Stalin, like his father M Karunanidhi did in 2004, may play the king-maker in a way -- not the king, unless the 2024 post-poll circumstances throws up a situation where he alone becomes acceptable to the rest, observes N Sathiya Moorthy.
Given the regions-centric national mood in which West Bengal's Mamata Banerjee first and Telangana's K Chandrashekar Rao soon after threw their hats into the non-existing ring, there is now the new question if Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin is also eyeing the prime minister's seat, kept warm by incumbent Narendra Modi who has no intent to vacate it even after elections 2024, if he and his Bharatiya Janatta Party-National Democratic Alliance could help it.
Unlike Banerjee and Rao, Stalin has not made any such intent plain. Though Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam veteran and parliamentarian T K S Elangovan did make a passing reference not very long ago, none in the party has repeated it since. It is a possible indication that the leadership does not approve of such antics in Stalin's name.
Stalin is alive to the possibilities of the post-poll scenario in 2024, and the little chance that the non-existent anti-BJP combine stands just now to lay any such tall claim. He is even more alive to a situation of the 1996 variety that competition will have to give way to compromise in the choice of H D Deve Gowda, who was nobody's choice initially but became everyone's choice in the anti-BJP, non-Congress combine.
More importantly, such an alliance was a post-poll creation, not a pre-election arrangement, to ensure that the BJP, or even the Congress remotely, did not return to power, after the failed 13-day experiment under then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
That was also when Mulayam Singh Yadav and G K Moopanar tied for the PM's job, and CPI-M boss Harkishen Singh Surjeet concluded that the regional parties could not compete with one another and lose their collective goal, if there was any. This was after Surjeet and his party had vetoed the chances of the CPI-M's then West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu.
By this reckoning, Odisha's Naveen Patnaik, with his quiet disposition and long innings as chief minister, may stand a better chance than Mamata or KCR -- that is if Modi and the BJP-NDA did not make it the next time round.
Stalin, like his father did in 2004, may play the king-maker in a way -- not the king, unless the post-poll circumstances throws up a situation where he alone becomes acceptable to the rest.
Again in 2004, with Jaya as CM, her party' second-line propagated the idea of Amma becoming prime minister. However, the state's voters handed her down a complete rout for a second time after the Lok Sabha polls of 1996, making it both a failed project and jinxed proposition for anyone else in her place in Tamil Nadu to consider with confidence.
Even without it all, Stalin seems still bugged by the traditional 'Dravidian discomfort' of leading a cobbled-up government in Delhi. A cobbled-together government it would have to be if a regional party leader had to get the chance to become PM.
His late father M Karunanidhi, and before him their bete noire and AIADMK founder M G Ramachandran had shied away from such ideas. Karunanidhi especially shunned the proposal, made by George Fernandes and Biju Patnaik, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections of 1996.
Both of them had learnt their lessons from the late Congress rival K Kamaraj. After being a successful and one of the most talked about chief ministers in the state for nine long years, Kamaraj migrated to national politics as party president in 1963, at the invitation of then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It was Nehru's tactics to exit other old hats under a scheme named as 'Kamaraj Plan'.
However, Kamaraj's own exit contributed to the ruling party's disastrous showing in elections 1967 in the state. Kamaraj lost his native Virudhunagar seat to a DMK student leader, the late P Sreenivasan. The Congress has since lost all hopes of returning to power in Tamil Nadu.
Neither Karunanidhi nor MGR wanted that fate to befall their respective parties, and they themselves losing personal stature and political ground as Deve Gowda did much later.
Jayalalithaa was different. In the early nineties, when she became chief minister, her AIADMK minions started promoting her as the next prime minister post the 1996 polls. She did not stop them, so the voice only grew louder.
It may not have contributed to her rout in elections 1996, when she also lost her Bargur seat, but it did dent her national image all the same.
So, as a BJP-NDA ally in 1998 when Vajpayee returned as prime minister for one year, her surreptitious demand to be made deputy prime minister with the all-important defence portfolio did not have any takers in the BJP's top-rung.
In Stalin's case now, he has the added precedent of the TDP's N Chandrababu Naidu in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. Naidu was as much a media creation as Modi was before the latter became prime minister in 2014, but without the kind of well-oiled and ideologically-oriented machinery of the RSS-BJP.
Naidu's prime ministerial dream just vapourised, and so has his hopes of returning as chief minister of the residual Andhra Pradesh, even after the creation of Telangana.
At present, Stalin seems keen on leaving behind a legacy like father Karunanidhi, arch-rival MGR and predecessor Kamaraj. Each of them have left behind an identifiable scheme to call their own even decades after they left.
For Kamaraj, it was free education and free meals, MGR upgraded the latter into a budgeted, institutionalised government scheme.
Karunanidhi, MGR and Jaya shared laurels on the 'social justice' cum 'social welfare' front, through what is often criticised as freebies to the state's poor and needy. However, like the free meals schemes that got global appreciation later on, the benefits of the freebie schemes in the state have been acknowledged elsewhere in later years.
Thus, many state governments and also the BJP-ruled Centre have adopted those schemes as grandiose national initiatives under different names.
It is thus that Stalin launched a new Naan Mudhalvan, or 'I am a topper' scheme when he turned 69 on March 1.
Recalling memories of yesteryear blockbuster movie Mudhalvan, which translates both as chief minister and topper, the scheme aims at the students and the youth of the state, with the eye on the future generation's skills and entrepreneurial development, and also their continued commitment to the party.
Per first look, the scheme seems to have its origins in the initiative of Karunanidhi's last term as chief minister (2006-2011) and institutionalised by the successor Jayalalithaa government in the form of the state's Skills Development Corporation.
However, there is the possibility of Stalin's current initiative taking a better shape, scheme and implementation, as Kamaraj's mid-day meal scheme did at the hands of MGR in 1982, and has continued to expand and improve through the four decades since, and under rival Dravidian administrations.
On his birthday eve, Stalin had Congress leader Rahul Gandhi release the first volume of his autobiography, Ungail Oruvan in Tamil, which translates as 'One Among You'. It is a carefully chosen title, underlining the proximity that Stalin wants to establish with his readers and state's citizenry.
Both had the underlying theme associated with Stalin's first major public outreach ahead of the 2016 assembly polls that the party lost. 'Namakku Naamey' ('We, for Ourselves') was the motto of his walkathon across the state, to touch base with the youth of the day, which DMK veterans felt the party had lost over the previous decades. It did improve the party's performance than what was expected, but the real results were felt in the subsequent, post-Jaya, post-Karunanidhi Lok Sabbha polls of 2019 and assembly elections in 2021.
For the launch of the autobiography, Stalin invited Kerala's CPI-M Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, former J-K CM Omar Abdullah and Bihar's RJD leader, Tejashvi Yadav.
Noticeably, he did not invite the Congress party's regional rivals like Mamata and KCR, indicating that he preferred doing business with national parties and also regional parties not antagonistic towards the Congress. This was so after KCR called on him in recent weeks, after his maiden declaration hinting at his aspiration for the PM's job.
If Stalin did not invite UP's Akhilesh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party leader, it may have owed to the latter's busy schedule through the campaign for the assembly polls. That way, a clearer picture may emerge for all prime ministerial aspirants only after the UP poll results are out -- not that nothing conclusive can be said until after the parliamentary election results are also out, in 2024.
The choice of invitees for the autobiography function should also be a subtle clarification of Stalin's position on the PM's job vis a vis that of the Congress as a party and Rahul Gandhi as a leader.
However, some DMK insiders would not want him to pre-emptively close post-poll options completely. There is then the other section that feels that Stalin's elevation at the appropriate time to national politics (alone) would give his legislator-son Udaynidhi Stalin adequate space to develop on his own in state politics.
Others differ. They point to Stalin's long wait since the early 1970s, and becoming chief minister 50 years later, in 2021. They refer to Karunanidhi's promotion of Stalin up to a point, and also the inherent limitation that he had referred to in personal discussions with party veterans.
According to Karunanidhi, 'There is only so much I can do to place Stalin or my other children in particular positions in the party. They will have to first win over the cadres, then they have to become acceptable to the voters. I or no one else can do anything about the latter in particular.'
Translated, this means that Stalin would not want to vacate the CM's post or party post, or aspire to become PM, just to accommodate Udaynidhi or half-sister Kanimozhi, MP, or both.
On the contrary, he seems serious and sincere to ensure that the 'Dravidian flame' that he has ignited all over again this far away from when it had lost its light and flame in the eighties or so, should not be allowed to fade away.
Udaynidhi may be a choice to keep the flame and name together and glowing, but that also requires a lot of hard work, connect with the cadre and the voter alike, and more so, readiness to accept political and poll reversals, as only his grandfather had done and had taught his father to face with grace and confidence.
The question then arises, why then has Stalin kick-started a national forum for social justice? He has also been taking on the Centre and the ruling BJP on multiple issues of federalism and social equity as never before since becoming chief minister.
In recent weeks and months, Stalin has been harping more frequently on what he coined as the 'Dravidian model' of development. It hinges on 'social justice' as a tool to the growth of the individual and also the state -- and hence that of the nation -- but on the principles of federalism, which again is at the bottom of the Dravidian political philosophy from the days of the DMK's founder, the late C N Annadurai.
In a way, it's all a collective response to the state BJP's increased hostility towards the DMK, particularly his 'Karunanidhi family', coupled with the BJP-ruled Centre's perceived eagerness to grab all Constitutional rights and powers conferred on state governments.
If state BJP chief K Annamalai's hammer-and-tongs approach to the DMK's long-forgotten anti-god, anti-Hindu, anti-Brahmin rhetoric, as if it were all happening still, the pro-BJP social media has been picking holes even in the Stalin government's positive approach to Hinduism and Hindu temples.
In the past year, Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Minister P K Sekar Babu's efforts to re-possess temple lands with tenants who had also amassed huge rent dues had not been appreciated.
This time round, his more recent initiative for the famous Kapaleeswarar temple to celebrate the annual Maha Shivratri festivities in the heart of Chennai as a public event has been ridiculed.
Thus, the Stalin leadership is left askance as to what exactly these so-called pro-Hindu groups wanted.
Reforming the temple administration that has been under state control since the Justice Party era close to a hundred years ago, or the end of the DMK rule and/or the exit of his government, as if it was a personal issue for the present crop of BJP leadership and social media activists in the state than any time in the past.
On the federalism issue, Stalin and the DMK strongly feel that the BJP Centre was trampling upon the powers of the state even though as Gujarat chief minister, Modi had stood for the same.
The Budget-2022 exposition of 'One nation, one registration' cause on the lines of 'One nation, one ration card' and such other initiatives of the Modi dispensation is only the recent one in the list, and need not be the last one, either. Or, so the DMK feels.
Federalism has been one of the core principles of the DMK. It's more so after founder Annadurai had dropped ideological parent, 'Periyar' E V Ramaswami Naicker's call for a 'separate Dravida Nadu', through the decade after Independence, culminating in the party dropping it in 1960 and joining the democratic mainstream, consciously.
Likewise, the DMK and Stalin, and not necessarily in that order, strongly feel that 'social justice' in its various avatars, alone was the driving force in Tamil Nadu climbing up the socio-economic indicators-ladder through the past decades, be it in education or healthcare, industrialisation or employment.
If they both oppose NEET, for instance, it owes more to their belief how the national-level entrance examinations actually works against the interest of the poor, rural folk, than as a mere political slogan and electoral plank.
They may have a point. As the ongoing Ukraine crisis has shown, Tamil Nadu alone has over 5,000 professional college students in Ukraine, most of them in medical schools there. There is another lot, studying in China and Central Asian republics. Though all of it started long before NEET, their numbers have reportedly swelled post-NEET.
It owes as much to the continuing levels of high fee structure in private medical colleges in the country, even when a student has cleared NEET.
As the daughter of a hotel security guard from Coimbatore showed the year before, even though she was allotted a private medical seat on the basis of her NEET score, she had to forego the same as she could not afford the high fees.
According to Tamil media reports that followed the case, the seat went to a lower-ranking student on the NEET list, but whose parents could afford to pay the required fee. Before television cameras, the girl had then said that she would join a medical college in Ukraine. It is not known if she did, and if she is among those stuck in the war-ravaged country.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist, political analyst and author, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.