It was not even a year since Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin, son of the late DMK patriarch and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M Karunanidhi, had formally taken over as party president when he found himself thrown into the cauldron of national politics. It was the Centre's August 5 decisions abrogating special powers conferred on Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370, and downgrading the State by bifurcating it into two Union Territories - Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.
It is not often in Indian politics that regional leaders get pulled into the vortex of huge cross-currents with far-reaching implications for Centre-State relations, as MK Stalin has been in recent weeks over the unfolding events in Delhi and Srinagar. They have supervened all earlier narratives on mainstreaming Jammu and Kashmir, even while acknowledging that J&K is an integral part of India.
Having pulled off a spectacular victory in the Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu only in May 2019, with DMK heading a secular alliance including Congress, Left parties, IUML and others, Stalin who was the first leader in the non-NDA opposition camp to project Rahul Gandhi as the Prime Ministerial candidate even when Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Bannerjee was non-committal before the general elections, the Kashmir developments were too sudden and unexpected.
For Stalin, this came as Congress was still finding an alternative leader after Rahul Gandhi stepped down from the presidentship of the party, accepting moral responsibility for the party's defeat in the general elections. Stalin was one of those clear voices who impressed upon Rahul Gandhi to continue, in a bid to stave off further embarrassment to the secular alliance. For the Congress' better showing in the South was partly attributable to Rahul Gandhi taking on a larger role in New Delhi, giving a sense of direction to the anti-Modi sentiments that had built up in the run-up to the general elections. However, Rahul Gandhi's obduracy dashed hopes, at least for now, for a regional party leader like Stalin of keeping alive the relevance of Congress in fighting Hindu nationalism of the BJP, which has been posing a threat to the Dravidian Movement's ideology in Tamil Nadu too.
It is within this larger political backdrop that Stalin's position and manoeuvres on the Kashmir developments are perhaps better contextualised and understood in a contemporary idiom. In fact, he preferred to play the straight, aggressive bat right from day one, since the momentous debates in Parliament on J&K reorganization Bill on August 5/6 and Home Minister, Amit Shah's declarations in Parliament, explaining the government's justification for the Executive order.
Constitutional and legal niceties apart, Mr. Stalin first salvo was a plain condemnation of the BJP-led Central government's actions. "It is a murder of democracy that has been enacted in J and K, as the decisions have been taken without getting the consent of people and political leaders of that state; the Centre should keep in abeyance the Presidential orders until a popularly elected government in J and K is in place," Stalin urged on behalf of the DMK.
In fact, Stalin as DMK chief also issued a detailed statement on August 5 itself, in which he flagged doubts about the Centre's commitment to the "path of democracy" when the clamour from States is for more powers all over the country. The DMK also came down on an 'Emergency-like clampdown', communications being cut off and illegal political detentions in J&K.
Mr. Stalin took the momentum further when DMK organised an all-party meeting in Chennai on August 10, in which Congress, Left parties, MDMK, VCK and IUML among others participated. The meeting called for "keeping in abeyance" President's executive orders that scrapped application of Articles 370 and 35-A of the Constitution to J&K, immediate release of all the detained political leaders. The meeting also resolved to carry on their struggle "as one front" against the onslaught of democracy in Kashmir. The meeting too demanded that a team of MPs' representing all parties be permitted to go to Srinagar to know the ground reality and make it public. In scale and intensity, this resolution was a throwback to the DMK's resolution against the Emergency when Karunanidhi was its leader.
On August 22, DMK again upped the ante to lead a protest demonstration at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, demanding the immediate release of all the political leaders under house arrest in Kashmir. Though Stalin himself did not attend it, the show was left to DMK MPs' led by TR Baalu, wherein they pledged to "stand in solidarity with the Kashmiri people".
Participation by senior leaders from other national and regional parties in the Jantar Mantar rally, including Gulam Nabi Azad, Mukul Wasnik (Congress), Dinesh Trivedi (Trinamul Congress), Sitaram Yechury (CPI-M), D Raja (CPI) and Sharad Yadav (SP) and Mohammed Akbar Lone of National Conference, lent it a political gravity, reflecting DMK's new status as third largest party in the Lok Sabha. A few days later, the DMK MP Tiruchy N Siva was part of a high-profile delegation led by Rahul Gandhi who flew to Sringar, but they were sent back.
The DMK's calibrated moves on the Kashmir situation saw further nuance when on August 23, at a marriage function in Chennai, Stalin reiterated the DMK's commitment to 'State Autonomy' and ticked off the Edappadi K Palaniswami-led AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu for not even passing a resolution on the J&K developments. But he also gave room for a toned down approach when Stalin said the DMK was more concerned, not about scrapping Article 370 per se, but about the brazen way in which the changes have been brought about in J&K without any consultations with the political leaders concerned and insensitive to public opinion in the valley. The key issue was Constitutional impropriety.
Apparently, Stalin was also factoring in the new dissenting voices emerging in the Congress in partial support of the Narendra Modi government's actions, lest the DMK's vociferous opposition be construed as supporting an extreme position on J and K. Also, the DMK's arch-rival the AIADMK had upfront backed Centre's decisions. It gave an impression whether the DMK was jumping into a new fire when the polity is sought to be polarized sharply on communal lines.
However, the depth of the DMK's criticisms and the strength it derives in critiquing the Kashmir issue is to be seen in its historic role in being one of the first regional parties in the country to pass a resolution on 'State Autonomy' in 1974 when M Karunanidhi was the Chief Minister.
Karunanidhi himself had piloted that resolution, based on the recommendations of the Justice PV Rajamannar committee on Centre-State relations, and on the subsequent recommendations by a sub-panel then led by two political stalwarts Era Sezhiyan and Murasoli Maran.
Thus, 'more powers for the States' has been a core ideological issue for the DMK, which took on the contours of 'cooperative federalism' in the coalition era at the Centre beginning with V P Singh's government. Though the later compulsions of coalition politics, as both under the NDA led by AB Vajpayee and the subsequent two UPA regimes had somewhat lessened the importance of this plank, it has yet been an aspect that has bonded DMK's ties with the National Conference also.
On several occasions, NC patriarch Farooq Abdullah had openly alluded, whenever he used to come to Chennai and meet Karunanidhi, to this political bonding with the DMK, largely on the 'State Autonomy' plank. No wonder, after Karunanidhi's demise, at the condolence meeting held in Chennai on August 30, 2018 and attended by several national leaders, Farook Abdullah said: "Stalin will lead us to that India where we can live with honour, dignity and walk with freedom, and no one can point fingers at us." A stronger Congress would have given Farook Abdullah's optimism some grounding, but not when players are looking at 'political correctness'.
This cross may be too heavy for Mr. MK Stalin to bear, more so after the astounding changes in J&K, not to speak of the uncertainty of its future dynamics even if the DMK is not seen as taking a secessionist view. With subtle pressures coming to bear on Stalin from within not to go overboard on J&K matters, the DMK leader would keep the heat, but with a coolant aside. Much would hinge on how the normalisation process and the international perceptions on the Kashmir problem play out in the weeks and months to come....