DMK Rift Widens With Alagiri’s Challenge To Stalin

MK Alagiri, MK Stalin - Sakshi Post

By T S Sudhir

On 5 September, MK Alagiri will march into Chennai to his father M Karunanidhi's final resting place at the Marina. Why this foray is important is because in the 1980s, Karunanidhi fed up of the sibling rivalry divided control of the DMK in Tamil Nadu between the two brothers and sent Alagiri to Madurai to look after the southern part of the state. Stalin was to look after northern Tamil Nadu, with Chennai as the base.

Which is why Alagiri's Wednesday venture is akin to sounding the war cry. The elder brother is challenging Stalin on his territory. The family battle is out in the open.

But it is a battle in which Alagiri is clearly the underdog. In the last week of August, Stalin stepped into Karunanidhi's shoes and became the party president, a post the former chief minister held for 49 years. Alagiri who was expelled from the DMK in 2014 cannot even mount a serious challenge from within as he is not even a member of the party. In the past four years, Stalin has been in total control of the DMK, stuffing the party hierarchy at every level in every district with his own men.

Also Read: Can Thalapathi Stalin Match Karunanidhi’s Stature In DMK?

But Alagiri who has been out of active politics for four years now, is unwilling to go down without a fight. After his attempts to worm his way back into the DMK with his family's support came to nought, he decided he will take on Stalin publicly. Claiming at Karunanidhi's final resting place at the Marina that the ``true and loyal followers'' of his father are with him, he referred to Stalin as a working president who does not work and who is incapable of leading the party to victory.

Alagiri is hitting where it is certain to hurt Stalin. Even though Karunanidhi was alive, both the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2016 assembly elections were fought in Tamil Nadu under Stalin's leadership. The DMK came a cropper failing to win a single Lok Sabha and did not manage to unseat Jayalalithaa two years later. The 2019 polls therefore will be Stalin's acid test. A hattrick of failures will have the knives out for him.

Ahead of Stalin's coronation, Alagiri's open challenge was seen as the big crack in the DMK first family and the narrative started getting constructed about how the man once celebrated as the Madurai strongman was threatening to embarrass Stalin, if not succeed in breaking up the party.

Stalin let his party do the talking. It was obvious to anyone watching the proceedings at the DMK headquarters in Chennai that his control over the party was absolute and there was no way Stalin was going to let Alagiri a share of the political pie. In fact, many senior DMK leaders have advised Stalin to be a party man and not let family relationships influence the party.

Alagiri boasts he will have up to one lakh people walking with him to the Marina. That may be a tall claim but do not rule out the possibility of anti-DMK parties helping Alagiri to ensure the optics of his challenge is not a washout. Just as the DMK is poised to take advantage of the split in the AIADMK and the weak leadership of the ruling party, there will be many a vested interest looking to exploit the fissures within the DMK first family.

For now, it is unlikely that Alagiri will be able to take away a part of the DMK with him. Which is why Stalin's challenge comes not so much from Alagiri but from himself. Two years ago, Team Stalin convinced the leader to undergo a sartorial makeover, discarding his veshti for trousers and white shirt for coloured fabric. The intention was to connect with the young voters in Tamil Nadu by looking like one of them.

But though Stalin 2.0 made for interesting photo-ops, it failed to cut electoral ice. Which is why Stalin will be under pressure to offer something new in a post-Karunanidhi and post-Jayalalithaa Tamil Nadu political theatre. He cannot afford to bank entirely on the negative vote against the ruling AIADMK. Stalin 3.0 will be necessary to present a DMK model of governance that is an improvement over the one presided over by his father.

This is because anti-incumbency will not benefit the DMK in the manner it has in the past. Tamil Nadu barring in 1984 and 2016, has shown a tendency to vote out the government and give the control of Fort St George to the DMK and AIADMK by turns. But this time, the hardcore AIADMK voter has a choice between the original AIADMK and the rival version of the AIADMK led by TTV Dhinakaran. Stalin cannot bank on the voter dissatisfaction with the AIADMK for Tamil Nadu to plump for him lock, stock and barrel. Which is why he needs to work on his vision for Tamil Nadu instead of presenting old wine in a new bottle.

Alagiri, if he floats a new party is unlikely to make much of a splash. But he will be more than happy to be a spoiler for the DMK in southern Tamil Nadu, more so if he works out a tacit understanding with Stalin's rivals. Alagiri is therefore presenting himself as the alternate successor to Karunanidhi who is willing to be a political freelancer for now. The plan is to hurt Stalin to create a situation where his return to the DMK becomes inevitable post 2019.

But at the same time, Alagiri is desperate to make himself politically relevant. Another reason is that he wants to secure a future - both political and financial - for his gen-next. His family is not part of the cash-rich DMK-controlled trusts and Alagiri would resent that. Which is why he even held out the olive branch by saying he is willing to accept Stalin as his leader if he is taken back into the party.

A parallel story has been playing out in the living room of Karunanidhi's Gopalpuram residence as well. In the days after Karunanidhi passed away, Alagiri tried to lobby with his family members to seek readmission into the DMK. Sister Selvi who claimed she had been entrusted the responsibility of keeping the family together by Karunanidhi was the one taking the lead to see her brothers stayed together. But Stalin made it clear a return to the party was non-negotiable. To add political heft to his decision, step sister Kanimozhi and the Maran brothers were on his side.

Privately, to his supporters in Madurai, Alagiri has been cribbing about how he should have made renewed efforts to return when his father was in good health. Stalin's position is that he sees no reason to change his father's decision and sees Alagiri's brand of brash politics a liability in this age of social media and at a time when the DMK is trying to present a more people-friendly image.

Also Read: MK Stalin Reveals Sensational Facts About Karunanidhi Burial

But even while the top leadership of the DMK is not keen on an Alagiri return, sections of the party are a bit apprehensive and not without reason. In 2001, Alagiri was suspended by Karunanidhi for anti-party activities. The son extracted revenge in the assembly election that followed. Alagiri is believed to have played a part in the defeat of DMK candidates in his backyard. Among them was DMK senior leader PTR Palanivel Rajan, who was Speaker of the Tamil Nadu assembly between 1996 and 2001. He lost by 708 votes from the Madurai West constituency.

Though a lot of water has flown in the Cauvery between 2001 and 2018 and the Alagiri is no longer the force he was 17 years ago, no one wants to underestimate his instinct to play a spoiler.

Has Alagiri then played his political cards wrong? Yes. Ideally he should have bided his time instead of behaving like a petulant son within a week of his father's demise. A more crafty politician would have waited for Stalin to falter electorally to target him. By showing his desperation, Alagiri has revealed he has no aces up his sleeve.

If he fails to muster impressive numbers including some notable faces on Wednesday, Alagiri could be walking into his political sunset.

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