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Holding Gram Sabhas to Promising COVID Relief to Ration Card Holders: What Worked for Stalin & DMK

DMK President MK Stalin (File photo: PTI)

DMK President MK Stalin (File photo: PTI)

Stalin ensured his 2019 ‘flock’ stayed intact, having sister Kanimozhi call up Sonia Gandhi when problems arose in the seat-sharing talks.

M.K. Stalin will be the new Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, winning the April 6 Assembly elections and dislodging the AIADMK’s decade-long hold on power. True, his was no landslide win or a wave as predicted by the exit polls that had given his DMK over 160 seats in the House of 234. But then, he did much better than his father and political mentor, Muthuvel Karunanidhi who suffered the insult repeatedly thrown at him by arch-rival Jayalalithaa that his was a minority government when the DMK won the last time in 2006, just about managing 96 seats and needing the allies’ support to stay in power.

Stalin’s DMK has won 132 seats, 43 more than its 2016 tally, while its allies Congress and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK, a Dalit-dominated party) won 18 and four seats respectively, with the two Left parties securing two seats each. The rival AIADMK has won 66 seats while its allies BJP and Pattali Makkal Katchi won four and five seats, respectively. Kollywood hero Kamal Haasan heading the Makkal Neethi Miam (MNM) was engaged in a seesaw battle with BJP’s Vanathi Srinivasan in Coimbatore (South) and finally lost.

Stalin had already proved his political acumen when he led the UPA to a landslide victory, winning 38 of the 39 seats in the state, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections—the first poll battle after the demise of his father-mentor Karunanidhi and arch-rival Jayalalithaa. He again shouldered almost the entire burden of state-wide campaign to secure this handsome win. Equally significant was that he ensured that his 2019 ‘flock’ stayed intact, having sister Kanimozhi call up Sonia Gandhi when problems arose in the seat-sharing talks with the Tamil Nadu Congressmen. On the other hand, the AIADMK lost an ally this time, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam of yesteryear actor Vijayakanth.

Apart from his strong leadership skills, Stalin also had the services of election strategist Prashant Kishore to effectively guide him through the entire process of strategizing alliances, seat-sharing, choosing his candidates, focusing on prime campaign issues, and so on. DMK insiders say PK even got his client go through a physical makeover to look ‘well-groomed’, hair combed back neatly—a social media debate had erupted on whether it was a wig.
While sister Kanimozhi, an MP, and actor-son Udhayanidhi contributed significantly to the DMK campaign, Stalin undertook extensive electioneering to drive home his pet theme—the Edappadi Palaniswami government was a ‘slave’ of the BJP regime at the Centre whereas if voted to power, he would restore the Tamil pride and protect the people from Hindi imposition. He promised having resolution passed in the Assembly to reject the CAA and that must have pleased the minorities.

Even earlier, he had criss-crossed Tamil Nadu convening ‘grama sabhas’ as part of a political project that he called ‘Ungal Thoguthiyil Stalin’ (Stalin in your constituency), where he even accepted petitions from the people. This actually meant he scored a lead over Palaniswami, a ‘newcomer’ to Tamil Nadu electoral politics, who started hard campaigning much later and then had to do it all by himself.

Also, Stalin’s poll promise of Rs 4,000 as COVID relief to all the ration card holders on June 3, his father Karunanidhi’s birthday, could have made an impression on the electorate. On the other hand, the AIADMK’s offer of washing machines did not click. The tax raids on Stalin’s daughter and some prominent DMK leaders towards the close of the poll campaign did not help the AIADMK-BJP front as many saw them as vindictive acts ordered by the Centre targeting a regional opponent.

Though he has lost power, Palaniswami or EPS has now emerged as the tallest leader in the AIADMK and can easily stake claim to the MGR-Jaya legacy. His rival within the party, O. Panneerselvam, had to struggle to retain his own Bodinayakkanur seat.

The results have also thrown up a ‘shocker’—is the state seeing a Congress revival as the party scored a win in Sriperumbudur—where Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a woman LTTE suicide bomber during electioneering in May 1991? The Congress final tally stood at 18 (it was allotted 25 seats as part of the alliance), a jump from eight last time. Obviously, Stalin’s hard work to get the DMK votes in those constituencies transferred to the ally has borne results this time. Also, the trips by Rahul Gandhi seemed to have helped, particularly his interaction with students and the teachers at Palayamkottai, where many in the audience had expressed anguish over the new education policy and the fear that it might make Sanskrit a compulsory subject.

While the BJP could see four of its 20 candidates making it to the Assembly, it still remains pretty far from its dream of taking roots in the state, unless the top strategists in Delhi ‘Dravidianise’ their TN strategy besides allowing local leadership to grow so that the party does not have to import netas from the North to deliver poll speeches in Hindi.

And, as for the Congress, the party needs to devise means to be able to count more players than captains in its state unit while undertaking the larger and near-impossible search for leadership beyond 10 Janpath.

The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.

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