Just days after the death of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president M Karunanidhi on August 7, the party has been rocked by the long-simmering rivalry between two of his sons. On Monday, former Union Minister MK Alagiri struck the first blow against his younger brother and DMK working president MK Stalin. After paying his respects at his father’s grave, Alagiri declared that the “faithful party brethren” were with him and that time would expose everything.

Later in the day, in interviews to television channels, he said that it was Stalin who did not want him in the party. Alagiri had been expelled from the DMK ahead of the 2014 parliamentary elections after he made derogatory remarks about Stalin. The previous year, his father had made a decisive statement that Stalin would be his successor to the post of party president. On Monday, in an attempt to pose doubts about Stalin’s leadership, Alagiri said many DMK leaders were in touch with actor-turned-politician Rajinikanth and this could end up destroying the party.

Stalin responded to Alagiri’s attack by fielding his trusted lieutenant and Triplicane-Chepauk legislator J Anbazhagan. The MLA insisted that no one in the party was in touch with Rajinikanth and reminded journalists that the decision to expel Alagiri from the party in 2014 was taken by Karunanidhi himself.

With these developments, the predicted tussle within the DMK has truly began. However, at least at the moment, Alagiri’s statement carry little weight as Stalin has complete control of the party. His loyalists include the veteran general secretary K Anbazhagan and veteran leader Durai Murugan. At a condolence meeting in Vellore on Sunday, Durai Murugan said it was Stalin who has been entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the DMK.

What could hurt Stalin more than Alagiri’s statements is the upcoming bye-elections to two assembly constituencies – Thiruparankundram and Tiruvarur. The former fell vacant after death of AIADMK MLA AK Bose earlier this month and the latter after the passing of Karunanidhi. Both the bye-elections have to be held by February.

Alagiri’s challenge

There was little surprise within the DMK on Monday about Alagiri’s criticism. “The only surprise to us was the timing,” a leader said. Party officials had expected Alagiri to wait for the mourning period to conclude before firing his salvo.

The majority opinion at the moment is that if Alagiri is taken back into the party fold, he will cause more trouble within than from the outside. Though there were expectations that Alagiri might reach out to his younger brother after their father’s death, senior leaders seemed to have convinced Stalin to not make any gestures to re-induct Alagiri.

Two reasons are being offered for this position. A former minister said almost all the DMK district secretaries, MLAs and MPs are behind Stalin. “Splitting the party is impossible,” the leader added.

Second, ever since Karunanidhi took ill in 2016, Stalin’s stature at the national level has grown. National leaders have accepted Stalin as Karunanidhi’s successor. “Even Sonia Gandhi addressed her condolence letter to Stalin,” the leader noted.

When this is so, senior leaders believe that bringing Alagiri back into the DMK would only undermine Stalin’s leadership and would send a message to national leaders that he is not capable of controlling the party. This is the last thing Stalin wants before the Lok Sabha elections next year, in the run-up to which he will have to hold discussions with other parties on seat sharing. “Alliance partners will exploit any weakness they see,” said the leader.

Stalin’s strategy will be to ignore his brother and focus on countering the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and other political adversaries.

Crucial bye-elections

Stalin’s bigger headache will be the bye-elections to Thiruparankundram. Given that Tiruvarur was Karunanidhi’s constituency, the sympathy generated by his death is expected to secure the seat for the party.

But Thiruparankundram could pose a big challenge. The constituency is located in Madurai, which is Alagiri’s stronghold. With Karunanidhi not around, Alagiri is bound to cause trouble to sabotage the party’s chances.

However, DMK insiders said the real fight would be to counter the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, which is led by TTV Dinakaran, the nephew of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s aide Sasikala. Dinakaran scored a huge upset last December when he won the RK Nagar bye-election. The DMK came third in the polls, which damaged Stalin’s reputation considerably.

With Thiruparankundram, the caste equations are stacked against the DMK. “That area is a Thevar area, the community to which Dinakaran belongs,” said a DMK leader.

If Alagiri decides to undermine Stalin, the DMK would have to face the double challenge of an inside job by Alagiri and Dinakaran from the outside.

In fact, some in the DMK are actually hoping that the bye-elections will be held along with the Lok Sabha elections next year. “By then, we would have put together a strong alliance that would be difficult to defeat,” the leader said.

Whispers of giving the seat to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is already being heard on the corridors of Anna Arivalayam, the party headquarters. However, CPI (M) state secretary K Balakrishnan said the party would discuss the political situation on September 2. “At the moment, we have not thought of an alliance with anyone,” he said.