The bitter Yadav family feud that's roiling the Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh has, unsurprisingly, turned people's attention to the state of affairs in another family-based party down South, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), especially since that party is also ripe for a transition from a father to a son at the helm.
The last few days have thoroughly exposed the bitter animosities that exist within the SP's first family. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has openly challenged the authority of his father and SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav. Akhilesh is involved in a running feud with his uncle, and Mulayam's younger brother, Shivpal Yadav. He dismissed Shivpal from his Cabinet, and the latter retaliated by suspending Akhilesh's man Ram Gopal Yadav, a Rajya Sabha MP and a cousin of Mulayam, from the primary membership of the party. At what was to be a reconciliatory meeting of the SP's top level on October 24, both sides instead vented anger openly and all the dirty linen was washed in public, on national television.
After witnessing the UP drama, political observers in Tamil Nadu have begun to ask, could this happen between Karunanidhi and his son and successor M.K. Stalin, too, at some point of time? If a leader like Akhilesh, who is in his forties, can indulge in rebellion, what is to stop Stalin, who is in his late sixties but is yet to get the reins of the party in his hand, from getting impatient sooner or later, and start rebelling against the 92-year-old Karunanidhi. After all, Akhilesh has been in politics for only a few years, Stalin has been waiting in the wings for over four decades.
But, of course, this comparison is not an easy one to comprehend because there are some basic differences between the two. For one the DMK president M Karunanidhi is not Mulayam Singh Yadav - Mulayam began to pave way for his son five years ago at 72; Karunanidhi is now 92, agile of mind, and not yet ready to hand over the reins.
Akhilesh Yadav is a sitting chief minister whereas Stalin is just the DMK's treasurer and the leader of opposition in the state assembly. This makes a huge difference, because Akhilesh has the entire state machinery at his command to carry out his orders, whereas for Stalin, power comes from the barrel of his loyal guns. Akhilesh can use state power and resources to target his opponents, that option is not available to Stalin.
Moreover, in the SP, there are now two power centres, but in the DMK, there have for long been four or five - Karunanidhi himself, Stalin, the patriarch's daughters Kanimozhi and Selvi and the powerful Marans. Karunanidhi's estranged son M.K. Alagiri is also waiting for an opportune time to strike. Above all, Mulayam, unlike Karunanidhi, is not instigating his family members against his own son, Akhilesh.
Yet, there are things to be said for Stalin's ability to do an Akhilesh, too, with levers that the latter does not have access to. For one, unlike Akhilesh, Stalin has control of the entire power structure of the DMK. The key nodes of this structure are the DMK Trust, the Murasoli Trust, party headquarters 'Anna Arivalayam' and Kalaignar TV. The DMK Trust owns properties worth over Rs. 6,000 crore in Tamil Nadu and the Murasoli Trust owns properties worth several hundred crores at least. In fact, those who control these two trusts alone can control the DMK and that's why the post of party treasurer is crucial in the DMK's affairs. Today, Stalin loyalists are completely in charge of these two trusts. Likewise over 90 percent of those who staff Anna Arivalayam and Kalaignar TV are his men.
The key question that arises from this is, of course, with his key men manning all important positions, why is Stalin still not able to take full control of the party, that too from a 92-year-old man? It's not resistance from the party rank and file that's preventing Stalin from doing so but solid opposition from within his family that has tied his hands.
Long-time DMK observers easily understand why it is difficult to topple Karunanidhi. Despite his shortcomings, Karunanidhi is a force to reckon with in Indian politics. After all, don't forget, the DMK is the only political party in all of India that has been a constituent of three different political formations that have ruled India since 1996 - first the short-lived Third Front governments of Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral from 1996 to 1998, then the Vajpayee-led NDA government from 1999 to 2003, and lastly the Manmohan Singh-led UPA 1 and 2 until 2013. It's not an easy task for any party and its leader to be able to straddle the extremes of the Indian political spectrum, and speaks of the chameleonic ability and Machiavellian character of Karunanidhi, a streak that remains strong even at 92.
So, will Stalin just have to wait for his turn, or will he lose patience, sooner or later, and stage a putsch? We can only wait and watch.
(R. Mani is a veteran journalist and commentator on Tamil Nadu politics)