Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu’s DMK Chief Minister M.K. Stalin

Wednesday, 15 June 2022 00:50 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin


On 19 May this year, the Panama-registered general cargo vessel “Tan Binh 99” departed at 8:28 a.m. from the Chennai harbour in India with 9,000 tons of rice, 200 tons of milk powder and 24 tons of essential medicines. Its destination was Sri Lanka’s Colombo port. This was the first consignment of a generous emergency aid package from the Tamil Nadu state of India to its island neighbour Sri Lanka. Writing in the ‘Frontline’ newsmagazine, R.K. Radhakrishnan described the gift as a “first of sorts where a province in a developing country was extending its assistance to another country”.

Writing further in Frontline, R.K. Radhakrishnan observed thus: “Tamil Nadu decided to extend humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka in the form of rice and other essential commodities, taking into consideration the plight of the people following the economic deterioration of the island nation. This is a marked shift in the stand of political parties in Tamil Nadu, which have in the past demanded a separate Tamil nation in Sri Lanka. It also sets the stage for enhanced interaction between the people of the two regions.”

According to current exchange rates, an Indian rupee equals 4.61 Sri Lankan rupees/cents. The overall emergency gift to Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu is estimated at 1,230 million Indian rupees. The total aid consists of 40,000 tons of rice, 100-plus lifesaving drugs and 500 tons of milk powder. The first consignment from Tamil Nadu amounted to over two billion Sri Lankan rupees in value. On 18 May Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin was at the Chennai port to flag off the loading of cargo destined to Sri Lanka.

The first consignment of aid from the people of Tamil Nadu to the people of Sri Lanka reached the Colombo dock in due course and was gratefully received. It was distributed to all districts in the island. On 4 May, just five days before his resignation, the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa wrote to Chief Minister Stalin, thanking him for the humanitarian assistance. “I wish to thank you and the Tamil Nadu government on behalf of the people of Sri Lanka, for viewing the country’s crisis from a humanitarian standpoint, rather than as a problem concerning another country,” stated Mahinda in the letter.

M.K. Stalin-Milinda Moragoda meeting

On 4 June, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India, Milinda Moragoda paid a courtesy call on Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin. The last time a Sri Lankan envoy to India had met a Tamil Nadu chief minister in Chennai was way back in 2011. Veteran Indian journalist P.K. Balachandran writes as follows in ‘NewsIn.Asia’ about the Stalin-Moragoda meeting: “The High Commissioner thanked the Chief Minister and the people of Tamil Nadu for the humanitarian assistance worth of LKR two billion that they recently extended to Sri Lanka to help it manage the current economic crisis. In response, the Chief Minister observed that he was concerned about the situation in Sri Lanka and had made arrangements to immediately dispatch the first shipment of essential commodities. He added that a second shipment is also in line to be dispatched and that a few more shipments are expected.”

“The High Commissioner and the Chief Minister discussed an array of areas pertaining to the relationship between Sri Lanka and the State of Tamil Nadu, including the fishermen’s issue. The two dignitaries reviewed the ancient and strong ethnic, cultural and religious affinities between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka and discussed the ways to further strengthen them.”

“In this regard, Chief Minister Stalin requested Sri Lanka to install a statue of the celebrated Tamil poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar in a suitable premise in Sri Lanka, such as a university. The High Commissioner welcomed the suggestion and undertook to support and facilitate this initiative.”

“With a view to having a better coordination on all aspects of the relationship between Sri Lanka and the State of Tamil Nadu, High Commissioner Moragoda requested the Chief Minister to designate a focal point at state level. The High Commissioner invited Chief Minister Stalin to visit Sri Lanka as well.”

Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka are intertwined

The refreshing signs of change in the relationship between India’s Tamil Nadu state and Sri Lanka is a very welcome feature although it is perhaps too early to gauge the future in this regard. India is our closest neighbour and within India, the southern state of Tamil Nadu with a 72 million population is the closest Indian state to Sri Lanka. Both Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka are somewhat intertwined historically and geographically. The Dravidian language Tamil is the predominant language spoken in Tamil Nadu which means the land or country of the Tamils. More than 25% of the Sri Lankan population are classified as Tamil-speaking people. A substantial number of Sri Lankans of different ethnicities are descendants of people who migrated to the island from the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. 

In recent times, political developments in Tamil Nadu have had much impact on Sri Lanka and vice versa. Hence the political conduct of the Tamil Nadu chief minister is of great concern and importance to Sri Lanka. In that context the initiative taken by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) Chief Minister Stalin in rendering humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka deserves much praise. If utilised constructively, it could be the harbinger of transformed relations of a positive nature between the island nation and the South Indian state. If such a relationship could evolve, it would prove vastly beneficial to the people of Sri Lanka in more ways than one.

Such a relationship may have been unimaginable in the past but hopefully it may be possible in the future. The DMK electoral victory in May last year and the ascendancy of Stalin as chief minister seems to have made a qualitative difference to Tamil Nadu. The pragmatic chief minister has earned much kudos during the past year for running smoothly efficient administration. It is against this backdrop therefore that this column focuses on Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Stalin, from a Sri Lankan perspective, in a two-part article. Let me begin with a brief reference to Stalin’s party the DMK and its erstwhile leader Karunanidhi, his father.

“Kalaignar” (artiste) Karunanidhi 

Muthuvel Karunanidhi, known to the Tamil-speaking world as “Kalaignar” (artiste), passed away at the age of 94 in Chennai on 7 August 2018. Karunanidhi was a versatile, multi-faceted personality. In his eventful life “Kalaignar” was a journalist, editor, dramatist, stage actor, film script writer, short story writer, novelist, literary commentator, poet, lyricist, film producer and TV channel proprietor. Karunanidhi has written the screenplay and dialogues for 64 films. He has written the story or screenplay without dialogues for 11 other films. 

It was Karunanidhi’s entry into filmdom which brought him much recognition and more remuneration in early life despite his lack of tertiary education. His rise in cinema helped him greatly to carve out a name for himself as a politician too. “Kalaignar” Karunanidhi’s ascendancy in politics basically corresponded with that of the DMK’s rise in Tamil Nadu.

Karunanidhi served as Chief Minister of India’s Tamil Nadu state for a total of 19 years. He was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu five times from 1969-71, 1971-76, 1989-91, 1996-2001 and 2006-11. No other Tamil Nadu chief minister has been in office for so long. Another record was that of being party leader for nearly 50 years. He was the undisputed leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (Dravidian Progressive Federation) since 1969, leading the party through thick and thin for 49 years. The Dravidian patriarch was first elected to the State legislative assembly in 1957 and never lost an election he contested personally since then. No Indian politician can boast of such an unbroken lengthy record. “Kalaignar” Muthuvel Karunanidhi was no ordinary politico but a veritable political institution.

Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin

Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin or M.K. Stalin is the third son of Muthuvel Karunanidhi who had six children from three wives. Karunanidhi’s first wife Padmavathy was the sister of well-known playback singer and music composer “Chidambaram” Jayaraman. She died shortly after giving birth to a son M.K. Muthu. After Padmavathy’s death Karunanidhi married Dayalu and had three sons and a daughter by her. The sons are Alagiri, Stalin and Thamilarasu and the daughter is Selvi. In later years Karunanidhi had another wife Dharmambal alias Rajathy whose daughter is Kanimozhi.

Stalin is Karunanidhi’s fourth child and third son. He was born on 1 March 1953 in Madras now known as Chennai. Karunanidhi had named his eldest son Muthu after his father Muthuvel. His second son Alagiri was named after well-known DK activist Pattukkottai Alagirisamy known as “Anjaanenjan Azhagiri”. In the case of his third son Stalin. Karunanidhi had originally named him Aiyadurai after his paternal grandfather Aiyadurai. However four days later, the Soviet Union’s dictatorial ruler Joseph Stalin died on 5 March 1953. Though named at birth in 1878 as Ioseb Jughashvili, he had changed it in 1912 to Stalin meaning man of steel. Karunanidhi being a long- distance admirer of Stalin registered his new-born son’s name as Stalin instead of Aiyadurai to honour the Communist stalwart.

Stalin had his primary and secondary education at the MCC higher secondary school in Chetpet. By his own frank admission young Stalin did not shine in studies or excel in sports. He was not even an able orator in Tamil. Furthermore some of his teachers did not like his “communist” name Stalin or his father’s Dravidian politics. There was one master who would go through the daily ritual of rapping Stalin’s knuckles without any reason. Stalin completed his Pre-University Certificate (PUC) studies at Vivekananda College. Thereafter he enrolled at Presidency College and followed a BA degree course in History. Stalin dropped out without completing his studies in 1973 but three years later got his degree as an external student of Madras University.

With his father becoming an MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) in 1957, Stalin got interested in politics from childhood. His entry into active politics was at the age of 14 in 1967. Karunanidhi’s nephew and Stalin’s cousin “Murasoli” Maran contested the Madras South Parliament constituency by-election and young Stalin got involved in the election campaign. A year later in 1968, 15-year-old Stalin launched the Gopalapuram DMK youth organisation. The Karunanidhi residence was in Gopalapuram. This was the forerunner to the DMK’s youth wing. Stalin identified himself with the DMK youth wing and built it up as a formidable organisation over the years. He was the leader of the DMK youth wing known as “Ilainjar Ani” for about three decades. Salin was dubbed as “Thalapathy” (commander) by his youthful disciples. In 1973 he was elected to the DMK general council.

Political baptism of fire in 1976

Stalin’s political baptism of fire was in 1976. The then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and clamped down on democratic rule in June 1975 when she was unseated through an election petition. The DMK held the reins in Tamil Nadu with Karunanidhi as chief minister. Stalin himself got married during emergency rule on 25 August 1975 to Durga also known as Shantha. Karunanidhi and his DMK government strongly opposed the emergency which angered Indira. On 31 January 1976, Indira Gandhi got the DMK government dismissed and declared presidential rule. Thousands of DMK stalwarts and activists were arrested and detained without trial under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA).

Though Karunanidhi was not arrested, his newly married politically active son was arrested on 1 February 1976 and jailed under the MISA. When the Police was taking Stalin away, Karunanidhi told his son not to be disheartened and that Indira Gandhi was launching Stalin’s political career by arresting him. Stalin was kept in a cell at the Central prison in Chennai amidst horrible conditions. He was assaulted several times.

On one occasion Stalin was brutally assaulted with rods. Unable to bear this sight, former Chennai Mayor and Chengalpattu MP DMK C. Chittibabu fell on top of Stalin and shielded him. Chittibabu was mercilessly beaten resulting in him losing consciousness and soon passing away. This brought an end to the beatings. Stalin was detained for 13 months under MISA regulations. The silver lining was that he managed to complete his BA studies during this time.

After being released Stalin plunged into full-time politics. As his father predicted the detention during emergency rule was indeed a launching pad for Stalin’s political career. He first contested the “Aayiram Vilakku” (thousand lights) constituency within Chennai city limits in 1984. He lost. In 1989 he contested again, won and became an MLA for the first time. He lost again in the 1991 polls. He was triumphant at Aayiram Vilakku in the 1996, 2001 and 2006 state elections. In 2011 Stalin shifted to Kolathur a Chennai suburban constituency and won. He retained Kolathur in 2016 as well as in the 2021 election.

Mayor of Madras (Chennai)

The earlier system of municipal elections was amended and provision was made for a directly elected mayor in 1996. Stalin contested the Chennai (formerly Madras) municipal corporation elections in 1996 and became the city’s first directly elected Mayor. He proved to be an able administrator and implemented infrastructure development projects. Apart from schemes of road widening, drinking water supply, electrification, schools, health clinics and drainage improvement, Mayor Stalin also constructed nine flyover bridges. He also streamlined garbage clearance and road maintenance by privatising them. 

Mayor Stalin’s pet project however was a beautification scheme for the city known as “Singaara Chennai” (Beautiful Chennai). He received much praise for this. He was re-elected as Chennai Mayor in 2001. Although Stalin would have liked to continue as the first citizen of Chennai for another term after 2001, he was debarred from doing so by AIADMK chief minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram who passed legislation with retrospective effect in 2002 forbidding persons from being Mayor and MLA simultaneously. Stalin opted to be a legislator.

Stalin also gained ascendancy within the party. He first became secretary of the DMK Youth wing in 1982 and served in that capacity for a very long time. In 2003, Stalin became deputy general secretary of the DMK. In 2008 he was elected as Treasurer of the DMK. The DMK formed the State Government in 2006 with Karunanidhi as chief minister. Stalin was appointed Minister for Rural Development and Local Administration. In May 2009, Karunanidhi created the post of deputy chief minister and appointed his son as “Thunai Mudhalvar”. The DMK suffered a great debacle in the 2011 Tamil Nadu election. The party got only 23 seats and even forfeited the leader of the opposition post to actor Vijayakanth whose Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) got 29 seats. 

Formally “anointed” as political heir

While the father continued to be party leader, the son began to consolidate himself within the DMK and became the de facto leader. With his health deteriorating, Karunanidhi formally “anointed” Stalin as his political heir in January 2013. Addressing party office-bearers at a special meeting, Karunanidhi said, “I will work for the upliftment and development of people till my last breath. For the question ‘what after me’, Stalin, who is seated here, is the answer, and you should not forget this.”

The 2016 State elections saw the nonagenarian Karunanidhi now confined to a wheelchair take a back seat during the election campaign. Stalin spearheaded the DMK-led alliance into getting 98 seats of which the DMK share was 89. The Jayalalithaa led AIADMK was re-elected to power with 136 seats. Stalin became leader of the opposition. In 2016 September Jayalalithaa fell seriously ill and O.S. Panneerselvam became acting Chief Minister. In December 2016 Jayalalithaa passed away. Edappaadi K. Palaniswamy became the AIADMK chief minister.

“Seyal Thalaiver” (Working President)

In January 2017, Stalin was formally elevated in the party hierarchy as “Seyal Thalaiver” or ‘Working President’. While the indisposed Karunanidhi remained the nominal DML president, the party closed ranks behind Stalin’s leadership. Karunanidhi passed away in August 2018 and Stalin was unanimously elected President of the DMK. There were many who doubted whether Stalin could fill the void caused by Karunanidhi’s demise. Also Stalin was compared (unfairly) to his illustrious father and found wanting. 

While delivering his inaugural speech as DMK president, Stalin struck a responsive chord within the audience by repeating the words used by Karunanidhi in addressing a party gathering. Stalin said, “En uyirinum melana anbu udan pirapukkaley (my beloved siblings who I love more than life itself).” He then turned emotional and said that he was totally unlike his father. “I don’t know to talk like him, I cannot talk like him. I cannot own the language like him. But I stand before you with the guts to try anything.” Stalin then pledged to protect, cherish and advance the four founding principles of the party. “I aim to lead Tamil Nadu on the path of self-respect, equality, social justice using this party,” said the new President of the DMK.

Demonstrated his “winnability”

Stalin was true to his word and strove to lead the DMK along the course charted by Annadurai and Karunanidhi. He proved his mettle in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when the DMK-led alliance won 38 of the 39 seats allocated to Tamil Nadu in the Indian Parliament. Stalin has demonstrated his “winnability” again by leading the DMK to victory in the 2021 polls.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected].)


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