From Chief Minister EK Palaniswami to Seeman to TTV Dhinakaran to elder brother M K Azhagiri, everyone’s favourite target these days seems to the DMK chief Stalin, which is good news in an election year, but that doesn’t mean he is going to sweep the polls, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
With assembly polls in Tamil Nadu only months away, electoral politics in the state is becoming increasingly ‘Stalin-centric’, a reference to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president who has vowed to replace Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami of the rival All India Anna DMK.
It all began since DMK founder M Karunanidhi’s death in 2018, months before the Lok Sabha polls the very next year. Some Hinduvta social groups, and select state-level Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, including then party chief Tamizhisai Soundararajan, have been consistently targeting the DMK all along, with the centrality shifting from Karunanidhi to Stalin after the former’s death, on issues of religion and gods, whether or not any direct link could be established.
Thus, apart from Periyar’s anti-god, anti-Brahmin posturing that was recalled every now and again, the purported DMK links of some persona involved in religion-centric political controversies were put out as if Stalin was behind those controversies. It began with the 2018 ‘Andal controversy’, involving award-winning Tamil poet and film lyricist Vairamuthu, whose mutual respect for Karunanidhi’s literary prowess, was sought to be projected as an ideological baggage.
Then followed in 2020, the ‘Kanda Sashti Kavasam’ row, in which the so-called DMK identity of one of the organisers of the ‘Karuppar Kootam’ YouTube group, was sought to be highlighted.
Likewise, Stalin not applying on his forehead the vibhuti offered to him at the memorial of Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar also came in for heavy criticism in the social media sites of Hindutva groups.
While none of it has stirred the politico-electoral pot, the same cannot be said about the more recent poll-centric pronouncements of DMK’s other rivals. For his part, Palaniswami has lost no opportunity to declare that Stalin cannot dream to replace him as chief minister, even as the other keeps targeting the incumbent as corrupt. anti-Tamil and anti-people.
Even T T V Dhinakaran, the mostly-forgotten leader of the equally forgotten AMMK, the breakaway AIADMK party, has declared that the DMK was their main adversary in the elections, as if the ruling party did not exist. Pan-Tamil Naam Tamizhar Katchi founder, actor-politician Seeman, has gone further, by reiterating over the past days that he would contest against Stalin in the constituency of the latter’s choice.
The latest to join the race on the anti-Stalin track is his own estranged elder brother and one-time Union minister M K Azhagiri, whom Karunanidhi had sacked from the party after he had worked against the DMK’s interest in elections 2011, which the party lost. While Azhagiri can be expected to create a few media waves in the coming days and weeks, the real issue is if he will float a new party in time to contest the assembly polls -- and if so, will the votes that they may poll cost the DMK’s seats.
The last time he attempted it big time, the DMK lost five seats in and around Madurai, Azhagiri’s political base, in elections 2001, owing to the votes polled by his rebel candidates. One ground reality between then and now is that Stalin has consolidated his position within the party, especially after Karunanidhi’s death, more so since the patriarch disowned Azhagiri.
Yet, the potential for the Azhagiri group to give a tough time for DMK poll managers in a few seats cannot be ruled out -- especially if Azhagiri were to float a party and contest the elections, hoping to benefit from the near-last minute decision of super-star Rajinikanth to bow out from politics even before entering it, leaving his anti-establishment fans-turned-cadres more confused than ever.
The Stalin saga just now has a parallel in the Dravidian past of his father. Despite the DMK’s successive electoral losses as long as MGR was around, the latter kept Karunanidhi in focus while making his policy and political options -- and contradicting the one-time friend and fellow-traveller in filmdom, at every turn and on every issue. This also meant that the efforts of the Congress, then under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to try and revive the party’s chances after the historic electoral rout of 1967, never came to fruition.
This, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi kept repeating in their times together, heading rival Dravidian polities, edging out an over-ambitious BJP under the Vajpayee-Advani duo out of electoral reckoning in the state. The question now is: Can this strategy, though not worked out by the DMK and the AIADMK together, as might have been assumed in some quarters, carry the day for the Dravidian polity in the state, and keep the BJP with its ambitions, strategies and tactics, some of it centred on its administrative power as the ruling party at the Centre, out of the reckoning too.
Indications provided by the Lok Sabha polls of 2014 and 2019, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was at the centre of national politics and elections, show that the BJP’s strategy did not work when Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi were around -- nor did it when they were dead and gone. Though the ruling AIADMK lost the 2019 Lok Sabha polls very badly in the company of the BJP, it still established CM Palaniswami as the face of the ruling party -- and capable of being pitted against the more politically experienced Stalin.
Not that any or all of it would ensure victory for Stalin and DMK in the assembly polls, which is a different cup of tea, for which they need to work even more -- and also against the multiple criticisms against Stalin coming from multifarious angles and on a multitude of issues.
Yet, even without all this, the AIADMK-led alliance is facing multiple election issues they could do without. There is enough trouble for Palaniswami’s leadership, both from within the party and outside, from allies.
In a first of its kind, a two-page advertisement appeared in a Tamil newspaper on Sunday promoting deputy chief minister and party coordinator O Panneerselvam, as if it were a feeble response to full-page government-funded advertisements promoting CM Palaniswami’s leadership.
It is unclear who had posted the pro-OPS ad, but the motive is clear, though it could not be established if the campaign had the man’s blessings. With EPS hogging not only campaign and ad spaces already, but what is presumed to be the shared leadership space within the party, the OPS camp is not so sure if they would get their due share in seat-sharing, that too despite they having conceded the party’s chief minister nomination to the EPS. The fact is barring a show-down if it came to that, the OPS kind of silent noise would be lost in the poll melee.
However, there can be an exceptional situation if as the coordinator of the party and co-signatory to Form-B for allocation of the party’s famed ‘Two Leaves’ symbol, OPS takes the current heart-burn to its logical conclusion.
Alternatively, a hurt OPS camp can once again threaten to walk out of the party, as it could complicate matters with regard to either side accessing the very symbol that the party identifies with MGR and Jayalalithaa.
It is another matter that Jaya’s live-in confidante and co-accused V K Sasikala Natarajan should be walking out of the Bengaluru prison after serving the four-year jail-term, ordered by the Supreme Court in the wealth case against her mentor, in time for the assembly polls.
Her release later this month does not confer the right to contest on Sasikala, as the law says that she would have to wait for six years after release from prison, to be able to contest elections. But Sasikala’s presence in town can be a cause for suspicion and doubts in the minds of the AIADMK’s leadership(s) and cadres, alike.
Yet another problem now facing the AIADMK in general and the Edappadi chief ministerial ambitions in particular is the ambiguity of the BJP and PMK allies in endorsing his candidacy. Despite OPS making an open declaration of EPS’s candidacy at a government function in the months of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, the BJP has been vague about it all through.
Going beyond state BJP chief L Murugan, who long ago claimed that they were capable of winning 60 of 234 seats on their own, the party’s national leaders and central observers to have continued to remain non-committal. While Union minister Prakash Javdekar was non-committal to repeated queries from media-persons when he was in Chennai recently, BJP’s national observer C T Ravi was not any more helpful. It is not only about the chief minister’s choice, but also about true confirmation of the continuing alliance.
Ravi told Chennai newsmen that it was for the BJP parliamentary board and the NDA coordination committee to decide on both questions, but indicated enough that the implication was that the AIADMK was a part of the BJP-NDA, and not the other way round, as used to be packaged in and for the state when Jayalalithaa was around.
But the real hitch will be on seat-sharing, owing to which even the PMK and DMDK allies are non-committal.
This has led to the speculation if the three allies of the AIADMK would stick together to negotiate a favourable seat-sharing package, as if to threaten the ruling party that otherwise they would go it alone. That’s not a situation the AIADMK would enjoy, but the party is equally sure that the others, especially the PMK and DMDK, cannot afford such a course, unlike the BJP, which can technically wait for another day.
However, Ravi’s talk of BJP parliamentary board and NDA coordination committee has raised questions about the existence of the latter in particular. AIADMK tongues are wagging, though only in private just now, as to the veracity of the existence of such a coordination committee, with a question on when was the last time it had met -- and what was the AIADMK’s role in it.
Some AIADMK leaders also point to the Bihar example in 2019, when ahead of the assembly polls, the BJP and Prime Minister Modi endorsed the candidature of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. This was in reference to Ravi’s observations that the NDA coordination committee would meet after the elections to finalise the chief minister nominee.
All this does not mean that the DMK and Stalin are sitting on a bed of roses. They are not unaware of hidden thorns, especially in the form of allies, including the Congress, VCK and the two communist parties, all of which can be expected to drive a hard bargaining in seat-sharing. They will wait for signals from within the rival combine’s seat-sharing talks, to be able to make up their mind over the numbers.
Then there are avoidable embarrassments involving the likes of Hyderabad-based Majlis e Ittihadul Muslimeen leader Asaduddin Owaisi, after the DMK’s minority wing leader D Masthan called on him as a part of seeking to consolidate Muslim votes in his party’s favour. This got represented as the DMK inviting Owaisi for an all-Muslim conclave this month, ahead of the assembly polls, with reports suggesting that the party’s existing Islamic electoral allies were upset. No names, however, were mentioned in those reports other than identifying the IUML and the TMMK as the allies concerned.
The DMK has since clarified that the Owaisi meeting did not involve inviting him for the proposed conference. But the party’s concerns about Owaisi’s AIMIM playing the BJP’s ‘B-Team’, as it supposedly did in the Bihar elections last year -- and which is what the reservations of DMK’s existing Muslim allies is all about.
In election 2016, the DMK lost at least one seat to the ruling AIADMK rival, after the AIMIM’s candidate polled a substantial 10,000 votes in northern Ambur constituency.
Incidentally, in Tamil Nadu, Muslims belong to two main streams – one, the Tamil-speaking southerners, who are descendants of Arab traders who had settled there from before the Prophet’s time, and the Urdu-speaking northerners, belonging to the reign of the Nawab of Arcot, in turn a principality of the Hyderabad Nizam.
Independent of contemporary political overtones, the divisions within the two streams are deep and overpowering, what with the original Hindu caste affiliations in the former group impacting on contemporary Muslim politics in the country, with multiple parties, groups and factions, in place of the monolith IUML until after the seventies.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.