Post-Karunanidhi, Tamil Nadu politics hit uncertain times
N Sathiya Moorthy 8 August 2018
The death of nonagenarian Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the longest-serving ‘elected party chief’ in the democratic world, owing to age-related problems removes from the face of not just native Tamil Nadu but the nation as a whole, a part of its contemporary history, as much social as political. Coming as it does less than two years after the exit of his political bête noireand incumbent AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram, Karunanidhi’s death now implies an unparalleled political vacuum – or, does it?
Before the present, some expected such a vacuum to occur when Jayalalithaa’s mentor-predecessor, M G Ramachandran (MGR), died. A similar anticipation also did a brief round soon after DMK founder and then Chief Minister C N Annadurai died in February 1969, less than two years after the party had come to power. On both occasions, the Dravidian polity beat dooms-sayers to their predictions, and some rivals, their hopes. The situation does not look any different now, and for better reasons than in the past.
Though the death of all four leaders was not wholly unexpected when it happened, in the post-Annadurai scenario, the anticipated split did not happen until Karunanidhi had consolidated his position as party leader and successor Chief Minister. When MGR founded the party and won his major elections and power in 1977, the intervening Emergency and the unexpected death of Congress (O) veteran K Kamaraj ensured that the DMK and the AIADMK got strengthened at the cost of the national party. If the Congress thought it was playing the two Dravidian majors against each other, down the decades, it was the other way round.
It was no different when MGR died, especially after the fast-tracked Elections-91, coming so close to the post-MGR polls of 1989 ensured that it was the Congress that got the stick. Post-MGR, the DMK and Karunanidhi returned to power after what the latter admitted as 13 long years of ‘vanvas’, but the AIADMK and Jayallaithaa who got the better of the ‘sympathy wave’ that swept at least the State in the aftermath of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination in 1991. Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress was left to holding the baby, instead.
Playing the Cong game
Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016 was accompanied by Karunanidhi’s long hospitalisation, from which he did not recover. The AIADMK, as in the post-MGR era, was at sixes and sevens. The BJP, ruling the Centre this time, purportedly played the Congress game of 1989, and has already lost out, not knowing how to go about it – or, without considering if at all it should have poked its nose in ‘Dravidian affairs’ without adequate ground knowledge and political skills suited to the ground realities, as different from the existing situations.
It might have been a different situation had Karunanidhi’s death too had followed that of Jayalalithaa, at least in the perception of some. Today, when the DMK is purported to be facing a ‘leadership vacuum’, which it is not, the ruling AIADMK too has consolidated itself under the leadership of Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and his ever-estranged Deputy CM, O Panneerselvam (OPS). They have a challenger in T T V Dhinakaran, Deputy General Secretary of the breakaway ‘Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam’ (AMMA). Despite the pending court cases for AIADMK’s ownership and also on various other counts, there is nothing to suggest that ‘defeat’ for one or both is going to create a political vacuum for others to try to capture.
Today, when Karunanidhi is no more, the DMK, which had acted swiftly when his recovery was not guaranteed by his doctors, elected his politician-son M K Stalin as the working president. Before Karunanidhi’s current reversal came, the DMK had decided to call for a party general council meeting in mid-August to formally elect Stalin the full-time party chief, elevating Karunanidhi to the status of ‘President Emeritus’ or such other fancy name. With the Lok Sabha polls due by May next, the party did not want to confuse cadres and coalition partners, existing and prospective, that there was more than one power-centre in the DMK, for seat-sharing, seat-allocation, etc.
The BJP and other sub-regional parties of the PMK kind apart, Tamil Nadu today has two ‘promising’ actor-politicians in ‘super-star’ Rajinikanth and compatriot-competitor Kamalahassan. While the latter is up and about the arena with the ‘Makkal Needhi Maiyam’ (MNM), or ‘People’s Justice Centre’, Rajinikanth seems to be still playing hide-and-seek with direct-entry into electoral politics, despite his public promise to do so on New Year’s Eve.
The public response to the MNM has reportedly been lukewarm to say the least while Rajinikanth may have also helped the ‘Dravidian majors’ to consolidate even more by not striking when the iron was still hot. This would mean that he would have to first convince the voters that he is serious about politics after all, and was not using political one-liners as a launch-pad for his next movie in the making. Going by media reports, there could be one too many in the pipeline, both under-production and possible new ones.
Elections-2014 saw Jayalalithaa sweeping the Lok Sabha polls in the State with her ‘Lady-ya, Modi-ya?’ poll-campaign. The results also saw BJP’s contribution to the existing NDA pool in the State going up by around five percent, only to fall to the traditional minus-two percentage points in the Assembly elections only two years later, in May 2016. The DMK could not win a single seat, the first time after Elections-91, held after the ‘Rajiv Gandhi assassination’.
For the first time, the poll percentage gap, between the ruling AIADMK which swept the Assembly polls and the DMK-Congress rival combine was only one percent, 41-40. For the first time again, as the losing combine, the DMK alliance won the highest-ever 98 seats against the AIADMK’s 136, adding up to the full House strength of 234.