DMK – What now?
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

Electoral defeats are as common as successes to political parties.  One never writes off any political force so easily. Like life it does its best to survive and keep things going. Still the defeat of DMK in this election is unique in that it has come at a most inopportune time for the party. Some nascent processes that were under way will be hampered and where an OPD treatment would have sufficed, surgeries may be needed. For example in the succession process, victory and access to the spoils of office could have papered over differences and supported it with minimum bloodshed. Well, this has not come to pass, and what are the issues and options – from a hypothetical perspective of a party loyalist (since the writer is not one!)

  1. Leadership Deficit: From a cadre based party until even the 1980s, for the last 10-20 years leadership in the party has been equated with the leading family. This is not just stating what is evident.  There were practically no voices challenging the decisions favoring the family even at the cost of party interests, the most recent example being Karunanidhi’s statement that he was a father first and a partyman next! Acceptance of every family member at pole positions has meant a cadre giving up the same. And those that still make it have had to end up defending the excesses committed by these family members as in the case of the actions in the PAC. To survive and later to rebuild itself, the first priority for the party should be to look for leadership outside the family. The pace of this change can be calibrated but the direction has to be unambiguous. Years ago, this was after all a party where only merit mattered – of course as long as your caste background was appropriate! The loyalist needs to regain this confidence.
  2. Relationship with Congress: Not surprisingly parts of the family leadership see the Congress link as a source of protection. How does this protection benefit the organisation or what is there for the Congress in continuing to offer such protection is unclear.  For sections of the leadership that have offered and used protection as the political tool it is understandable.  But for the committed party cadre, which is indeed the backbone of the organisation the value of such protection is unclear. The other angle is even starker. What does the Congress get in offering such protection?  Congress is a party where the interests of the first family are supreme – even when in conflict with lifetime loyalists of the family. How can such a party offer protection to the DMK and get nothing in return? And what will be DMK’s plan B – i.e. if the Congress formally throws the party under the bus? The loyalist has no clarity.

How can this play out? What are the options?

In an ‘All is well’ situation, nothing more happens. Congress offers protection, without asking for anything in particular; DMK continues in the Union cabinet; some movement happens in the court cases and some may even be convicted. But everything else is the same. Stalin and Azhagiri provide coordinated leadership. In TN J does things that spark resentment leading to anti incumbency and everything is forgotten. In 2014 Cong – DMK wins power in Centre and in 2016 DMK returns to power in TN.  From the point of view of the loyalist this would be the ideal. But will it pan out that way? In the current environment, a loyalist cannot be sure! Well, if not what are the options?

  1. Change leadership from within. Clearly the party needs to fight many battles in the coming months. It needs leadership that is capable of providing street-fighting leadership from the front, and that is untainted by the past – an option for the patient loyalist.
  2. Give up on the label and move to an organisation that may reflect the founding ideals of the party better today – like moving to MDMK. This would be an option for those who are more committed to the cause and do not expect spoils of office. After all MDMK may not come anywhere near power anytime soon! But the mood in the party will be like what it would have been in 1950s and early 60s – an option for the idealists.
  3. Give up the party’s cause and as seek place in another party where one’s political career or more specifically prospects of office can advance like ADMK or DMDK – an option for the ambitious practical.

Across all the options, close and status quo relationship with Congress will have to be absent. The current strategy of staying with Congress to seek protection, if it can be called that, rests more on hope than on reality.

Tough times but the vote base built over 60 years will not just vaporise. It will need to find its place in an altered or alternative political entity