Stalin is no Karunanidhi, but this is how he’s rebranding his image in Tamil Nadu politics


DMK Chief MK Stalin addressing party district secretaries in Chennai in June, 2019 | ANI


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As Tamil Nadu heads to the polls, much attention has been concentrated on the man now identified as the face of the Dravidian movement. Struggling to fit into the gigantic shoes of his late father and DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi, M.K. Stalin is heading into a make-or-break election that could impact the politics of Tamil Nadu for the foreseeable future.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has always fashioned itself as a movement for social justice and Tamil pride. The rationalism and tinge of separatism that once characterised the party have now been given a quiet burial, because the DMK has seen diminishing returns.

After 10 years of AIADMK’s rule with the DMK as the principal opposition party, the upcoming assembly election should have been a cakewalk for Stalin. Double anti-incumbency against the AIADMK and the Bharatiya Janata Party (allies in Tamil Nadu) should have ensured a landslide mandate for the DMK-Congress-Left alliance. But with less than 30 days to go, the state looks set for a keen contest, although the DMK still has its nose in front. This is largely in part due to the strong fight put up by Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami, who got his caste arithmetic right. He announced a series of sops and neutralised Sasikala Natarajan, who till recently was being projected as his nemesis. But Stalin’s inability to step confidently into the shoes of his father is also responsible for turning a certain victory into a close fight now.


Also read: ‘We don’t need you, you need us’ — the DMK line that forced Sonia Gandhi to call Stalin


Effort to fill big shoes

Karunanidhi was a born orator. His sharp wit and quick repartee was legendary. He would hold audiences spellbound with his speeches. It was said that a lot of the DMK’s success was due to its leaders’ public speaking skills. But Stalin lacks this skill. Several months ago, the DMK roped in poll strategist Prashant Kishor and his Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) to run its election campaign. That has clearly helped boost the slickness quotient of the DMK’s public outreach programme.

Almost all events that Stalin has participated in over the last few months have been carefully choreographed down to the minutest detail. Even the questions from the audience at some of his public meetings seem scripted. The consistency of messaging at all events, colour coordination, dozens of cameras placed to capture details from every angle, bouncers to prevent overenthusiastic party members from causing embarrassment — all reveal there are professional event managers working all through the DMK’s campaign. At this week’s party conclave at Trichy, Stalin walked on a 300-meter ramp through a crowd of admiring supporters — a scene more reminiscent of a fashion show or a self-styled godman’s event.

It is also believed that the I-PAC has been behind campaign strategies that saw Stalin conduct several Gram Sabha meetings across Tamil Nadu, which involved traveling to tiny villages, the ‘Stalin in your constituency’ programme, and the catchy ‘Stalindhaan varaaru’ (Stalin is coming to provide good governance) song. Much more than before, the focus has been on the man and not the party.

Prashant Kishor is also said to have advised the DMK to focus on projecting the BJP as a Hindi-belt party that is thrusting its language upon Tamils. Thus, the meetings of the DMK and its allies are dominated by conversations about the “insult” to the Tamil language, culture, pride, and the alleged attempt by the BJP to deny the state’s OBC communities their due. In fact, the criticism of the AIADMK is mostly limited to calling it a proxy for the BJP. Knowing Tamil Nadu’s aversion to the saffron party and its ideology, Prashanth Kishor has worked on getting Stalin to focus his attack on the BJP while branding the AIADMK as ‘slaves’ of the former.


Also read: Sasikala learnt from Jayalalithaa the art of making comebacks. In retreat lies her politics


Stalin’s transformation

For a man who does not have the natural flair of a mass leader, Stalin has done well to change his image. Clutching babies awkwardly while naming them, giving the mandatory hugs to the elderly on the campaign trail, and reaching out into crowds to shake people’s hands — he has done his best to appear like a confident leader.

In his younger days, Stalin was known for his rather flamboyant ways. But over the years, he has changed his image into that of a serious and sober leader. His speech gaffes, however, have kept Tamil Nadu’s meme industry busy. He has mixed up his proverbs, got the dates of India’s Independence and Republic Days wrong, his skills at math have led to much hilarity, and his tendency to constantly refer to slips of paper while speaking have drawn ridicule. However, none of this seems to have caused much damage to his overall image.

To a large extent, the rebranding has gone well. Stalin has emerged as the front-runner for the top job in Tamil Nadu. Although the contest has narrowed in recent weeks, the DMK still has an edge and Stalin is the preferred choice for the chief minister’s post in almost all the opinion polls. These surveys also give the DMK alliance a vote share in excess of 40-42 per cent while the AIADMK-BJP alliance trails with around 35 per cent.

In terms of seat share, the DMK-Congress alliance is forecast to get between 150-160 seats while the AIADMK+ is expected to get just about 60-70 seats. It must be kept in mind, though, that most of the opinion and exit polls in 2016, too, had predicted a win for the DMK, and they were proved wrong. One thing that M.K. Stalin has never grudged is putting in the hard yards. A tireless worker, he has put his heart and soul into getting the DMK back into power. At 68, he knows only too well that time may be running out. This may be his big chance.

The author is a political analyst, doctor and healthcare IT professional.

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