Will DMK chief MK Stalin emerge as the winner in the crucial 2019 polls? With the passing away of both Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, both Dravidian majors AIADMK and DMK have lost their iconic leaders who had ruled the state alternatively and treated their parties like personal fiefdoms. With no charismatic leader heading any of the small or big Dravidian parties, DMK chief MK Stalin, who succeeded Karunanidhi, has the edge if he goes about in the right manner. He is facing polls for the first time after his father’s death.

Running a party founded on lofty ideals can be a weighty job. Nevertheless Stalin is undaunted. Stalin may not have the charisma or the literary reputation of his father nor led a colourful life like him. But he has moved up by sheer hard work playing his cards well and after having worked under his father for over four decades.

At the age of 14, Stalin jumped into politics by campaigning for his father’s party in 1967. However, he made his official entry in 1973 when he was inducted into the DMK general council. The present Lok Sabha elections are a do-or-die battle for Stalin. He has to practise what he has learnt from his father, the shrewdest politician of his time.

Even in the 2016 Assembly polls, Stalin was the de facto leader. He attempted many things including an image make over for himself by sporting T-shirts and jeans instead of DMK’s traditional dhoti and half sleeve shirt to woo young voters. But the DMK did not win the polls. He has gone back to the traditional DMK attire now. Stalin has done well by cobbling together a formidable alliance comprising of the Congress, CPI (M), CPI, MDMK headed by Vaiko, VCK, a Dalit party, Indian Union Muslim League, Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, and Kongunadu Makkal Desiya Katchi, a Gounder outfit. The arithmetic of this coalition is quite strong.

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Unlike earlier times, Stalin has been quite flexible and has been generous to the Congress by giving 10 seats while his party is contesting only 20 seats. The rest are given to the other partners. The task ahead of Stalin is stupendous. He must make sure that the DMK coalition wins at least 25 to 30 Lok Sabha seats and 12 to 15 Assembly bye-election seats. It is not that easy.

AIADMK’s anti-incumbency, lack of leadership, infighting and the TTV Dinakaran factor, which could split the AIADMK votes, could help the DMK to a certain extent. The AIADMK is split into two official and three unofficial factions. On the other hand, the DMK coalition is strong and united. Stalin is also looking to a scenario where the Edapadi government could fall after the Assembly bypolls if the DMK does well though Stalin’s aim is the 2021 Assembly polls.

Stalin has matured as a leader and can rub shoulders with national leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and others. He has come far from his backroom boy days, hiding in the shadow of his father. He has been addressing big rallies along with other national leaders. He has no national ambitions.

A senior DMK leader admits, “He has been working hard. It will take some time to reach the level of Kalaignar.”

Stalin’s style of functioning, proximity to loyalists and his reluctance to expand his inner circle is also markedly different to his father’s style. Stalin is not accessible.

After Karunanidhi’s death, Stalin has taken some bold and pragmatic decisions. He announced that his party was against the BJP thus trying to remove a perception that the DMK was having a back channel with the BJP. He also boldly endorsed Rahul Gandhi as the UPA prime ministerial candidate.

Defending his ‘Rahul Gandhi for PM’ pitch, Stalin told NDTV’s Prannoy Roy last week, “I have not taken any risk. Knowing the will of the people of Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi on behalf of the DMK welcomed both Indira Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi with the same introduction. I have just followed the same tradition.”

DMK leader TKS Elangovan points out that under Stalin, there is a change in functioning. “During Annadurai, Periyar and Karunanidhi’s time the party’s ideology was self-respect. Now the party is not pressing much on Dravidian rationalism as we believe in doing justice to all people.” Stalin has a lot going for him this time. If even after all the advantages, the DMK under Stalin is unable to do well in the Lok Sabha elections, his personal and political standing in the party will be threatened.

On the other hand if he delivers, he will be a kingmaker. Stalin must never forget that he is Karunanidhi’s son, and not another Karunanidhi. Unlike his father who remained a cult figure, Stalin has to prove that he deserves the mantle he has inherited.

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