For long the succession issue within the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has left several political observers in Tamil Nadu confounded.
It was only last week that the DMK leader and the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M Karunanidhi was asked point blank whether the DMK would accept Stalin as the next leader.
After stating that DMK was a 'democratic party' and 'not a mutt where the successor was decided by the incumbent pontiff', he went on to add that Stalin, his son, 'was the political heir in the party.'
Naturally, this answer has left the voters confused -- is DMK a mutt or is it political party? Is Karunanidhi a pontiff of a mutt who was appointing his successor? Or was this his idea of democracy?
"Stalin has grown within the DMK ranks over a period of time leaving no question about his position," the octogenarian leader said and added, "just like people elected their leaders, the party cadre would collectively select a person suitable for the post." The hint to the cadre was obvious -- elect Stalin!
Well, was this the modern version of intra-party democracy in action? Or was it a pontiff of a mutt appointing a successor? The answer is left entirely to the reader.
That is not all. Further, doubling as a doting father, Karunanidhi declared: "Just like I have lived up to the expectations of my mentor Aringar Anna in public life and assumed important positions in the party, in the same way, Stalin has also been carrying out his duties."
That is not all. Karunanidhi goes on to add: "All the frontline leaders of the DMK as well as general council members, who have faith in me, have faith in Stalin too." The 'other leaders' in the DMK do not have a choice. All of them, for over four decades, accepted the leadership of Karunanidhi.
And that is not without a reason.
Whenever 'other leaders of the party' attempted a coup (with the sole exception of the legendary MGR), all of them have been consistently outsmarted by a far intelligent and politically savvy Karunanidhi. Crucially, they have all gone into political oblivion, crushed ruthlessly and eliminated systematically.
Given this history, and with most of them in their late seventies (and some even in their eighties), Karunanidhi knows, as do the 'other leaders' of the DMK, that it is too late in the day to challenge the leadership of Karunanidhi.
More importantly, the children of these leaders too have been trained to accept the leadership of Stalin. No wonder, knowing their predicament, Karunanidhi declared there is no reason to say that that they would not accept the leadership of Stalin.
For all these reasons Karunanidhi is spot on. But there is a minor hitch in this entire arrangement. There is one person who is unwilling to accept the leadership of Stalin. And that happens to be Alagiri, the brother of Stalin.
Political observers have often pointed out to the unabashed expressions of Alagiri seeking to be appointed as the political heir of Karunanidhi and leader of the DMK party.
A stint at the opposition will suit the family and the party
The reason for discussing political succession in any political party is part of the democratic process. Even in matured democracies like the United States and the United Kingdom, personalities matter.
Naturally, it is of interest to know who would succeed Karunanidhi and how. Will it be Stalin the heir apparent? Or will it be Alagiri who many within the party consider equally competent to lead the party? Or will it be the dark horse -- their step sister -- Kanimozhi? Crucially how and who will organise the succession?
Frankly, one does not seek to indulge in crystal ball gazing. Nevertheless it is important to point out that some political observers in the state have been of the view that ever since Karunanidhi made this infamous announcement in anointing Stalin as his heir, Alagiri has lost interest in these elections.
A friend in the media rationalised this disinterest of Alagiri in these elections: "Why should he spend money, work, earn a bad name and be under the scrutiny of the media? Why should he do it if all this is for the benefit of Stalin?"
Karunanidhi is known for being politically sharp and a brilliant strategist. Perhaps age has caught up with him. What else would explain as to why at the height of an electoral battle should he declare his heir apparent -- much to the chagrin of another? Or is that something that the political observers have missed out?
Naturally that has led to several rounds of speculation amongst the political analysts. And in a surcharged atmosphere and in a state that is known for its rumour mongering, one is not sure of how it would impact the poll prospects of the DMK.
Nevertheless, given such schisms within the family, it is sure to have a negative impact the cohesiveness in the family, and by extension the functioning of the party and its poll prospects.
After all, the DMK is one political party where the party is an extension of the family and the family the extension of the party.
Electoral success usually is considered as an elixir for all political parties. Paradoxically, not for the DMK this time around . . . for the DMK is faced with Hobson's choice -- should it succeed, the power struggle within the family will accumulate, accentuate and accelerate till it reaches a point of no return.
And if it fails at the polls next week, it might well keep the family together and could provide a life for the party. A stint at the opposition may well give them time to unite the family, sort out the succession issue and plan for the smoother appointment of the next leader to the party.
For in such a scenario, the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and not other members of the family would be their immediate target. Perhaps Karunanidhi is well aware of this paradigm.
Crucially, the DMK has been consistently in power since 1999 at the Centre. This unfortunately has not been without side effects.
One such consequence has been that the party has become moribund. Party functionaries who travelled by cycle a decade ago are accused by colleagues within their own party of travelling in high-end SUVs.
In the process the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (meaning, party for uplifting Dravidians) has inadvertently become Dravida Marantha Kazhagam (meaning, party that forgot the Dravidians).
To some the rot is well and truly complete. Naturally, to some well-meaning sympathisers of the DMK, an electoral setback may actually be a blessing in disguise to the party as well as to the family.
It requires some time to put its family and party in order. And for that it has to be out of power. And that in a way explains the statement of Karunanidhi in appointing his successor at the height of an electoral battle -- perhaps he is thinking of reviving the party post elections, putting the family in order and arranging for a smooth transition.
As a brilliant strategist, Karunanidhi seems to have hit the bulls-eye yet again.
But the Marans cannot afford this
But there is another dimension to the entire issue. While the entire political leadership of the DMK -- read Stalin and Alagiri -- may well accept to sit in the opposition for the next term, there is another branch of the family that cannot afford to have a hostile state government in Tamil Nadu.
And that happens to be the family of Marans, who are related to Karunanidhi.
With business interests in several services sector ranging from print media to electronic media, from cable TV to civil aviation, the rise of the Marans has been spectacular.
In some of the fields -- like cable distribution -- they enjoy a virtual monopoly, allegedly using money, muscle and state power. Importantly, in the process they have made powerful enemies who are waiting in the sidelines to hit at them at the earliest opportunity.
A change of government in the state suits such powerful business interests who have lost out simply because the Marans could leverage their political connections to eliminate competition. No wonder, Marans can ill-afford to lose elections.
Simply put what suits Stalin and Alagiri does not suit the Marans. This is a natural fallout of mixing politics with business and there is an important lesson for all who seek to mix the two.
Naturally everyone, not the least Marans, are completely in the know of the fact that it is time that the political interest of the DMK are not co-terminus with their business interests.
To many, a stint in the opposition may galvanise the DMK, provide it the necessary break, recoup, rejuvenate and reinvent itself. After all, it was in opposition for well over 13 years and yet survived to make a come back in 1989.
Crucially, a victorious AIADMK may be seen as a better alternative by the Congress. In the process it may well ditch the DMK for the AIADMK. And should it happen, it may well be curtains for several business plans of the Marans.
The Marans know for sure that these elections are extremely testing times, more for them than for Karunanidhi or his sons. Given this paradigm, and should the DMK win these elections, it is a matter of time before they attempt to take over the party reins, just as if it were taking over a rival company.
Given their financial clout, stakes and their organisational ability, the DMK transforming itself as Dayanidhi Maran Kazhagam is entirely possible. And that to me would make eminent business sense too for the Marans.