Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin, 68, faces his first Tamil Nadu election since his father and iconic politician M Karunanidhi – popular to his supporters as “Kalaignar” – died in 2018. But it is by no means his first solo outing – he led the DMK to a sweep in national elections just a year later in 2019.
Karunanidhi, a political giant in Tamil Nadu like his lifelong rival J Jayalalithaa of AIADMK, showed early that he preferred his younger son when it came to the party.
The political journey of MK Stalin began as a teen at a barber shop in the Gopalapuram neighbourhood of Chennai, where he started the “DMK Gopalapuram Youth Wing” with some friends.
His arrest during the Emergency of 1975 and the death of Chitti Babu, a DMK functionary and his jail mate, allegedly from a brutal attack by police catapulted him into active politics.
Seven years later in 1982, Stalin was appointed a member of the party’s youth wing committee. His tour of Tamil Nadu to establish the youth wing elevated him to the position of the Youth Wing Secretary. Some started calling him “Thazhapathi” or commander, and it stuck.
In 1984, he lost his debut election in Chennai’s Thousand Lights assembly constituency. Five years later he won from the same seat. He lost again in 1991 and was re-elected from the seat for three terms from 1996 to 2006. But since 2011, he has represented Chennai’s Kolathur constituency.
Stalin became the first directly-elected Mayor of Chennai in 1996 after an amendment to the Corporation Act. During his tenure, Chennai acquired 10 major flyovers to tackle traffic congestion and 18 new parks. He was re-elected Mayor in 2001.
Two years later, he became DMK’s Deputy General Secretary. In 2008, he became treasurer – a position his father had held before becoming DMK president.
In 2006 he became the Local Administration Minister in his father’s cabinet and was elevated as Deputy Chief Minister in 2009 after his elder brother MK Alagiri became a Union Minister in the Manmohan Singh government.
Stalin took over as Executive President of DMK when his father’s declining health forced him to step back. After the death of Karunanidhi in 2018, Stalin was unanimously elected DMK president.
Stalin and his older brother have had an unpleasant sibling rivalry for years. Many in the party say over the decades, Karunanidhi groomed only Stalin as his political heir though Alagiri had a strong grassroot connect with the masses and led the party to victory in southern Tamil Nadu, his stronghold.
The party, however, gradually went into Stalin’s control. Alagiri was expelled from the party under his father’s leadership.
In the early 1990s, firebrand leader and well-known orator Vaiko, seen as a challenger to Stalin, was expelled from the DMK on other reasons. After several ups and downs between them, Stalin made Vaiko’s MDMK an ally for the 2019 national election and the state election too.
Stalin is being criticised for continuing dynastic politics by pushing his son Udhayanidhi Stalin, who has become DMK’s Youth Wing secretary and will contest from the Chepauk Thiruvallikeni constituency that his grandfather Karunanidhi had represented thrice earlier.
Responding to this recently, Stalin told NDTV: “No one can be thrust into politics. They can come up in politics only if they come on their own.”
Stalin also defended his son’s political credentials. “This is not new to him. For a long time, he has done election work for me and for my father Kalaignar in Harbour constituency. Gradually he has come up and has taken charge as youth wing secretary. We have not made him president?”
Which begs the question – is he being groomed for that role? “How can I say that now? It depends on his talent and ability,” Stalin shot back.
In the 2016 election, the DMK missed the bus as J Jayalalithaa won a second term for the AIADMK. But Stalin emerged as a strong opposition leader with the DMK alliance winning 98 seats in the 234-member assembly.
In MK Stalin’s first electoral challenge after his father’s death, the DMK swept the Lok Sabha polls in 2019, winning 38 of Tamil Nadu’s 39 seats. Stalin hopes that the record stays and will take him to the Chief Minister’s chair this time.