“En uyirinum melana anbu udanpirapugale (my brothers who I love more than life itself),” MK Stalin began, in his first address to party workers as president of the DMK.
You couldn’t help but feel the clock wind back to decades ago when DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi began making that customary salutation his own.
For a state whose politics has been defined by iconic leaders and emotive electioneering, the DMK’s new president has learned fast.
For Tamil Nadu’s oldest political party, Stalin is only the DMK's second president. Karunanidhi held the position for 49 long years, and his passing has signalled a change of guard in more ways than one.
While Stalin himself admitted that he was in no position to emulate his father's charisma and persona, the change of guard at a 69-year-long establishment comes with its share of challenges.
Winning Combination For 2019
Stalin’s top priority as party chief is to assemble a winning combination for the general elections next year. As on date, the DMK is non-existent in the Lok Sabha, with arch-rivals AIADMK occupying 37 out of 39 seats from Tamil Nadu.
While the party did well in the 2016 assembly polls, winning a total of 98 out of 234 assembly seats, with allies, it was let down by its alliance partner, the Congress, winning only eight out of the 41 seats it contested.
In the run up to 2019, there has been speculation that the DMK would consider allying with the BJP, in the pursuit of better poll prospects.
Today, Stalin closed the door on that possibility, accusing the BJP of being singularly responsible for polarisation in the country.
“Let us teach the spineless Modi government a lesson,” he exclaimed, exhorting party men to uphold secular values.
Experts say there was never a real possibility of the two parties getting together in the first place.
"Most of this speculation was born out of several BJP leaders paying courtesy calls to Karunanidhi while he was ailing,” noted N Sathiyamoorthy, senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation.
Stathiyamoorthy adds, "The DMK is known to be courteous to all parties. But its ideological ally has always been the Congress, and that union is unlikely to end. Stalin’s speech is also proof that the door is now firmly shut on any possibility of a pre-poll or a post-poll alliance with the BJP.”
Party Unity Amidst Rebellion
Ironically, one of the challenges to Stalin’s claim to the DMK throne has come from within.
Former union minister and Karunanidhi’s older son, MK Alagiri has claimed that the DMK patriarch’s loyalists are on his side, even warning of "dire consequences" if he isn’t re-inducted to the DMK (he was expelled from the party in 2014, on disciplinary grounds).
Questions on just how much clout Alagiri wields continue to remain.
It was around 2001, when the DMK’s Madurai strongman garnered a reputation of using immense muscle power to win elections in southern Tamil Nadu, even going so far as to field independent candidates capable of beating DMK candidates.
“But Alagiri is not a factor any longer, and is not a threat to the DMK,” said senior Chennai-based journalist Sandhya Ravishankar, “Stalin has been working on the ground to ensure Alagiri’s base is demolished permanently.”
Sathiyamoorthy adds, "Even if he continues to have support, it will disappear if the DMK, under Stalin, wins upcoming elections.”
Perhaps Stalin’s biggest challenge will lie in bringing the DMK back to reckoning in Tamil Nadu.
After all, it wasn’t very long ago in 2016, when only for the first time, the DMK lost two successive elections, ending 30 years of anti-incumbency.
This was close on the heels of its rout in the 2014 general elections, winning none of the 39 Lok Sabha constituencies in Tamil Nadu.
The analysis was fairly simple: the Tamil Nadu voter was unwilling to forgive a party accused of massive corruption. The DMK however, continues to maintain that the AIADMK used money power to win big.
The rise of Stalin, however, DMK spokesperson Saravanan feels could draw the curtains on not only the AIADMK government, but be instrumental in engineering a BJP defeat.“From the Hoeganakkal Integrated Water Scheme to planning for the Chennai Metro Rail, many key projects have been our leader’s handiwork,” said Saravanan, “The people of Tamil Nadu know that, and are also aware that the DMK is the only party that can deliver social justice, which is absent under the BJP.”