DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi has always been passionate about monarchies and mythologies despite living in a democracy and being a self-proclaimed rationalist. He often deludes himself in believing that he is a reincarnation of Rajaraja Chola. Mr Karunanidhi, known for revivalism, promoted rituals like the crowning of political leaders with laurels and sceptres.
The one thing he probably never wanted to revive from the past was sibling rivalry. And yet, that’s what has come to haunt him. There was no recorded sibling rivalry in India’s modern political history since the Mughals, not until Mr Alagiri and his younger brother came along. The rivalry between Mr Karunanidhi’s two sons, Union minister M.K. Alagiri and DMK treasurer M.K. Stalin, is now out in the open and threatening the DMK’s future.
According to psycho-medical research, sibling rivalry is particularly intense when children are very close in age and of the same gender, or where one child is intellectually gifted. The Alagiri-Stalin case is no different. These is not a significant age gap between the two brothers, and, on the contentious question of which one can qualify as “intellectually gifted”, most will back Mr Stalin. He has acted in stage plays and television serials, has run the marathon and is a tolerable public speaker.
As for Mr Alagiri, even his diehard supporters won’t make any tall claims about his histrionic abilities, a must in Dravidian politics. Most of Mr Alagiri’s histrionics are confined to the four walls of the family home. Every time he frets and fumes over the importance being given to Mr Stalin, it becomes a party issue next morning.
Unlike Mr Stalin, Mr Alagiri’s stint in the DMK is chequered. Mr Stalin began his political career by joining the party’s student movement in the mid-Seventies, while Mr Alagiri, two years his senior, had no interest in politics. Mr Stalin acted in propaganda plays and gave a boost to the youth movement. He was arrested along with several party seniors under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act (Misa) during Emergency, and suffered brutal thrashing inside the prison.
During the 13 years, through the 1980s, when the DMK was kept out of power by Indira Gandhi and MGR, Mr Stalin remained politically active. But Mr Alagiri was still nowhere on the horizon.
He had been packed off to Singapore to run a business. He could not, and so he returned. But keeping him in Chennai was a headache for Mr Karunanidhi — an active Stalin was already being eulogised by the party’s robust youth wing.
Mr Alagiri was exiled to Madurai, ostensibly to supervise party propaganda newspaper Murasoli. The edition closed down shortly, but Mr Alagiri was stuck with Madurai where he ran a videocassette rental business. Even then he managed to antagonise several party seniors, including party general secretary Anbhazhagan who had to officially issue a “warning” that Mr Alagiri was not a member of the DMK and that any party member doing political business with him would attract punishment.
But Mr Alagiri’s political ambitions had been aroused and he became a power centre by building a force of musclemen. In Chennai, his mother, Dayalu Ammaal, was his main supporter, trouble-shooting every time she found her son floundering. Eventually, Mr Karunanidhi had to apportion power by creating a regional secretary’s post for the southern districts which went to Mr Alagiri.
Mr Alagiri delivered at the hustings but in this region the party became notorious for the goons he nurtured. Ingenious ways of distributing money to voters were devised by Mr Alagiri’s men. The Tirumangalam bypoll in Madurai, in fact, became synonymous with “buying votes” in the national electoral lexicon. Mr Alagiri effectively demonstrated to the country that politicians don’t just receive bribes but also offer them. And that for a corrupt polity to thrive, people also must be corrupted.
With the party’s northern base shaken by Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and Vijaykanth, Mr Karunanidhi had to depend on Mr Alagiri to keep the south.
But Mr Stalin was demanding his pound of flesh and Mr Karunanidhi was forced to create a post of deputy chief minister for him. This sent a message to party cadres that Mr Stalin, and not Mr Alagiri, would be the successor. To avoid trouble, Mr Karunanidhi sent Mr Alagiri to Delhi with the lure of a Cabinet post. But Mr Alagiri, who is not comfortable talking in Hindi or English, unlike his sister Kanimozhi or nephew Dayanidhi Maran, created another dubious record — of being the most inarticulate minister Tamil Nadu had ever had at the Centre. During Question Hour in Parliament, he would simply go missing.
But the respite Mr Karunanidhi has manoeuvred for Mr Stalin did not last. At the recent Coimbatore session of the party, Mr Stalin’s supporters made a bid to wrest power from Mr Karunanidhi, but Mr Alagiri’s team scuttled it. This was déjà vu. Once in every three years, Mr Stalin attempts to seize the throne, but is frustrated by his dear brother.
Mr Karunanidhi is the only politician in the country who encouraged factions within his family to secure his position as the party supremo. Non-family factions in the DMK were decimated even before the party came to power in 1967. Later, MGR and Vaiko, who were threats to Mr Karunanidhi, were expelled. Through the 1990s, Mr Karunanidhi did his best to groom various successors, all related to him by blood — Mr Stalin, Mr Alagiri, Ms Kanimozhi and the Marans. All non-family party leaders owe their allegiance to one faction of the family or other. Thus, during his lifetime Mr Karunanidhi managed to stay supreme with the support of all factions, and after him power will stay within his family.
But now that the party has fared badly at the hustings and is forced to lick its wounds for the next five years, the succession war has become simultaneously acute and pathetic. Pathetic because, the party is out of power and with family members embroiled in various corruption cases, it cannot afford internal bloodletting. And acute because, by the time of the next Assembly elections, Mr Karunanidhi would be 92 and the succession question would have to be settled. But, till then, Mr Karunanidhi will be sleeping with the sceptre by his bed.
Gnani Sankaran is a Tamil writer, theatreperson and filmmaker