Alagiri, despite the latter’s expulsion from the party, have been fighting over a doubtful future -- with step-sister Kanimozhi contributing her bit.

Elections 2014 has proved that the DMK’s cadre-base is intact, and that they also accept anointed crown prince Stalin as their future leader. But other voters have no such loyalty. Trouble began when Karunanidhi granted selective exemption to the second-line from the ‘one-man-one-post’ and ‘family domination’ norms, after returning to power in 1996.

Until then, the top leadership positions and Karunanidhi’s ‘first family’ alone were exempted. This meant that even corrupt and inefficient ministers continued in office and lawless district secretaries dominated the party and polity at the district-level when Karunanidhi’s ‘minority government’ was in office for full five years (2006-11) with committed external support from the Congress ally in the UPA-2 government at the Centre.

Stalin continues to be as nervous as Azhagiri has been brash, that like his elder brother he has only ‘loyalists’ manning the party at all levels, no questions asked, no challenges brooked.

Media & the ‘liberated’ women

The party is unwilling to acknowledge that even cadres don’t read Karunanidhi’s long and winding letters to his ‘udanpirappus’, or brethren, as the sale-figures for the DMK mouth-piece Murasoli would have shown them for decades now. With an ageing and ailing Karunanidhi too having to restrict his famous daily interactions with the cadres over the past decade in particular, the famed two-way connect too is gone away for good. Cadre and media-shy, whatever the reason, Stalin is no patch on what his father used to be.

A party that had benefitted extensively from local media support in the early years -- either out of affection or threat -- lost out over the past decade, not exclusively owing to ‘AIADMK governmental pressure’, as Karunanidhi often implies.

In a very politicised state, the extended ‘first family’ of the Marans in particular entering media business, that too the Tamil print section, in a big way meant that not only the DMK but even Karunanidhi lost the guaranteed non-partisan media space.

Two or three decades back, Tamil Nadu women voted for the ‘charismatic and care-giving MGR’, or for governmental doles, whoever was willing to make it more attractive than others’. Today, the ‘liberated’ middle-class women voters in the nation’s most urbanised state respect Jayalalithaa for what she is -- for ‘putting men in their place’, so to say.

Both women are mired in corruption cases, yes, but Kanimozhi, if she was the DMK’s belated challenger, has proved to be no patch on Jaya. She has depended on parental largesse than any hard political work for positions and recognition.

In comparison, Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam founder Vijakant’s wife Premalatha has proved to be a distant second to Jaya, if at all there is one, as among the hard-working women political leaders and poll campaigners in the state.

Inside the party, Kanimozhi is also seen as a stumbling block in the way of other DMK women with track-record, just as her brothers have been in their own, at times, separate ways.

Petrified by competition

In his early days as chief minister and party president in the late sixties and early seventies, Karunanidhi was petrified by possible competition from the districts. His expelling MGR in 1972, and repeating a similar mistake with Vaiko’s forced exit two decades later showed that not only had he changed, but even his tactics had remained static.

Karunanidhi’s fear of promoting caste and support-based party leaders from the districts led to large-scale migration when MGR formed the AIADMK with his film fans alone to call his own.

Continued isolation of party leaders led to the formation of the Vanniar-centric Pattali Makkal Katchi in the north and the Dalit-strong Puthiya Tamizhagam in the south, the latter opposed to the Thevar-dominated AIADMK under Jayalalithaa in the region.

Both parties were promoted by medical doctors, who were rank outsiders both to politics and the DMK. So was the Dalit-led Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi as a caste-centric challenge to the PMK in particular, founded by a government forensic examiner, who went on to complete his PhD in political science.

The message was clear -- that the new-generation voters of the nineties wanted new faces, new ideas and their own identities. That was before caste identities began merging with the generic IT-identity of the state’s youth. 

Owing to time and distance of the founding generation from the present one, the AIADMK too suffered, but the DMK’s condition was worse, because of the combined maladies.

The Congress and the two Communist parties have all but been wiped out in the state.

Maybe because Stalin entered politics at a relatively young age, and fought his way through the emergency years and the ‘MGR era’, Karunanidhi had cleared the path for him, by ensuring that whatever competition he faced came from within the family -- and was hence manageable.

Now as former deputy chief minister, party treasurer and heir-apparent, Stalin has taken up that task himself, unmindful of the changed times and circumstances, capabilities and acceptability.  

Fearing the shadow

Yet, Stalin seems to fear his own shadow, with the result, yesteryear’s dream-girl Khushboo, among others, would not be drawn into the poll campaign this time. He was happy to induct slap-stick comedian Vadivelu, who not only lost votes for the DMK in 2011, but also lost a very promising career at its zenith at the time. 

Even Kanimozhi, it was reported, had to seek parental interference to campaign for the party. It was also for her to stay relevant when the 2-G case reached the courts. With no LS member to call its own the DMK will have only Kanimozhi in the Rajya Sabha until 2019, after two others retire in 2016, the year assembly elections are due in Tamil Nadu.

Endorser, guarantor

In the Lok Sabha polls, not only did the DMK lose most seats by huge margins, it also came third in many, behind the BJP-NDA. In 217 of the 234 assembly segments that comprise the 39 Lok Sabha constituencies, the AIADMK was on the top of the party.

Stalin’s Korattur assembly segment in Chennai city was one. Karunanidhi’s hometown, but not home constituency of Tiruvarur in the south, to which he had migrated in 2011 after five full years in office, escaped the humiliation.

A credibility re-booting for the DMK now requires across-the-board overhaul, for which the high-level committee showed on Monday that it had no stomach for.

Elections 2016 may not be the same as that in 1996, when the Jaya regime was at anybody’s worse. The DMK still required endorsement from ‘super-star’ Rajnikanth and a good-conduct guarantor in the late G K Moopanar, to sweep the polls.

The party’s situation is no different now, but there are no endorsers or guarantors, in sight for 2016.

Veteran journalist and political analyst, N Sathiya Moorthy is the director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation.

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