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DMK’s Azhagiri Riddle: Realpolitik or Bravado Overdone?

The line between bravado and pyrrhic victory is slender, more so in the realm of political melodrama in India. The latest case in point is the internal spat between brothers in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) as to who should be the party president, M. Karunanidhi’s successor. Swinging between political bravado and high voltage family ties, how far can M.K. Azhagiri go in this round of tussle with his younger brother, M.K. Stalin? Would it be at the cost of another split in the first post-Independence regional party founded in 1949? M.R. Venkatesh analyses the controversy.

It comes as no surprise that the latest bout of political pugilism between the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) south strongman and former Union Minister, M.K. Azhagiri, and the party’s youth wing leader and Treasurer, M.K. Stalin, the elder and younger sons respectively of the DMK patriarch, M. Karunanidhi, has come in the thick of its organisational elections and tenuously coinciding with the run-up to the 2014 general election to the Lok Sabha.

The brazen display of desi valour and frenzied hero worship by hundreds of Mr. Azhagiri’s loyal supporters on the streets of Madurai in the last week of January when the DMK’s south zone organising secretary celebrated his 63rd birthday, leave alone the car cavalcade and their leader being driven in a horse-drawn chariot to the B-day bash venue, may have injected realism even in the Spanish novelist Miguel Cervantes’ unforgettable protagonist, Don Quixote, the Knight for whom ‘chivalry is a religion’, pursuing ambitions far removed from ground realities.

If the fictional hero were to take on a new post-modernist avataar, and walk aimlessly along the streets of Madurai, he would squirm seeing the huge larger-than-life flexi-banners of Mr. Azhagiri cast in the moulds of several famous personalities, including, among others, the Dravidian movement leader, Periyar, ‘Kalaignar’ M. Karunanidhi, former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and of the icon of the Latin American revolution, Che Guevara. This Quixote may have even conceded in private that his pot-bellied squire Sancho Panza’s repeated realistic cautions against ‘Knights in glory’ (in that great novel) was earthly wisdom after all.

But that seems only the beginning of a new narrative in the politics of the DMK, which may come close to Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s recently expressed wish (at the Jaipur Literature Festival) on the need for a robust, right-wing, market-friendly party that is also secular and inclusive (to take on the communal forces), like the Swatantra Party in its heydays. Interestingly, the Swatantra was an ally of the DMK in the grand alliance then blessed by elder statesman Rajaji in 1967 that catapulted the DMK to power in the State, dislodging the Kamaraj-led Congress. This is despite the fact that strong regional parties like the DMK and its ideological offshoots, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDM), have out of political expediency allied with the pro-Hindutva forces like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) one time or the other, particularly in the post-reforms era when coalition governments have come to stay.

Clearly, the recent fast-paced developments in the DMK bear no testimony to any intra-party harmony. If anything, the underlying power struggle, stemming from Mr. Azhagiri’s alleged animosity towards the ‘ever-cautious’ and seemingly stoic 61-year-old Stalin’s slow but steady rise in leadership status over decades of party organisational work from the latter’s 15th year, has gone beyond sibling rivalry now.

What may be a motive force in drawing lines in intra-party democracy in the DMK at various levels — there are still scores of families in the Dravidian movement whose family tree speaks of allegiance to its different political offshoots — could often blow over into deadly izzat (honour) battle. Only that Mr. Azhagiri, this time, is on a more sticky wicket than he was over a decade ago.

In fact, Mr. Stalin — ready for the long haul in politics much before Mr. Azhagiri — not only survived a detention during the Emergency, which he once described as his ‘moment of political baptism at the hands of Indira Gandhi’, but also built his administrative profile, first as an easy-to-access Mayor of Chennai during 1996-2001. He even managed to secure a tenure as the State’s Deputy Chief Minister from May 2009, when Mr. Karunanidhi’s health was poor, and has led several poll campaigns to help progressively legitimise his grip over the party.

Thus, unlike post-September 2000, when the party headquarters’ diktat from Chennai to its members not to have any truck with Mr. Azhagiri was greeted with burning of buses in Madurai, the latest firm action by the party General Secretary K Anbazhagan, on January 24 suspending Mr. Azhagiri from the party’s primary membership and all party posts for his continued anti-party activities “aimed at causing rift and confusion in the DMK”, met with no such violent backlash.

As the standoff intensified, the DMK chief disclosed that in this latest instance, Mr. Azhagiri, barging into his house early morning, after ten of the latter’s supporters were initially suspended from the party and the Madurai urban district unit disbanded, had even turned an alarmist soothsayer presaging ‘Stalin’s death in two or three months’. In a party organisation that rejects caste in principle, Mr. Karunanidhi fumed that some of the latter’s friends had initiated police complaints in Madurai against Mr. Stalin’s supporters under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Such divisive actions, allegedly at the behest of Mr. Azhagiri, including trying to scuttle a potential poll pact with the actor Vijayakant-led Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) through his personal remarks in a recent TV interview and utter disregard for internal party disputes settlement forums, were preposterous warranting his suspension, the DMK said in its statement.

Just cut back to an earlier decade. In 2001, when the party took action against him, Mr. Azhagiri did not sulk. The Anjaa Nenjan (the braveheart), as he was referred to in the party, only had to wave to his backers to scuttle the DMK’s electoral prospects. As ‘rebel’ candidates, they quietly wrecked DMK’s chances in about 15 constituencies in southern Tamil Nadu in the Assembly elections that year. Party stalwarts like the late Speaker, P.T.R. Palanivel Rajan, a widely respected political leader from Madurai and Tha. Kiruttinan, DMK’s war-horse from Sivaganga, were among those who lost in that election, which brought back the Ms. Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) to power.

However, in 2001 June-end, the dramatic midnight arrest of Mr. Karunanidhi and Mr. Stalin, among others, in a ‘flyover scam’ case by the AIADMK government instantly paved way for an intra-party rapprochement, as Mr. Azhagiri was among the first to rush to the old Madras Central Prison, alongside his step-sister, Kanimozhi, to comfort his father Long itching for a role on par with Mr. Stalin in the party, Mr. Azhagiri then played a significant role in the Andipatti Assembly by-election campaign in February 2002, which Ms. Jayalalithaa contested and won to return as Chief Minister.

As a grassroots man, Mr, Azhagiri showed all his skills with aplomb at Andipatti, despite the DMK losing that election. But his rough and tough ways in over-lording the DMK’s southern district units from Madurai — where the dominant OBC Thevars play a pivotal role in State politics and who had solidly backed the AIADMK founder-leader, M. G. Ramachandran’s rise to power in the mid-1970s since the Dindigul Parliamentary by-poll — was resented by a good section of his party-men.

While some party insiders argue that Mr. Azhagiri ‘played dangerously’ to gain from the DMK’s factional politics in Madurai and some adjoining rural districts to emerge the ‘undisputed king’ in the South, the deadly murder of DMK’s former State Minister and veteran MP from Sivaganga district, Tha. Kiruttinan, in Madurai as he was on his morning walk on May 20, 2003, almost eclipsed Mr. Azhagiri’s politics. Eerily, this murder came amid the organisational polls then going on in the DMK.

The DMK strongman was quickly arrested by the Madurai Police on May 21, 2003, charged with “hatching a conspiracy” against Kiruttinan, who had reportedly insisted on a ballot for election to party posts in three district units in the South, including Sivaganga. The brutal murder of Kiruttinan was then described as a ‘fallout of the intra-party feuding’, which descends to a nadir whenever top district-level posts are at stake. Both the DMK and Mr. Stalin came to his rescue then, dubbing Mr. Azhagiri’s arrest in the case as “political vendetta” by the ruling AIADMK.

For Azhagiri, despite later being granted bail, it was a long wait to emerge from the ‘Kiruttinan case shadow’. This was despite the balm of central power that first came from the Vajpayee-led NDA, and then when DMK became part of the UPA-I coalition after the DMK-Congress alliance made a historic clean sweep of all the 40 seats (39 in Tamil Nadu one in Puducherry) in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.

Mr. Azhagiri and his named associates were all acquitted in the Tha. Kiruttinan murder case by a District Court in Chittoor in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh on May 8 2008 — after the case was transferred to a court outside Tamil Nadu. But the inner-party feud was far from over, The Stalin-Azhagiri divide was widened after an ‘opinion poll’ published by the Tamil Daily, Dinakaran in early May 2007 put Mr. Stalin far ahead in popular ratings than Mr. Azhagiri and Ms. Kanimozhi in the leadership succession race in the DMK. A violent attack on the Dinakaran office in Madurai then followed, and the needle of suspicion again pointed to Mr. Azhagiri’s over-enthusiastic supporters for the alleged act of arson that claimed the lives of three employees of the Tamil daily.

Dinakaran was by then already in the expanding basket of the Maran brothers-run Sun TV Network, which at another level had embroiled the siblings of Azhagiri in a ‘cable war’ with Sumangali Cable Vision (SCV), the Multi System Operator under the Sun umbrella controlling the distribution of channels. Meanwhile, the DMK’s first family got distanced from the Sun Network after Dayalu Ammal, the elder wife of Mr. Karunanidhi, divested her family’s 20 per cent stake in the Sun Group.

Amid the aftershocks of the Dinakaran attack incident, the DMK was again in turmoil, forcing the party to ask its nominee and the then Information Technology and Communications Minister, Dayanidhi Maran, to be removed from the Union Cabinet. In another politically astute move, Mr. Karunanidhi initiated steps to float Kalaignar TV to ensure that the DMK did not solely depend on the Sun Network. But in a sudden development, days after the terror attack on Mumbai on Nov 26, 2008, there was a dramatic re-union by all members of the DMK’s first family at Mr. Karunanidhi’s Gopalapuram residence, signalling a closing of ranks by all.

It was in the crucible of such stirring events that the year 2009 heralded possible winds of change for Mr. Azhagiri. A stint in the UPA-II Cabinet in Delhi as Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers, after a big win from the Madurai constituency in the May 2009 Lok Sabha polls — that he took about 15 months to answer his first question in Parliament citing language as an issue is another story — partly conferred a sense of poise and an image makeover on Azhagiri. It enabled a partial overcoming of his past muscular and extra-constitutional ways to browbeat party seniors in southern Tamil Nadu.

A string of by-election victories to the Tamil Nadu Assembly, mostly from the South, for the DMK-Congress combine before and after the 2009 Lok Sabha polls starting with the now infamous ‘Tirumangalam formula’ (a deft mix of handouts and help-line to connect to voters), gilt-edged Azhagiri’s aura of omnipotence in the DMK more than ever before. At one point, Mr. Stalin and Mr. Azhagiri were likened by party seniors as a “double barrel gun” to take on any political adversary, be it an Assembly or a Lok Sabha election.

However, Azhagiri found himself left in the cold since the party lost power in the State in May 2011. Even more, the DMK later withdrew support to the UPA-II Government in March 2013 over the Sri Lankan Tamils issue and pulled out its Ministers from the Manmohan Singh Cabinet. No wonder, with another round of party organisational elections (the party has come midway in its 14th intra-party elections till the Town Panchayat level) now on, the repressed ‘Don Quixote’ in Azhagiri has seemingly sprung up again.

While Mr. Stalin has been consolidating his hold in these intra-party elections, barring a couple of southern districts, Mr. Azhagiri flings the dynastic-bias card at his nonagenarian father and asserted he would not accept anybody other than ‘Kalaignar’ (as Mr. Karunanidhi is widely known) as the party leader. Several influential DMK district secretaries from the South, including those who had crossed over from the AIADMK, have already thrown their lot with Mr. Stalin, placing the balance of convenience in his favour.

This has reinforced Mr. Azhagiri’s apprehensions that the ultimate ascendency of Mr. Stalin in the DMK — the latter was made Deputy General Secretary in June 2003 and more than five years later, elevated as party Treasurer in December 2008 — may be a fait accompli. Refuting this impression, a senior DMK functionary told this writer: “The party is not an individual; it is a collective network of units led by our ‘Thalaivar [leader, referring to Mr. Karunanidhi]; that’s why it has withstood all shocks till today. If he [Azhagiri] tries anything drastic now, the party may go beyond mere suspension and even take steps to expel him.” Such is the grim mood in the DMK.

The allusion was to Mr. Azhagiri tearing away, to force yet another split in the DMK, buoyed by the emotive response of his supporters at his B-day bash. These ‘dissidents’, mostly losers in the initial rounds of intra-party elections so far, seem to have re-grouped. “The party is with us [read Karunanidhi-Anbazhagan-Stalin who now occupy the three top-most posts]. You see, the late E.V.K. Sampath, MGR and Vaiko, all left the party with the intent of forming a new party,” a DMK senior explained. “And only MGR had succeeded in such an effort to capture power. If Azhagiri tries any such thing, it will be suicidal for him,” he added. Will realpolitik factors goad Don Quixote to look for a moderating Sancho Panza again? Only time will tell.

References :

1. Miguel De Cervantes, Don Quixote.

2. M. Karunanidhi, Nenjukku Needhi, Autobiography by M. Karunanidhi, Volume VI, Thirumagal Nilayam, Chennai, 2013.

3. K.G. Radhamanaalan, Dravida Iyakka Varalaru (Dravidian Movement – A History), Paari Nilayam, Chennai, 2007.

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