The result of the Vellore Lok Sabha polls was announced just days after the DMK marked the first death anniversary of M Karunanidhi, its late president. Karunanidhi was a multi-faceted leader who, love him or hate him, shaped the state of Tamil Nadu during his over 70 years in public life. Significantly for the DMK, one of the two main parties in the state, he kept the cadre united and motivated during the 10-year period M G Ramachandran and his AIADMK were in power. Karunanidhi’s death posed a challenge to his party and its new leader—his son MK Stalin.
Leading the party in its first post-Karunanidhi elections, Stalin mounted a vigorous Lok Sabha campaign focused on the BJP and its ally, the AIADMK. The party’s alliance won 38 out of the 39 seats in Puducherry and Tamil Nadu. With the victory in Vellore, the figure rose to 39 out of 40. However, as the party’s performance in the bypolls to 22 Assembly seats indicates—the DMK won 13 seats—the going may not be as easy as its leaders and political observers may have expected. The victory in Vellore, by a wafer-thin margin of just over 8,000 votes, has cemented that opinion.
The DMK’s numbers in Parliament have certainly increased its heft nationally, and Stalin’s profile too has risen as a rallying figure for anti-BJP forces. This was most evident after the Centre effectively scrapped Article 370 and the Congress, the principal opposition party in Parliament and a DMK ally, went to pieces even as the Dravidian party articulated an ideologically consistent stance.
However, in the state, the party leadership may do well to shake off the complacency, focus more closely on state issues and lay the groundwork for 2021 if Stalin is to realise his dream of chief ministership. Part of this will involve nurturing the relatively democratic structure of the DMK, respecting the opinions of its cadre, and reaching out to younger voters who seem more drawn to actor Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Neethi Maiam and the Tamil nationalist party Naam Tamilar Katchi. It will also require the party to refrain from indulging in some of its worst dynastic impulses, especially when at the cost of loyal cadres.