08/08/2018 6:40 AM IST | Updated 08/08/2018 6:59 AM IST

Karunanidhi's Death Could Inject Fresh Instability Into Tamil Nadu's Volatile Politics

"BJP is looking for an alternative to the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu."

P. Ravikumar / Reuters

The death of M. Karunanidhi, leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), has injected fresh instability into Tamil Nadu's volatile politics. The ruling AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) has been left reeling, practically headless, since J Jayalalitha's death two years ago.

Now, Karunanidhi's death could mean a succession battle is afoot in the DMK.

"The leader is still with us. Our party is very strong. His soul is with us," said Rajathi Salma, a poet and member of DMK. Overcome with emotion, Salma declined to say anything else about Karunanidhi, a patriarch of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu, who died on on Tuesday, two years after he stepped down from active politics.

His passing could threaten the stability of the DMK in the run up to the high stakes general election. After losing the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections in 2011 and 2016, and failing to win a single seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the DMK desperately needs to save face in the 2019 polls.

Badri Seshadri, a political commentator in Tamil Nadu, said that Karunanidhi was the "glue" that kept his family and party together.

With his father's death, the question is whether MK Alagiri will escalate his ongoing feud with his younger brother, MK Stalin, working president of the DMK.

Just last month, Alagiri, who was expelled from the party in 2014 for indiscipline, mocked his brother, calling him a "non-working president," and claimed to have the loyalty of the party cadres. "I recall old memories...when I was given similar reception by the party cadres. I was wondering whether I am coming for a party function or a private function," he said.

Political analysts are divided over whether Alagiri is in a position to make his way back into the party and challenge Stalin.

Some believe that the DMK president has cemented his position over the past two years, and Alagiri would only come across as a spoilsport who was hurting the party at a crucial juncture. Others warn that Alagiri is still capable of breaking the party and walking away with a chunk of its members. They all agree that DMK's wellbeing hinges on the balance of power within the party's first family.

The Congress has tied up with the DMK for the 2019 general election in order to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from making an inroad into the state, but a party at war with itself does not make for a strong political ally. Infighting, within DMK and the AIADMK, works for the BJP, which is looking to pick off leaders from the regional parties ahead of the polls.

The BJP has no lawmaker in the state Assembly and one seat from Tamil Nadu in Lok Sabha. There are allegations of Modi government controlling the state government, run by the Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami. Recent visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah triggered a backlash on social media, with the hashtags, #GoBackModi and #GoBackAmit Shah, trending on Twitter.

"BJP is looking not just an alternative to the Congress, but also an alternative to the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu," said Ramu Manivannan, a political science professor at the University of Madras.

Even as the passing of Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi marks the end of an era in Tamil Nadu state politics, other faces, including actors Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, are emerging in the southern state.

Local elections for town municipalities and city corporations in Tamil Nadu, which are likely to be held before the 2019 national election, should provide some insight into where the DMK and the AIADMK stand with the public.

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