The inside story of how a crumbling political party was modernized and made fighting fit in time for 2021 polls.
The singular purpose of the new entity was to ensure that there was full time, round-the-clock responsibility in all 234 assembly constituencies. That would mean going down to the last mile
Around October 2017, Sivaprakasan, nearly 80-years-old, was feeling very stressed in Anna Arivalayam, the headquarters of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). He had meticulously kept election records, crunched numbers, predicted good, bad and swing booths for the DMK for decades. But now, party men who were assigned to fund his professional enterprise had shown persistent reluctance.
Sivaprakasan (who goes by one name only) had worked as CEO of the Madras Stock Exchange a long time ago. He had been brought into the DMK by former Union minister Murasoli Maran, the nephew of then party supremo M. Karunanidhi. His stock had started plummeting immediately after Maran had passed away in 2003, but it reached its nadir in 2017.
But as luck would have it, Palanivel Thiagarajan, a former high-flying investment banker and newly-elected Madurai Central legislator was appointed as the head of the DMK’s new IT wing. The first meeting between Sivaprakasan and Thiagarajan turned out to be the beginning of a fruitful partnership.
Thiagarajan himself described this with some exuberance and hyperbole: “It was the greatest meeting in the history of Dravidian infrastructure. He kept all the data on paper, and the first thing I did was digitise all of it. Sivaprakasan offered continuity, insight and things that we could not have thought of otherwise." This transfer of data from dog-eared pages to a digital medium turned out to be symbolic of a generational change inside the DMK.
At that point, the party was not in a particularly happy position. It had lost the 2016 assembly election. However, within months of its victory, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham’s (AIADMK’s) J. Jayalalithaa died in December 2016. Eighteen months after her death, Karunanidhi passed away too. The two icons of Dravidian politics had left, and the vacuum and chaos that they left behind in their respective parties was palpable.
Inside the DMK, M.K. Stalin was in the saddle, but the question was about how firmly he was seated. There were new challenges in Tamil Nadu politics. Superstars and stars were erecting their own cut outs, fancying themselves as iconic replacements in the quadrangle of power that was being reconstructed. The BJP was getting ambitious too, expeditiously declaring the death of the Dravidian parties. They wanted their political theism to clash with the perceived ideological atheism of Dravidian politics.
However, amidst all these challenges in the larger playfield of Tamil Nadu politics, Stalin had a personal challenge too. And that was to make the nucleus of his party, loosely constructed around his leadership, to hold, and to hold well. If he did not pay sufficient attention, consolidate, and strategize, then the DMK could lose 2021 like it had in 2016.
When this uncertainty was striking root, a quartet informally came into being inside the DMK. It consisted of an anxious Stalin; his reclusive son-in-law Sabareesan, who is said to have a sharp political mind; his film producer and actor son, Udhayanidhi Stalin; and Thiagarajan. This was a casual gathering of trust, and it had to transform and inspire an "ancient party" that was looking almost stagnant and crumbling into something more contemporary and hopeful.
To people watching closely, it looked like Stalin was keeping it within the family, but for Stalin, the hard task was to eliminate multiple power centres inside the large Karunanidhi family of sons, daughters, wives and nephews. He urgently needed a brain trust that would help navigate his extended family and advance the plan to modernise the party organisation, besides determining electoral goals. He also wanted the quartet to develop clarity about the big ideological questions of the day that the BJP was bringing to the political table in Tamil Nadu.
An Arivalayam insider explained on condition of anonymity: “The wheelchair phase of Karunanidhi was particularly bad for the party. He had become weak, dependent, and was exploited by 16 different arms of his family. Stalin was named successor as early as 2013 but the patriarch wouldn’t hand over control. But after the election loss of 2016, Stalin slowly started putting people, including his family members, in their place. By the time Karunanidhi passed away, he had a plan."
On Sunday, 21 March, speaking at an AIADMK election meeting, chief minister E. Palaniswamy taunted Stalin by picking on this chaotic phase in the DMK. He said: “Karunanidhi himself did not believe Stalin. During his last two years when he was ill, he did not hand over the party to him. He did not trust his son. In such a case, how will people believe him?"
The new structure
It was as an extension of this churn and brainstorming that Stalin created an ‘IT Wing’ in September 2017 and put Thiagarajan in-charge. The IT wing meant different things to different people. For some, it was about social media and communication. For some others, it was big data analysis. For a few, it was a propaganda tool. But the quartet allowed Thiagarajan to imagine the broadest mandate possible: “I chose to define it as an information technology, human resources and infrastructure platform, which would also involve itself in content management, social media and advertising."
Thiagarajan was able to define it so liberally because of his academic training and wide exposure to the corporate world. He had studied at the MIT’s Sloan School, he had been in top jobs in Wall Street firms like Lehman Brothers, and the Standard Chartered in Singapore. But curiously, it was his PhD from New York in an eclectic area called ‘human factors engineering’ that seemed to add an important dimension. It helped him fuse technology and human understanding.
After the digitisation of data, the next big thing Thiagarajan planned was to map the DMK’s organisational structure. It was a complicated exercise because although there were 38 administrative districts in Tamil Nadu, the DMK structure had 78 organisational districts which had been created to distribute power on the whims and fancies of party leaders in the past.
The singular purpose of the new organogram was to ensure that there was full time, round-the-clock responsibility in all 234 assembly constituencies. That would mean going down to the last mile, which meant roughly 67,000 polling booths. The purpose behind this large exercise was to quantify success at the micro level.
When this method of quantification was introduced during a bypoll in 2019, there was resistance. When data related to performance in 300 booths during various elections between 2016 and 2019 was presented, and on that basis the successful or unsuccessful organiser was identified, senior party leaders were not happy. It cut into their arbitrary patronage game.
First, the old-timers said they knew everything about their fiefdoms and backyards, and it was all stored in their head. Some even posed a naive question as to how could the party evaluate people on the basis of their past performance? “Since my leader Stalin, Udhayanidhi and Sabareesan were deeply invested in the experiment, I could get away with the questioning. Luckily for me, the seniors soon grasped the benefits of such an evaluation," said Thiagarajan.
After the bypoll was won, and after DMK swept the 2019 general elections, party men began to place confidence in the new methods of assessment. A member of the DMK IT wing pointed out on condition of anonymity: “The same senior members who objected started queueing up to obtain data for their respective constituencies. Even if a candidate wanted to distribute goodies to his voters, the new cross-referenced data offered greater demographic accuracy. Earlier, they were dependent on field staff who could cheat but now it was a top-down approach. Suddenly, a family-run party looked professional to them."
Former minister and DMK secretary KN Nehru said: “Earlier, we had to struggle to assemble and coordinate with people. The infrastructure and logistical demands were immense. But technology had transformed everything magically."
When changes were being pushed through, there were murmurs that “a katchi [party in Tamil] was being corporatised." This accusation was taken head on. It was told to DMK leaders that a company ran for profits while a party ran for values. It was further explained that the new exercise was about having a good organisation, effective communication, about clean execution of strategy, and identification of talent.
“It was told that even if Modi worked magic at the microphone, he needed an Amit Shah and the RSS to convert it into votes," the IT Wing member recalled. He added: “The pre-qualification for being in politics was not being stupid. It was to be as smart as one can be, and the quartet was driving this point home as gently as it could."
Defining DMK’s values
Since ‘values’ had been mentioned as a differentiator between a party and a company, Stalin took up the lead to define these values. The first thing he did was to not just count the DMK’s seventy-odd years of history, but also aggressively claim the legacy and progressive values of the Justice Party, its ideological parent, which was set up in 1916.
Stalin offered a liberal reconstruction of the DMK’s values, telling Mint: “I don’t see Dravidam as just an ethnic identity. It is not just linguistic or geographical identity. It is a politico-cultural identity. Dravidam is an amalgamation of various philosophies pertaining to social justice, egalitarianism, women empowerment, ethnic and linguistic rights. Thantai Periyar gave life to this philosophy, Arignar Anna molded it to perfection, and Kalaignar Karunanidhi aroused it."
Stalin went on to say: “A few ask, ‘What good has come out of Dravidam?’ The growth, ascension and superior status attained by the Tamil society today is all because of Dravidam. What was the status of North Indian states 50 years back and where are they now? Compare that to the progress achieved by Tamil Nadu. Only through this measure can we understand the positive import of Dravidam on our growth story. We not only crafted an ideology but also implemented it."
By offering this interpretation, Stalin is aiming higher and appropriating the entire Dravidian space, including that of the AIADMK. He is now placing himself as the sole inheritor of the Dravidian legacy.
The AIADMK is in disarray and has aligned too closely with the BJP after Jayalalitha’s death. This has made it difficult for the party to rebuild its Dravidian credentials before the 2021 assembly polls. In June 2020, when Stalin changed his hairstyle, there was a hashtag on Twitter which mockingly asked if he was wearing a new wig. Some remarked that this was how superficial the party’s transformation was, but Stalin was not deterred or distracted.
The DMK, by reclaiming the party’s values which were in wilderness for years, has deployed it effectively to counter the Hindutva assertions of the BJP. When S. Gurumurthy wrote a few months back that the "Gods had defeated Dravidianism," the party asked Thiagarajan to counter it (Interestingly, Thiagarajan’s family members were among the founders of the Justice Party).
Thiagarajan argued that it was the Justice Party, Periyar’s self-respect movement and the DMK’s progressive legislation that had increased the following for Gods in Tamil Nadu. The DMK’s leaders had campaigned for all castes to enter temples, allowed people from all castes to become priests, promoted self-respect marriages, and, whenever in power, gave maximum budgetary allocations to temples. In fact, the 2021 DMK manifesto has promised to keep aside ₹1,000 crore for the renovation of temples.
In short, he was saying that the Dravidian movement had ‘democratised religion’ in Tamil Nadu. “In a true sense, it is not corporatisation of the party that we are attempting, it is re-intellectualisation of the party," Thiagarajan claimed. Power was important, but ideas were more important. The transformation of the DMK is a work in progress, and the quartet understands that it should go well beyond polling day.
The reworking of an enormously complex organisation like the DMK, and slowly altering its governance structures may eventually turn out to be a model for family-run parties in the neighbouring states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, as well as across India.
Sugata Srinivasaraju is a senior journalist and author.