There is something about the sands of the Marina beach in Chennai that provokes rebellion. One and a half years after O Panneerselvam revolted against the VK Sasikala-led AIADMK, MK Alagiri has taken the first step to try a similar gambit, vis-a-vis the DMK.
Like Panneerselvam’s drama that played out at Jayalalithaa's samadhi on a late evening in February 2017, Alagiri chose his father M Karunanidhi's final resting place, to tell the world that his father's “true and loyal followers” are with him.
Does DMK Need to Take Alagiri Seriously?
The big difference however, is that unlike OPS, who was chief minister of Tamil Nadu till 24 hours before he broke away, Alagiri is not even a member of the DMK. He was expelled from the party in 2014 after his differences with younger brother MK Stalin reached a point of no return. It is significant that the samadhi politics played out a day before the meeting of the DMK to condole Karunanidhi's demise.
Alagiri knows that Stalin’s ascension to the top post as DMK President is just a matter of time.
Which is why he wants the DMK top brass and the rank and file to know that they will do well not to ignore him. Does the DMK need to take Alagiri's pronouncements seriously?
Yes and No.
No, because at a time when Stalin would want to cast the DMK in a new mould, moving away from leaders of his father's generation, like 95-year-old General Secretary of the DMK, K Anbazhgan, Alagiri would denote a rewinding to the past. In order to ensure the two brothers did not clash with each other politically, Karunanidhi had sent Alagiri to Madurai in the 1980s, as the party in-charge of southern Tamil Nadu.
Alagiri’s observers in Madurai recall him as the man who ushered in rowdy politics in the temple town.
He has the reputation of working hard on the field, but the style is abrasive, one that relies more on creating the ‘fear factor’. He was also up against a formidable AIADMK caste matrix, as south Tamil Nadu is the preserve of the Thevar community to which Sasikala and OPS belong. Alagiri was tasked with breaking the AIADMK hold, and he did that with a combination of money and muscle power.
Alagiri — The Elephant in the Room
The by-election in Tamil Nadu’s Thirumangalam town in 2009 was Alagiri's tryst with notoriety. The DMK, under Alagiri's stewardship, reportedly paid Rs 5,000 per vote in order to ensure the party's victory. Though Tamil Nadu had a history of ‘cash for votes’ before Thirumangalam, this by-poll raised the cash component significantly. It figured in a Wikileaks document released in 2011, in a writing: “From paying to dig a community well to slipping cash into an envelope inside the morning newspaper, politicians and their operatives admitted to violating election rules to influence voters”.
The episode came to be infamously known as the ‘Thirumangalam formula’.
Over the past four years, Stalin has filled all district posts with his own men, pushing Alagiri loyalists out of the party, or forcing them to fall in line. The DMK is aware that Karunanidhi did not anoint Alagiri as his political successor, so despite the noises in the media that the man from Madurai may make, he will not get much traction within the party.
But Alagiri is the elephant in the DMK room that Stalin cannot ignore, especially with big electoral tests coming up.
Two by-elections in Tiruvarur (Karunanidhi's constituency) and Thiruparankundram (held by the AIADMK) will be announced soon, and while Tiruvarur will be a cakewalk, Stalin will be expected not to repeat a RK Nagar by-poll-like show in the latter. The DMK, despite the split in the AIADMK vote, lost its deposit in the by-election to Jayalalithaa's erstwhile constituency, RK Nagar, last year.
Stalin had led the DMK in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, where the party came a cropper, failing to open its account. He was at the helm of affairs in the 2016 Assembly Elections too, again failing to bring the DMK back to power. 2019 in that sense, will be Stalin’s test, and if he fails to do exceedingly well in the Lok Sabha polls, Alagiri could emerge as a figure for dissenters to rally around.
What Alagiri is doing is to challenge the succession plan Karunanidhi had put in place.
This will interest anti-DMK political operatives who could reach out to Alagiri, in order to use him to dent the party's chances. But at the end of the day, Alagiri, unlike Stalin, is not a 24X7 political creature. His ‘nuisance value’ won't be any more than that of Deepa Jayakumar, Jayalalithaa's niece whose efforts to emerge as the late CM's political successor came to nought.
(The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at @Iamtssudhir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)