Sometimes, long-standing family disputes are best resolved only when the sticking points are thrashed out in public. In announcing that he would nominate his son M.K. Stalin as his political heir if given an opportunity to name the next leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the party president M. Karunanidhi was merely stating publicly an opinion he was known to hold in private. The surprise was not that Mr. Stalin was the chosen one, but that the DMK patriarch had decided to go public about his personal choice. For several years now, the greatest challenge to Mr. Stalin within the DMK has been from his own elder brother, M.K. Alagiri. Most of the others who might have resented and resisted Mr. Stalin’s rise in the DMK are either dead or gone. From Mr. Karunanidhi’s own generation, only party general secretary K. Anbazhagan is still politically active. Of the younger lot, leaders like Mr. Vaiko were expelled under some pretext or the other when they were seen as a threat to Mr. Stalin. So, when the DMK president revealed his mind on the succession issue he was not trying to quell possible challenges to Mr. Stalin within the wider party, but merely attempting to settle a family dispute. A relative new-comer to politics, Mr. Alagiri rapidly built a support-base using his position as his father’s son in Madurai and surrounding districts. But within the party hierarchy he could not go past Mr. Stalin, an active member and organiser of the DMK from the mid-1970s. Mr. Karunanidhi, in his own way, was thus forcing his elder son to yield, and to let Mr. Stalin assume the leadership of the DMK without the two having to get into an ugly confrontation.
Of course, this is not the first time Mr. Karunanidhi has indicated whom he prefers as his successor. Indeed, he left no one in any doubt on this issue when he nominated Mr. Stalin as the Deputy Chief Minister in May 2009. If anything, the interest over his latest remarks on the succession issue was over how Mr. Alagiri would respond. Mr. Alagiri stood his ground: he quoted Mr. Karunanidhi and Mr. Stalin to the effect that the DMK was not a religious order to announce succession in this manner. There is thus no doubt that Mr. Alagiri will contest for the top slot in the DMK in the post-Karunanidhi phase of the DMK. By reinforcing the perception among partymen that Mr. Stalin will be his political heir, Mr. Karunanidhi was hoping to bring pressure on his elder son. That he did not succeed is no surprise. The best solution is actually the easiest too: to let the party choose its leader. But, as Mr. Karunanidhi knows only too well, that would not settle the dispute in his family.