Sometime in mid-2020, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president MK Stalin’s hairstyle transformed. From what was clearly a receding hairline, he now sported thick, black hair. Some on social media tried to ridicule this artificial change. But the transformation was not merely a cosmetic decision.

For decades, Stalin had to live under the shadows of his father M Karunanidhi, arguably the greatest stalwart of the Dravidian movement who was chief minister of Tamil Nadu five times.

When Stalin emerged as Karunanidhi’s favourite to take over the leadership of the DMK after him and became Chennai’s mayor in 1996, he was the 43-year-old youth wing secretary given the responsibility to draw the next generation to the DMK. He was “Thalapathi”, the young commander, to “Thalaivar” Karunanidhi, the leader, who died in 2018.

The party propaganda today does not miss a chance to reiterate to the people that Stalin has been in politics for 50 years. That he is not merely a dynast but someone who worked his way up the party ladder. But at the same time, the black-dyed hair and the predawn bicycle rides showcasing his physical fitness, during which he takes selfies with people, are thought-out strategies to communicate that the 68-year-old leader is still young at heart.

Stalin, more than anyone else in the DMK, knows that winning the 2021 Assembly elections, to be held on April 6, would define him more than any sartorial changes.

Having been kept away from power for 10 years, the party cannot afford to lose, especially when the opposing All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is bereft of its charismatic leader J Jayalalithaa, who died in 2016.

But something more than Stalin’s capability is at stake. Conversations with half a dozen party insiders offer a reminder that the 2021 assembly elections will be a test of Karunanidhi’s political legacy as well. Did the man often termed as the “Chanakya” of Tamil Nadu politics choose the right successor?

AIADMK churning

Stalin became the working president of the DMK in January 2017, after his father could no longer function as president due to his deteriorating health. Over a year later, with Karunanidhi’s death in August 2018, Stalin was elected leader of the DMK unanimously.

Between 2017 and 2018, the opposing AIADMK went through tectonic shifts. Former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had died in December 2016. Senior leader O Panneerselvam raised a flag of dissent against her friend and aide VK Sasikala, who wanted to become chief minister but failed as she was jailed in a disproportionate assets case.

In highly unexpected turn of events, Edappadi K Palaniswami was chosen as chief minister by Sasikala in February 2017, just before she went to jail. Months later, Palaniswami pulled the rug from under the Sasikala clan, buried the hatchet with Panneerselvam and emerged as the number one in the AIADMK.

Stalin’s first big test as leader of the DMK came during these events. With a weak AIADMK marred by infighting, there was expectation among party cadres that the DMK would bring the AIADMK government down in an Assembly floor test. Tamil media was rife with reports that DMK leaders were wooing AIADMK MLAs. But power kept the AIADMK together, even though the Panneerselvam faction voted against Chief Minister Palaniswami.

However, DMK leaders spoke to maintained that tales of the DMK trying to poach AIADMK legislators were a figment of imagination.

“He [Stalin] made the decision that the party will take the election route alone and we were asked to get ready for the long haul,” a senior DMK official said on condition of anonymity, pointing to media reports again in 2019 claiming that the DMK was poaching AIADMK leaders.

Irrespective of what transpired behind scenes, the survival of the AIADMK regime was bad optics for Stalin. One of the biggest credits Palaniswami has earned over the last four years as chief minister is that he has kept the AIADMK flock together. And Stalin had to bear the criticism of allowing the AIADMK rule to continue, which took the form of some questioning his political acumen.

This criticism became even stronger when in 2019, the AIADMK alliance was wiped out in the Lok Sabha elections with the DMK front winning 38 of the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu. But in the bye-elections to 22 Assembly seats that took place at the same time, the AIADMK managed to win nine and keep the government afloat.

The 2019 elections turned out to be a catalyst to several changes in the way the DMK functioned.’

‘Dictator, if necessary’

In November 2019, Stalin reiterated a comment he had made months earlier to a gathering of the DMK’s general council. He said he would be a “dictator” if necessary to deal with problems in the party.

At the same meeting, the DMK general council passed amendments to the party bylaws that gave additional discretionary powers to the president. The media reported that decisions that had to be made after consultation with the general secretary could now be taken independently by the president and the general council can approve them later.

But in essence, Stalin was seen as concentrating power in his own hands.

However, a DMK parliamentarian strongly refuted this charge, stating that the changes to the bylaws were effected at a time when the then general secretary K Anbazhagan was ill due to old age. If the party president had not been vested with certain powers, there would have been organisational deadlock. “The amended powers are for administrative contingencies,” he added.

MK Stalin at the shrine of his father, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi in Chennai | Photo: DMK/Twitter

Stalin gradually tightened his grip on the party even when Karunanidhi was alive. But this was no easy affair, given how powerful the district secretaries were in the DMK.

In 2014, he engineered an overhaul of the party structure, creating more district units and placing his loyalists in crucial posts.

There were district secretaries in the DMK who were so strong during the Karunanidhi era that their say was final when it came to matters like candidate selection. Even this, party leaders say, has changed in 2021.

In February 2020, Stalin roped in political strategist Prashant Kishor’s Indian Political Action Committee to manage the party’s campaign. And the candidate selection rested as much on the analysis of the IPAC as it did on inputs from the district secretaries.

In managing party affairs, Stalin does not mind directly dealing with other party officials on the ground. “It is not unusual for even a lower-level party official to get a call directly from him,” another DMK leader said, requesting anonymity.

Family matters

By the time Karunanidhi died in 2018, Stalin was in complete control of the DMK, so much so that the talk of a challenge to his leadership from his family members, especially his older brother MK Alagiri, was put to rest.

In fact, when Alagiri, who was thrown out of the party in 2014 by Karunanidhi, held a meeting with his supporters in Madurai in January and ridiculed Stalin’s leadership, there was a perception that he could embarrass the DMK during the election campaign and hand the AIADMK a tool to go after his younger brother.

But Stalin looked unfazed.

“He told the party leaders not to respond to any provocation,” a DMK MP said. Alagiri then went silent, something that is seen as the result of give and takes within the family and a realisation on part of Alagiri that wresting the party from Stalin was now an impossible task.

But this assertiveness was not without its problems. Despite the constant charges of the DMK being controlled by a single family, Stalin chose to push his son Udhayanidhi Stalin up the party hierarchy by making him youth wing secretary in July 2019. Almost immediately, Udhayanidhi Stalin’s face came to find prominent space on party posters and he is now considered the most important power centre in the DMK after his father.

During the interview of candidates in February, the media initially reported that Stalin had decided not to field his son in the upcoming polls. But he was eventually given the Triplicane-Chepauk constituency in Chennai, a seat Karunanidhi held as chief minister.

This apart, there was also the presence of his son-in-law Sabareesan, who maintains a low profile but is said to hold significant clout in the affairs of the party given the trust Stalin has in him.

Alliance reset

While Stalin has become the undisputed leader of the DMK, he still had to show other parties that he could be equally assertive in dealing with them. That opportunity came in the form of alliance talks to sign seat-sharing agreements for the 2021 polls.

For the DMK, the 2021 election is all about Stalin. But this is not the first Assembly poll that Stalin has managed for the party. In 2016 too, with his father’s movements restricted due to health, Stalin took charge of the preparations.

However, there was one big mistake that took place. “We gave the Congress too much in 2016,” a former DMK minister said. In fact, several leaders were not happy with parting 41 seats in favour of its ally. “But the rapport the Congress high command had with Kalaignar [Karunanidhi] sealed the deal at 41.”

The result was a disaster.

The Congress won just 8 of the 41 seats, leaving the DMK alliance with a narrow loss. Given Karunanidhi’s health, the presumption among many in the party was that if the DMK won the 2016 elections, Stalin would have been chief minister. It was a great opportunity lost and led to Jayalalithaa becoming the first chief minister after her political mentor MG Ramachandran to win back-to-back elections.

In 2021, the scenario is completely different.

DMK's MK Stalin with former Congress president Rahul Gandhi at a rally in Tamil Nadu | Photo: DMK/Twitter

Based on extensive field surveys and data analysis, the DMK had made up its mind by February that it had to contest at least 180 of the 234 constituencies to ensure a big victory. And given the Bharatiya Janata Party’s habit of poaching legislators after elections in other states, the idea was to ensure a margin of victory wide enough that no such attempts would work.

However, a senior DMK leader said while political consultants can give data analysis and strategies, implementing them, especially in a large alliance, was not an easy task. “The allies knew this was a major election for us and that we wanted to retain the alliance,” the leader said.

What worked in the favour of the DMK was the presence of the BJP in the AIADMK alliance. Many of its allies such as the two Communist parties and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi were too ideologically invested to shift camps at the last moment. Plus, these parties were part of a third front in 2016 that was accused of helping the AIADMK return to power by splitting anti-incumbency votes. None of them wanted to repeat that mistake.

One by one, the allies fell in line. The first to sign a seat-sharing pact was the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, which got six seats. Once the VCK came on board, it became impossible for others to resist. The Congress made noise, but the DMK leader said Stalin made it clear not to relent. In the end, it settled for 25 seats. “This was three more than what we had planned. But much less than the 35 seats the Congress started the talks with.”

The DMK official added that the seat-sharing talks for the 2021 Assembly elections will have long-term implications. Over the years, the allies had become used to asking for more seats than the previous election, eating into the DMK share. “2021 has now brought the base down and will make alliance talks easier in the next election.”

Alliance party leaders, however, were not very happy, even though all the major allies signed the agreements. A Communist Party of India (Marxist) Tamil Nadu leader told that the “unnecessarily hard bargain” the DMK waged had the danger of demotivating alliance cadres.

In fact, CPI (M) was the last of the major partners to sign the pact since it asked for 13 seats but was only offered six. “But at the end of the day, we decided fighting the BJP was the larger cause,” the party official added.

‘Magnifying the leader’

Despite Stalin’s dominance of the DMK, the comparisons to his father have not ceased even now. Stalin is often criticised for reading out of written notes during his speeches and repeating phrases, in sharp contrast to his father who was perhaps Tamil Nadu’s most imaginative political orator.

The attempts to carve out an independent legacy has been consistent and now hinges heavily on the 2021 Assembly election results.

One such attempt is the overemphasis on making the leader synonymous with the party, even more than what it was during Karunanidhi’s time.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran, a senior journalist in Tamil Nadu who has covered multiple elections since the 1980s, said Karunanidhi gave much prominence to senior second-rung leaders in election meetings. In fact, many of these leaders became crowd pullers on their own and even challenged the leadership like Vaiko did in 1994. “At the cost of being provocative, I can say Stalin’s campaigns are more like Jayalalithaa’s. He is the only face of the party,” Rajasekaran said.

However, such campaigns are also a function of the modern times, he said. “The campaign is now consumed in a very personal way, in the sense that people watch them on their gadgets individually,” the journalist added. “This magnifies the image of the leader to an extent.”

According to writer Azhi Senthilnathan, with the advent of Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014, election campaigns have completely turned into single-personality promotions.

Second is the Dravidian tradition itself. “Personalities have dominated politics in Tamil Nadu, whether it be Jayalalithaa or Karunanidhi,” he added.

But above this, perhaps, is Stalin’s eagerness to break out of Karunanidhi’s shadow. “It is important for Stalin that when people think of DMK, they should think of him,” Senthilnathan said.