At the fag end of a glittering career as a poet, playwright, screenwriter and politician, the political script etched out by Muthuvel Karunanidhi for his family members in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is going awry. The suspension of his elder son, MK Alagiri, for anti-party activities comes at a time when the DMK is reeling under a string of political setbacks. While MK Stalin has been Karunanidhi’s favoured son for over two decades now and was formally named his heir last January, Alagiri has been a formidable presence too. Out of favour with his father, Alagiri was dispatched to Madurai and ordered to keep out of trouble. But he proceeded to build a powerful base in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu through a combination of strong-arm tactics and political patronage. As Alagiri started leveraging his hold on the south for a greater say in DMK politics, he came into conflict with Stalin and Karunanidhi.
An opportunity to dislodge Alagiri from Madurai came Stalin’s way after the former won the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and moved to Delhi as Union chemicals and fertilizers minister. With Stalin continuously chipping away at his support base and Jayalalithaa targeting his supporters under the Goonda Act since 2011, an embittered Alagiri found the distance with his father growing by the day. The disbanding of the DMK Madurai unit controlled by Alagiri and his statements meant to disrupt a possible electoral understanding with actor Vijayakanth’s DMDK, brought the factional war to a head this past week and prompted Karunanidhi to warn Alagiri against criticising the party line.
Earlier, Karunanidhi was forced to act against his nephews, Dayanidhi and Kalanithi Maran, who, deluded by their financial and media clout, overplayed their political hand. The decline of Dravidian politics, first through personality cults and then nepotist tendencies, has been evident for a while now. With the DMK and AIADMK diverting from its social justice agenda, caste parties like the Vanniyar-dominated Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and Dalit outfit Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) have eaten into their mass base. In past elections, the DMK has been forced to ally with the Congress, the PMK, VCK, and the Left parties to whom it surrendered 116 of the state’s 248 assembly seats. While corruption allegations have been nothing new for the DMK, Karunanidhi suffered a crippling blow when his daughter, Kanimozhi, becoming embroiled in the biggest corruption scandal Independent India has seen till date, the 2G spectrum scam case, was thrown into jail.
Stalin’s biggest hurdle is the inability of his party to win an electoral majority on its own. Alagiri can be expected to dent the party in the Southern districts if he is expelled. While the AIADMK can hold its own in the south, there is speculation that Jayalalithaa, whose animosity towards the Karunanidhi clan is well known, could offer Alagiri an alliance, just to spite the patriarch. The choice between feuding sons or daughters, or sons and nephews, has roiled the last days of many leaders. With the fragmentation of the political space, these heirs are left with shrunken legacies and polarised loyalties in case of family feuds. Karunanidhi, who inherited the political mantle from CN Annadurai in 1969, once had a glittering second rung of leaders including Vaiko and K Anbazhagan, aspiring to succeed him. But then he cast his lot with his three ambitious children and, unfortunately, allowed their personal agendas to dominate the DMK.