(From left) O Panneerselvam, MK Stalin and E Palaniswami (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
The wait is almost over for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Or so it seems. Much has changed since the passing of J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi, who took turns to rule the state by the strength of their personal authority. Tamil Nadu’s political landscape is now effectively terra nullius. The age of the post-heroic politician is upon it. When the state votes for a chief minister next year, DMK President MK Stalin, who, like Augustus, has mastered the art of waiting, could well pip Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) and his partner-in-distress O Panneerselvam (OPS) to the chair. The ruling party not just got thwacked in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, winning just one out of 39 seats, it could net only nine of the 22 Assembly constituencies where bypolls were held last year. In the rural local body elections in December 2019, the AIADMK, which has historically found it easier to attract rural voters, came in second. The successive setbacks have led the AIADMK to question its dual leadership.
“I wish he wouldn’t read out his speeches,” says a cabinet minister of Panneerselvam, the unassuming Jayalalithaa loyalist who no one thought had it in him to turn against Sasikala Natarajan in a trice so he could claim Amma’s legacy for himself. “When Amma was the leader, it was mandatory for ministers, MPs and MLAs to have their speeches pre-approved by her. OPS had displayed a talent for impromptu demagoguery and for charming the masses that have disappeared after he reconciled with EPS,” says the minister, admitting the present edition of the AIADMK leadership does not speak with confidence.
Seniors in the DMK, too, worry the day is not far when their thalaivar could be tripped up by a stray question from the media. “He is not a quick decisionmaker. And he carries the additional burden of being Kalaignar’s son,” says a senior leader who has known Stalin since the latter was a student. While Stalin is a man with a name, when it comes to the DMK’s first family, history does not have an aggrandising effect. “In a leadership battle, we will win hands down over OPS and EPS. Our leader not only brings more experience, he also brings to the table the confidence that party seniors will back him till the very end,” says TKS Elangovan, a DMK spokesperson. The party has been hardselling a heroic backstory that backfired when the AIADMK demanded he prove he was indeed arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) during Emergency. The AIADMK in fact alleged that Stalin, then a young man, was detained in a sexual harassment case. “It was a countervailing move after he called the Chief Minister a worm at the mercy of Sasikala,” says the cabinet minister.
Tamil Nadu is in search of its next mass leader and so far, Stalin is the only caste-neutral contender, says political commentator Raveendran Doraiswamy. The state has a curious track record of backing politicians from non-Tamil or non-dominant communities—the list includes Jayalalithaa, Karunanidhi and MG Ramachandran—for the top post. “OPS and EPS hail from dominant castes and that may in fact go against them. People were okay with them as long as they were under Amma’s control, but a Gounder or a Thevar dominating the political milieu may upset people of other castes,” he says.
O Panneerselvam and E Palaniswami hail from dominant castes and that may go against them, people were okay with them as long as they were under Amma’s control
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Doraiswamy supports actor Rajinikanth, who has convulsed the state by declaring his intention to launch a party ahead of the 2021 Assembly elections. “If you ask me, I’d say that Stalin, while he has filled the leadership gap in his party, has not filled the vacuum in the hearts of the people—and Rajinikanth is in prime position to do that. He is a supra-caste icon who wants to enter the fray at a later stage, like NTR did in 1982, so that the election becomes about him.”
Until he launches his party, however, Rajinikanth’s public statements, few and far between so far, can only be seen as exercises in political expediency. After distancing himself from “saffronising forces” and opposing the Hindu Right’s attempts to appropriate the saint Thiruvalluvar last year, the actor, at an event on January 14th to mark 50 years of the Tamil magazine Thuglak, launched a bitter polemic against the very root of the Dravidian movement. Attacking Periyar for parading naked figures of Hindu gods down the streets of Salem in 1971, and later refusing to apologise for it, Rajinikanth seemed to signal that he was gravitating towards the right. Since the BJP remains a political pariah in the state, however, he has been testing the waters and sending ripples in all directions. More recently, in the wake of the violence in northeast Delhi, he blamed the Centre for its “intelligence failure” and expressed concern about the potential impact of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) on Muslims, while condemning the resistance in the same breath. “If Muslims are affected by the CAA, I will stand for them. The Central Government has clarified they have not implemented the National Register of Citizens [NRC], there is no point in creating confusion over it. Protests should not turn violent,” he said. At a time when social layers and divisions are becoming increasingly impermeable, can the superstar cosy up to the minorities that the DMK is actively wooing by backing anti-CAA protests across the state? How close can he keep the vast political machine of the BJP without getting sucked into it? Is he slated to be the Hermes of Tamil politics, a messenger god moving between worlds? Can he stitch up a faux secular front along with actor Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Neethi Maiam? And does he have the time and the boots on the ground to organise his mandrams (fan clubs), many of which are in disarray, before the polls? Operating in the unclear space of inbetweenness, his films grindingly reasserting his stardom and failing, Rajinikanth does not seem capable of cracking open the carapace of Dravidian politics hinged on social justice and equality as well as Tamil pride.
THE DMK REFUSES, as it should, to acknowledge Rajinikanth as the “unexploded bomb capable of taking out at least 10 per cent of their vote share” that one psephologist says he is. Yet, statements by senior party leaders, including Stalin, have often betrayed anxiety and questioned the media’s obsession with stardom. “We have taken a decision not to react to his statements. We have real issues to address: unemployment, the agrarian crisis, corruption and sectarianism,” says Manushyaputhiran, a Tamil writer and DMK spokesperson. The party has demanded a CBI inquiry into malpractices in the recruitment to Group IV posts by the state Public Service Commission, indicating the involvement of senior government officials and elected representatives. Early last month, when the EPS government played a trump card by declaring eight districts in the Cauvery delta region a protected agricultural zone in response to opposition from farmers to oil exploration and extraction projects, the DMK pointed out that this did not mean the dozens of projects that the AIADMK had already welcomed into the ecologically sensitive zone would be stalled.
The DMK has the distinct advantage of having backed three mass agitations in the state since the death of Jayalalithaa: pro-jallikattu demonstrations by the youth in Chennai in January 2017, seen as an assertion of Tamil identity; popular movements against the Sterlite copper smelter in Thoothukudi that culminated in at least 13 civilian deaths from indiscriminate police firing; and now, the sit-in at Old Washermanpet, billed as Chennai’s Shaheen Bagh, where women in hijab are packed into narrow lanes, armed with copies of the Constitution and blistering political verses. The Right has been making inroads behind the scenes, emboldened by an increasingly accommodative AIADMK. “Festivals like the once-in-40-year darsanam of the Athi Varadar murti in Kanchipuram have become big events for the state. They used to be local community celebrations,” Manushyaputhiran says.
The DMK refuses to see Rajinikanth as an ‘unexploded bomb capable of taking out at least 10 per cent of their vote share’. Yet statements by senior party leaders betray anxiety about him
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While BJP bashing may not yield fruit in an Assembly election where the party is not a major player, the AIADMK’s proximity to and dependence on the national party may drag it down. In fact, the DMK is counting on it. “We vehemently oppose the BJP because its actions, which are anti-federalist, anti-poor and fuel communal strife, are fundamentally antithetical to our values. Since the AIADMK has become a policy acolyte to the BJP for maintaining its tenure by hook or by crook—in direct contrast to Jayalalithaa’s core beliefs and actions while alive—it follows that we attack its actions also. I don’t believe the AIADMK can ever extract itself from the clutches of the BJP,” says PTR Palanivel Thiagarajan, the DMK MLA from Madurai Central and head of the party’s IT wing. To be sure, the AIADMK makes no secret of its allegiance to the BJP. “They stood by us during the regime change. The Election Commission was kind to us. They gave us the magical two-leaf symbol, which by any estimation brings in 10-20 per cent of our total vote. So we may have to go with the BJP even if it costs us minority votes. The BJP needs to break the 4 per cent vote share jinx: that will be good for the alliance,” says a senior AIADMK leader.
OTHERS REASON THAT a good relationship with the Centre is a big advantage for the state. “We have been able to get 11 medical colleges sanctioned, wherein the Centre’s contribution is nearly 60 per cent. Eleven of 75 for the whole of India, of which only 46 have been committed so far—which means that nearly a fourth will be set up in a state that already produces the most number of medical graduates in the country. This is clearly a positive for us,” says K Pandiarajan, Minister for Tamil Language and Culture.
The looming catastrophe of Rajinikanth splitting the votes of Amma’s supporters has the AIADMK worried
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“The Centre is with us. We have a positive relationship even if our politics is different,” says senior party leader and former minister C Ponnaiyan, readily admitting the two parties share ideological ground. “No political party has propagated spiritualism as Amma, and OPS and EPS after her. Does Tamil Nadu need a Rajinikanth to introduce the gods to them? Has someone asked him what contributions he has made to state temples? Why does he go to Kailash but not to Tiruvannamalai?” The looming catastrophe of Rajinikanth splitting the votes of Amma’s supporters has the AIADMK worried, especially if its rebels decide not to back the BJP. The actor will not align with the AIADMK or the DMK and instead position himself as a chief ministerial candidate, says S Thirunavukkarasar, a Congress MP. “The AIADMK has more to fear from Rajinikanth than the DMK. Personally, I think too much is made of the Periyar remark. His intention was to praise Cho [the late founder-editor of Thuglak] and to pander to a largely upper-caste audience at the event,” he says.
“The AIADMK has been quietly working on its weak links: improving its support base in the delta, dealing with the discontent in the south by introducing industries and carving out new districts. It is also making a play for the urban vote with measures like CCTV cameras on government buses. However, although Edappadi has established himself as a reliable leader, it is difficult to brand any leader of the AIADMK today,” says Maalan Narayanan, a writer and political observer. The entire polity has moved right in the past three years, forcing all parties to declare their stance vis-à-vis Hindus, he notes. Stalin has time and again reiterated that most of his party members are Hindus. With the BJP confounding linguistic identity with the undercurrent of religious consolidation, however, the AIADMK could find itself in a spot with the resurgent pro-Tamil sentiment sweeping the state in the past few years. “There was always a parallel Tamil identity rooted in spirituality. MGR recognised this. The AIADMK allowed leaders to wear their Hindu identity on their sleeve. And with Amma, although she was also the architect of 69 per cent reservations, there was a quiet acceptance of the Hindu identity among Tamils,” argues Pandiarajan. “With the demography of the state changing—the number of Telugu voters has crossed a crore, for instance—language as a plank for vote exploitation won’t work,” he adds.
The DMK is staking its future on Tamil identity, but also on the aspirations of Tamil youth. Having missed victory by a whisker in the last Assembly elections, it is not taking any chances. As one leader puts it, “The product is good. But we need an Agmark certification to go to the people with confidence.” The party has hired strategist Prashant Kishor to help the coalition cross the halfway mark in voteshare. “Prashant does not ask to, and will not be allowed to, discuss, let alone reshape, our beliefs and values,” says Thiagarajan, assigned to work closely with him. It won’t be the first professional campaign in Tamil Nadu, but it will be a first-of-its-kind intercession in branding a man who remained in the shadow of his father until the age of 65 as the future of the state—a feat of imagination and craft. Stalin cannot afford a rebuff, no more than the AIADMK can survive an electoral attenuation. “Certainly, 2016 was an easier battle to win. We lost 10-15 seats by very small margins. But MK Stalin has had an upward graph, having led the party to an almost-win in 2016 and created history with the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and then the rural local body polls,” says Elangovan.