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Chennai: M.K. Stalin was elevated as working president of the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party on Wednesday, taking over the reins from his ailing 92-year-old father amid the rapidly shifting political dynamics of Tamil Nadu.

Stalin, 63-year-old treasurer of a Dravidian party going back to 1949, has long been considered M.Karunanidhi’s heir apparent. His appointment was formalized at a meeting of the DMK’s general council in Chennai.

“It is not a mere post, it’s a responsibility," said Stalin, who, as leader of the opposition and the potential party chief is set to seal his position as a key figure in southern and national politics.

Karunanidhi, who continues to be the DMK president, was absent from the meeting due to ill health —the first time the nonagenarian has skipped the DMK’s general council. The ailing leader has not been seen in public after he developed a drug allergy in October, having to be hospitalized twice since 1 December.

The announcement on the elevation of Stalin is also significant because of changes sweeping the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

As he officially takes the centre stage, Stalin will not only take on chief minister O. Panneerselvam, but also the new AIADMK leader V.K.Sasikala—two leaders who succeeded chief minister J. Jayalalithaa after her death on 5 December. However, the announcement from the DMK is not a surprise as Stalin has been handling party affairs for long and Karunanidhi has projected him as his ‘political heir’ over the last decade.

Named after Joseph Stalin, the DMK leader was born on 1 March 1953, just four days before the death of the Soviet leader. M.K. Stalin was initially appointed as secretary of the DMK youth wing in 1984, and later elected mayor of Chennai Corporation in 1996, a position he held until 2002. Elected DMK deputy general secretary in 2003, he was made minister of municipal administration and rural development in 2006.

Stalin has been the treasurer of the party since 2008, and was appointed Tamil Nadu deputy chief minister the next year. First elected to the state assembly in 1989, he won his sixth term as a legislator from Kolathur constituency in the May 2016 assembly elections.

Stalin is fondly called Thalalpathy (Tamil for commander) since his arrest in 1975 under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, or Misa, during the Emergency.

While critics have charged Karunanidhi with encouraging “dynasty politics", many party members, including Karunanidhi, claim that Stalin’s rise has been “gradual and steady" and that he worked his way up the ladder.

M.T.R. Nathan, a senior member of the DMK, said that after Karunanidhi “he is the only one capable of carrying the (DMK) legacy forward. He is energetic and knows the pulse of the general public, which was evident during his ‘Nammaku Naamey’ campaign before the May 2016 assembly election."

“Thalapathy has been in active politics for more that 40 years. Having said that, it’s difficult to match the wit and charisma of Thalaivar (Tamil for leader, i.e. Karunanidhi), who has a deep understanding of the political climate not just in the state but the entire nation—not just in handling the affairs of the DMK, but in understanding the political climate of the state and the nation," said a DMK cadre.

Claiming that the two men cannot be compared, Rathina Saminathan, a senior DMK member, said, “But for Stalin, the apex is not too far. He will soon fill the place of (Karunanidhi)."

Changes are afoot in the ruling party too. It has appointed V.K. Sasikala—close aide and confidante of Jayalalithaa—as the AIADMK general secretary and efforts are being made to make her the chief minister.

While the the AIADMK will be trying hard to keep the next four-and-a-half years of its government intact, the situation is very fluid not just for the AIADMK, but for the state politics, according to analysts.

While Sasikala has been manoeuvring in the shadows of Jayalalithaa for over 30 years, Stalin has been in active politics for the last four decades. At this juncture, this means that he has a very important part to play in Tamil Nadu—both as leader of opposition and as working president of his party in shaping Dravidian politics.

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