Even Chief Minister Panneerselvam and AIADMK general secretary Sasikala Natarajan put together cannot replicate the aura and charisma of J Jayalalithaa. But if they get into opposing camps, the party will be in deep difficulty. There are winds of change in Tamil Nadu politics, with both the Dravidian parties – the AIADMK and the DMK – opting for a leadership change as the old leadership is fading away. While the DMK has its second-generation leaders in place, the AIADMK has none in the aftermath of the death of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. So it is clinging to her long time companion Sasikala Natarajan in an emotional moment. Whether Sasikala could transfer that moment into a political moment, is yet to be seen. Almost after five decades, the DMK is going in for a generational change. This is significant in view of the vacuum created by the death of Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu politics. M Karunanidhi has been a long-time player as he has outlived AIADMK founder MG Ramachandran and now Jayalalithaa.
Despite the AIADMK’s vulnerability, the DMK is in no hurry to split the rival party. It needs just 20 more seats to form a Government but the AIADMK has 135 members and you need two-third of the party to split, which is difficult at present. The DMK leaders would like to see the AIADMK crumble under its own weight. The BJP at the Centre too does not want to upset the applecart right now. So, for the time being, all are playing the ‘wait and watch’ game. The MK Stalin era in the DMK has just begun after he has been officially designated as the second-in-command. Karunanidhi will continue to lead the party on paper, but Stalin will cement his power with his new position. He has been functioning as the de facto chief for some time and even before the 2016 Assembly poll, he had campaigned for the party extensively. He has been given the credit for the DMK winning 98 seats, with the party emerging as a strong opposition in the Tamil Nadu Assembly. The DMK needs an active new leader to helm the party, owing to the failing health of the 93-year old party patriarch Karunanidhi, who had steered the party since the late sixties.
Stalin has been in politics for four decades and has been his father’s shadow and a backroom boy. Karunanidhi has chosen him as his political heir despite the claims of his older son MK Alagiri and also his daughter Kanimozhi. He had groomed Stalin carefully and given him positions in the party, overlooking his seniors. The senior leaders, including Durai Murugan, have accepted Stalin’s elevation. There is no issue. Why is the DMK going in for a change now?
First of all, Karunanidhi sees good future for the party in the aftermath of Jayalalithaa’s death.
Second, and more important, is that the DMK patriarch Karunanidhi is ailing and has been in and out of hospital. He was unable to do much campaigning in the 2016 Assembly election. He would like to see that the succession is ensured during his lifetime. Third, the DMK is a cadre-based party and Karunanidhi never allowed the growth of second-rung leaders and promoted his own family members. He got rid of Vaiko in 1993, when Vaiko found that he could be a rival to his son Stalin. Vaiko floated his own party, the MDMK, and is still around. The party has no one of stature who can take over the reigns.
Fourth, the DMK patriarch has realised the need for a younger face to attract the new generation of voters who would not be satisfied with just ideological slogans. These voters want development and expect the party to deliver. Stalin went for an image make-over before the 2016 election and donned jeans and T-shirt to be in step with the younger voters; he also visited various temples. Fifth, though Stalin wants to become the party chief, Karunanidhi has consistently denied him that place claiming that he will remain in the post as long as he lives. So becoming the working president is the next best option. As for the AIADMK, the party has lost its most charismatic leader who had brought it to power four times 1991, 2001, 2011 and in 2016. Now it lacks both second-rung leaders and a powerful mass based leader. No doubt Sasikala Natarajan has become the general secretary of the party and O Panneerselvam, who had been nominated by Jayalalithaa herself twice before, has become the Chief Minister. But neither of them can control the party individually.
It is quite possible that Panneerselvam could emerge as his own man or that Sasikala would try to show the Chief Minister his place. Sasikala is untested and it is not clear whether she can control the party in the same way that Jayalalithaa did.
They are together for the sake of power now, as the AIADMK has another four–and-a-half years to go. The MLAs do not want to go for an election so soon.
(The writer is a political commentator and syndicated columnist)