For the first time in nearly three decades, there was no change of government after the 2016 elections in Tamil Nadu. There were clear signs of anti-incumbency across Tamil Nadu under the AIADMK regime but the DMK seemed just unable to take advantage. The DMK-Congress alliance lost the election narrowly and the vote difference was just two percentage points. A miffed Stalin told party workers that even if all the booth agents had voted, the party would have won.
Stalin’s peeve was understandable. His exasperation was evident. The DMK had always been a party where powerful district leaders held sway. Its leader M Karunanidhi allowed such leaders to flourish but over the years the cliques had led to an erosion of discipline and commitment among lower level workers. The DMK organization had become unwieldy and inefficient.
Stalin took it upon himself to take charge of the party organization and hone it. And he targeted the western region where the indiscipline had taken a particularly severe toll, and he removed the district secretary of Namakkal. Stalin then proceeded to make swift changes in the party hierarchy across the State.
In Theni and Namakkal, Stalin changed district secretaries twice in two years. This was not Karunanidhi’s style, party workers observed, but resembled J Jayalalithaa, his father’s fierce opponent. “The style of sacking district secretaries without an inquiry to some extent reflects AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa’s model of leading the party,” said a former DMK district secretary who led the organisation in a southern district.
The comparison does not seem to end there. Stalin often resorts to summary action against party cadres if there are any complaints against them, just like Jayalalithaa used to. Stalin also has a five-member inner circle much like Jayalalithaa.
“Even a major problem in the district has to be conveyed through one of the five leaders and chances of directly meeting Stalin are practically non-existent. A district secretary of the DMK was sacked for no reason and when we wanted to meet Stalin to explain the reality, we were not allowed to meet him. We were directed to meet TR Baala who didn’t listen to our side of the story,” said the son of a former State minister.
Interviews with eight former and present district secretaries of the DMK showed that partymen themselves feel that in terms of style of leadership, Stalin seems to take after Jayalalithaa. But, others are wary of drawing quick comparisons. Ramu Manivannan, head of department of politics and public administration at Madras University, says Stalin has observed the style and functioning of his father over many decades and has drawn his own lessons. “He has his own style,” he said.
Off with their heads
During Karunanidhi’s time, if there was a complaint against a local leader, a disciplinary panel would inquire into the charges and those under a cloud would be given a chance to explain their side. Based on the panel’s report, Karunanidhi would take action that often took the form of temporary suspension from leadership position. A new leader would take his or her place but the move would need party approval during the next organisational elections.
In his five decades as party president, Karunanidhi removed district secretaries only twice, and that too after the disciplinary panel indicted them. Often, a sincerely written letter of apology was all that was needed for rehabilitation.
The scenario changed after the 2016 Assembly election. In the DMK, district secretaries cannot be changed willy nilly without elections. In June 2016, however, former Union minister for health family welfare S Gandhiselvan was removed from the post of Namakkal east district secretary for apparently not doing enough voter mobilization to secure a win for the party in the area. In Namakkal district, of the six constituencies, DMK lost in five including the Paramathivelur constituency, where DMK KS Moorthy lost to AIADMK’s R Rajendran with a vote difference of 818.
Similarly, in Coimbatore, once a DMK stronghold, the party lost the 2016 election in nine constituencies out of 10. In Coimbatore, Singanallur MLA N Karthik was the sole member of the Assembly from the party. “The role of then DMK Coimbatore North district secretary M Veeragopal was openly criticised in the DMK’s executive committee meeting, soon after which Veeragopal was sacked and replaced with M Muthusamy,” said a member of the party executive committee, among the top decision-making bodies in the party, who did not want to be named.
To take control of the party, Stalin has brought in his erstwhile comrades from the youth wing. The party districts were increased to 65 while the party districts equalled revenue districts in the past, and many of the inductees were accommodated in positions of power.
Charting a new course
Some in the DMK say Karunanidhi’s times were different but today’s situation requires swift action to maintain party discipline. “In the earlier days, when there was a leadership dispute in a district, Karunanidhi would call the concerned leaders and sort it out. But now, news spreads fast and people start writing about such squabbles on social media which damages the reputation of the party,” a DMK leader functioning out of the party headquarters in Chennai said.
Some independent observers, too, baulk at any quick conclusion. R Muthukumar, a chronicler of Dravidian politics, said the former chief minister had his own circle of people in the party, details of which were never divulged.
Political observer N Sathiya Moorthy felt that Stalin was sending a strong message to the cadres that the party’s high command would not tolerate any kind of mischief inside the party. “Stalin is not like MGR or Jayalalithaa, who were neither available nor accessible. Stalin may not be accessible, but he is available to the public. He has been constantly meeting allies, party seniors and attending the party’s public meetings across the State,” Sathiya Moorthy added.
Stalin seems to have struck a balance between the working styles of both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, says another leader. “He is not as authoritative as Jayalalithaa, but he is less democratic than Kalaignar (Karunanidhi),” the former DMK district secretary added.