His likable boy-next-door face and casual approach to public speaking have a unique appeal for the younger generation, but it stops there, observes N Sathiya Moorthy.
As is the wont, for the second year running after his father M K Stalin became Tamil Nadu chief minister in May 2021, media speculation was rife this year too as ruling DMK youth wing Secretary Udhayanidhi Stalin celebrated his birthday on November 27.
Cadre desire and expectations within the party are that he should be given ministerial responsibility sooner, with sections of the traditional media in the state speculating that a cabinet reshuffle is imminent and that Udhayanidhi would then be inducted — only that such projections have been going on every now and again, both as a positive sign and also as negative criticism against ‘full-fledged revival of dynasty politics’, identified with the DMK’s ‘Karunanidhi family’ for decades now.
As father and DMK president, Stalin named Udhayanidhi as youth wing general secretary soon after the latter became a popular campaigner in the successful 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Last fortnight, after his unanimous re-election as party chief, Stalin reappointed Udhayanidhi to the youth wing post, when he named the heads of various wings.
For Udhayanidhi, the post is of sentimental value as his father had been youth wing secretary for possibly the longest term of 35 years (1982-2017) for anyone in a similar capacity in any party.
Stalin continued in the post even after he was elevated deputy general secretary and later, treasurer.
Incidentally, Stalin’s late father Muthuvel Karunanidhi may have been the longest-serving head of any functional political party in the democratic world — 49 years, ending with his expiry in March 2018.
This is as far as the family’s track record at the helm goes.
Udhayanidhi entered active politics rather late, before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. His grandfather Karunanidhi and father Stalin had made their political mark even as school students.
Stalin in particular is possibly the longest-serving active political leader in the country, having entered direct politics from his college days in the early seventies.
This is as much a burden and responsibility for Udhayanidhi as it may be a boon, when looked at from a distance.
Yes, there may be no competition to him from peers within the party.
Most of them would rather be happy to have a mascot in him, yes.
But his real test would be in gaining voter-acceptance, which goes beyond the party.
This was a distinction that Karunanidhi had made while seeing Stalin through various rungs in the party hierarchy.
Of course, Karunanidhi might have learnt his lessons after seemingly seeking to ‘impose’ his first-born, Mu Ka Muthu, as a future challenger to the state’s most popular face, actor-politician M G Ramachandran, in Tamil filmdom first, and possibly in politics, too.
MGR was the party treasurer, and Karunanidhi’s efforts ultimately led to his forming the breakaway AIADMK, which might have changed the electoral fate, as much of Karunanidhi personally as that of the DMK as a political party.
Of course, there are those who argue that but for the split in 1972, the inevitable ‘anti-incumbency’ might have caught on with the DMK, as it did, and the traditional Congress rival, which though split, was still a strong claimant.
As may be recalled, even when the party lost power to the DMK-led alliance in the historic 1967 assembly elections, the Congress had polled a very respectable 41 per cent vote, against the rival combine’s 53 per cent, pooled by multiple parties with committed voters.
Independent of politics and elections, for the Tamil voter to take Udhayanidhi as a serious politician, he may have to end up riding two horses, even while being the DMK’s youth wing secretary and the MLA representing Chennai’s Chepauk-Tiruvallikeni constituency, once held by grandfather Karunanidhi.
He is a fairly acceptable film-actor though not in the superstar milieu, and is also a film distributor and producer of substantial investments and profits.
MGR faced the dilemma of choosing between politics and filmdom when he floated the AIADMK, as veterans who had crossed from the parent DMK to join him advised him against such a dual identity.
Earlier, MGR had continued as a film actor even after being elected a DMK legislator in 1967 and 1971.
To avoid conflict of interest, he did not accept a salary when appointed vice-chairman of the state chapter of the National Small Savings Scheme. Yet, he continued as film star and producer.
On this count, Udhayanidhi is at an inherent disadvantage. He started off late, he does not (at least as yet) command MGR’s charisma when the latter had to choose between politics and filmdom — but even he still had to.
Then, through the past couple of decades, the ‘Karunanidhi family’, rather, the third-generation comprising the Maran brothers, Udayanidhi and his cousin Dayanidhi Azhagiri, son of Stalin’s controversial elder brother and former Union minister M K Azhagiri, have all been blamed for upstaging business competition, real and imaginary, in the Tamil film industry, in terms of investments and returns.
Though no specifics have been mentioned in Udhayanidhi’s case, the general mood, often propagated through the social media, has definitely left a bad taste.
This, coupled with the charge of ‘dynasty politics’, which the rival AIADMK has taken up, once more now, may dent Udhaya’s public image, especially if he were to either become a minister, or get a more responsible party position than already.
Incidentally, including Stalin’s half-sister Kanimozhi, MP and deputy general secretary after her elevation from women’s wing in-charge recently, three of them are at the helm.
Including cousin Dayanidhi Maran, who too is a Lok Sabha member and former Union minister, four of them from the family are in key PARTY positions, but with different and differentiated functions and importance.
For Udhayanidhi, like his father Stalin, inheriting the party leadership may be the easiest of issues.
As it stands, his may be much easier than in his father’s case, as Stalin had competition from popular political campaigner Vaiko.
In the aftermath of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, which led to the DMK’s unprecedented electoral rout in 1991, Karunanidhi still ventured to fight Stalin’s future battles with Vaiko, his own find, to convert it into one with the self.
The cadres, who mostly comprised those that had stuck with Karunanidhi and brand DMK, not necessarily in that order, when MGR’s exit disrupted the process full two decades earlier in 1992, went mostly with the former, and against Vaiko.
Today, there is no competition of either the larger MGR kind or relatively smaller Vaiko kind, for Udhayanidhi.
In a way, Karunanidhi might have likewise handled the emerging competition for Stalin, from grand-nephew Dayanidhi Maran, son of the late Union minister Murasoli Maran, his favourite nephew and ‘conscience-keeper’.
Through his deft handling of Kanimozhi, Stalin seems to have bought peace for self from within the family after Karunanidhi had sacked Azhagiri from the party a decade ago, never to reconsider his decision as he had done once earlier in the first decade.
Today, a quiet Azhagiri, mostly retired from active politics, has distanced himself from the cadres, both old and new.
He is a threat, neither to Stalin, nor to Udhayanidhi.
But the real problem for Udhayanidhi in the coming years will flow from the inevitability of anti-incumbency that the Stalin government may attract, first until the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, followed more importantly by the assembly elections in 2026.
Though elected only for a five-year term, the Stalin government’s tax reforms and industrial development, the latter the key to jobs and incomes for the individual and families, have been planned for a 10-year period.
Mid-way through the decadal plan, the outcomes are likely to be mixed at best.
In a way, Stalin’s leadership, especially the likes of Finance Minister Palanivel Thiyaga Rajan and Industry Minister Thangam Thennarasu, who especially have made a mark as young and emerging political administrators, have made balancing the government’s books and increasing government revenues as their own legacy issues, as they are for the chief minister.
In the normal course, the elite would support such a scheme, which they still do.
But at least a substantial section (in terms of their vociferousness than numbers) are tilted towards the Hindutva ideology of the ruling BJP at the Centre, and hence anti-Dravidian in ideology and anti-DMK in politico-electoral terms.
Whether or not Stalin’s economic reforms-cum-revival schemes succeed in the end, specific decisions in the interim have burnt a hole in the pockets of the common man, in terms of price and tariff hikes.
There is also disquiet among a section of the voters, whom the DMK hoped to win over in elections 2021 by promising Rs 1,000 per month to families headed by women.
This is so, despite the Stalin government announcing free bus travel for women but only after discontinuing free motorised two-wheelers for college-going girls.
There have also been reports, especially in social media, mostly unconfirmed and unproven, about corruption involving various ministers.
Yet, none of them, as also those against select family members, has sullied Stalin’s personal image and standing.
Yet, it would still have an impact on the party’s poll performance, in the Lok Sabha polls.
In 2019, against the ruling AIADMK-BJP combine, the DMK combine, with the Congress as a mainstay, won 39 of 40 Lok Sabha seats, including the sole seat from the Union Territory of Puducherry.
Stalin has asked the cadres to work towards 40-all, but it may not happen.
Stalin’s political administration, when compared to father Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK, whom alone new-generation voter remembers and recall as comparison, may also be a dampener for Udhayanidhi.
Though Jayalalithaa’s unpredictability, leading to unacceptable induction of ministers and posting of officials, and unanticipated sacking of both, was a butt of jokes in her time, she was also seen as being tough and decisive.
In comparison, Karunanidhi was even more decisive, but in a ‘democratic way’.
It is not as if Stalin is indecisive, as MGR was said to be as chief minister.
Instead, he believes in delegation of powers and responsibilities to ministers and civil servants alike, after convincing himself that he has picked up the best of them under the circumstances.
He is certainly not disruptive, but this has reportedly given rise to situations where many ministers and officials are seen as being incompetent and at times insincere, too.
Falling under the latter list are senior ministers with whom Stalin had grown up in the party from his student days on.
Many of them have become a law unto themselves, as much in ministerial decision-making as in their public pronouncements, political and administrative.
Unless the situation is rectified, the DMK’s chances in the two rounds of elections in 2024 and 2026 could be problematic for the party and the leadership.
The rectification process in turn would require sacking old and/or inefficient ministers, but competent replacements are just not available.
In this context, the bureaucracy may be better placed, as talent combined with honesty is still available down the line.
It only requires Karunanidhi’s acumen to put them in charge of the paperwork without disturbing the hierarchy.
If this does not happen, some of the frustrated middle-level officers may seek transfer to the Centre, where the state’s contribution has reduced in the past close to a decade.
All of it in turn is going to affect Udhayanidhi’s leadership and times, whether or not he is inducted as a minister before either of the elections, and more so if he has to take the party back to power in the none-too-distant future.
Still, he may be at some advantage. From among the leaders from his generation, there is none from the rival AIADMK, but the same cannot be said of the likes of state BJP President Kuppusamy Annamalai, who quit the Indian Police Service to enter politics.
All of it means that Udhayanidhi Stalin has to put in a lot of hard and purposeful work — and also has to be seen as doing so.
His likable boy-next-door face and casual approach to public speaking have a unique appeal for the younger generation, but it stops there.
They would not travel beyond party cadres, to bring in votes, the votes that are required to keep the party and himself relevant in his time.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com
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