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Following in Father’s Footsteps? Come 2024, National Act Beckons Stalin@70 After DMK Rides Out Regional Storm

Dravidian leader MK Stalin is at a seminal moment in his political career. Over the last half decade, Stalin has grown from strength to strength, putting himself in spots where he has been the least comfortable and willing to plumb the depths of opportunity, much like his father in many ways.

But if one were to plot Stalin’s political career from a real low that would be from the summer of 2016 — In a rare feat, Jayalalithaa had won the second time, snatching the victory from the DMK by blocking the anti-incumbency tailwind for the Opposition with a Third Front.

Stalin was projected as leading that election from the front, with a dedicated campaign and electoral push titled Namakku Naame (We, for ourselves).

Despite his best efforts, Stalin had to reconcile with a loss. It was indeed a tough proposition to sit in the opposition for a decade.

As fate would have it, Stalin was elevated as working president of the DMK in February 2017 and made to lead a vibrant opposition against a stumbling AIADMK under Edappadi Palaniswami.

Stalin proved to be a wily and firm opposition leader, quick to spot weaknesses and leverage them to the hilt. At the commotion-filled vote of confidence at the state assembly, Stalin walked out to full media glare in a shirt torn at many places. As a politician in the fray to create an impression, Stalin played with clear drives and strokes, not holding anything back.

All through Palaniswami’s tenure, Stalin kept up a steady thrum of protests and demonstrations. It was between 2016 and the parliamentary elections of 2019 that the DMK grew its social media wing as a powerful messaging weapon to draw narratives and blunt the edge of opposition campaigns.

Stalin’s momentum as the opposition leader and the DMK’s clear anti-BJP positioning held his political message firm — ‘Our front is anti-BJP, secular, and progressive’. The DMK won all but one seat in Tamil Nadu, a huge sweep and Stalin’s first landslide after taking over the DMK.

To be fair, Stalin’s demeanour after the thumping win of 2019 was not very different from the humiliating loss three years ago. If anything, there was only a mild smile playing on his face.

Even after the elections, the DMK kept up its political messaging strongly anti-BJP. Alliance partnerships remained intact and ready for leverage ahead of the 2021 state assembly elections. Stalin had, deliberately, sided with the entire crop of anti-BJP forces in Tamil Nadu. The AIADMK, which seemed to suffer an erosion of autonomy with the BJP’s evident influence, had allied with the national party.

Stalin swept again, even though the AIADMK did passably well in terms of vote percentage, at just 4 points below the DMK at 33.4 per cent.

With two successive electoral landslides in Tamil Nadu, Stalin may well rest on his laurels but another massive election season is on its way.

It should be clear now that Stalin’s political career is at an inflection point as he turns 70. As a strong, bankable politician, he is set to be a much sought-after alliance partner for both the national parties.

The BJP will throw all it has at this election — a hat-trick would make it an unstoppable force. Conversely, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has made it clear that the party needs to reinvent itself. The ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ is an unmissable signal that Congress’ only tool is to take the fight to the people, away from the electoral juggernauts and high-decibel campaigns of the BJP.

The role for Stalin should become clear now. He stands at a precipice where he gets to play a vital role influencing the chances of the Congress and the BJP in equal measure. He counts among a distinguished crop of regional leaders who would be aggressively wooed by both parties, come 2024.

If Stalin ever finds himself in doubt, he just needs to steer the car towards Gopalapuram in Chennai where his father — and the tallest Dravidian leader — sat and exercised that uncanny knack to detect which way the political wind was blowing.

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