Alagiri: The perennial rebel within DMK's first family

M K Alagiri: The perennial rebel within the DMK's first family

A shadow of his former self, Alagiri can at best only embarrass Stalin even if he launches his own party or extends support to the BJP

M K Alagiri. Credit: PTI file photo.

There was a time when the supporters of M K Alagiri celebrated his birthday in the temple town of Madurai, like it was a mini-festival.

Today, the 69-year-old elder son of the late DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi is a lonely man, mostly confined to his bungalow in the city’s TVS Nagar. After six years of political hibernation, following his expulsion from the DMK in 2014, there is no clarity about what he means when he speaks of his “future plans”.

He had to fervently appeal to his younger brother M K Stalin, whom he had opposed much of his political life, to take him back into the party fold. Stalin, now the DMK chief, continues to cold-shoulder him, a factor that could be responsible for recent hints about starting a party on his own or "supporting another one" (presumably the BJP) in the Tamil Nadu Assembly polls due in the first half of 2021.

But whatever may be said about Alagiri’s political functioning, the timing of his recent moves has succeeded in attracting interest towards the DMK’s former southern general.

He rose in the party, thanks to Karunanidhi’s decision to depute him to Madurai in 1980, ostensibly to manage Murasoli, the DMK party newspaper from there. He eventually made the city his base. Interestingly, the sibling rivalry between Alagiri and Stalin also dates back to this period.

During his years managing the DMK in southern TN, Alagiri came to be known as ‘Anja Nenjan’ (braveheart) by his supporters. Without any formal post, Alagiri became the DMK's most influential person in southern Tamil Nadu, comprising nine districts. He was instrumental in keeping the DMK flock together after Vaiko quit the party in 1993. He wielded tremendous clout when the party was in power.

However, poor temperament and his 'my way or the highway' attitude did him in, critics say. He was suspended from the DMK twice. During his first suspension, he ensured the defeat of DMK candidates close to Stalin in the 2001 Assembly elections.

Alagiri’s animosity towards Stalin alienated him from Karunanidhi, who meticulously groomed his younger son as his political heir. Alagiri resented the importance given to Stalin and his immediate family and picked up fights with his father often.

In the final reckoning, perhaps it was his image as an unruly strongman that proved to be his stumbling block. Much of the clout that Alagiri enjoyed was due to the arm-twisting tactics of his coterie, some of whom are accused of murder. Although he was a deft organiser and had his ears to the ground, he was never a mass leader. He is said to be behind ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas, such as the infamous 'Thirumangalam Formula' of doling out cash in return for votes, that the DMK is yet to live down.

His leadership credentials suffered because he could never take criticism or opposition from his own people. He was accused of playing a role in the murder of DMK veteran Ta. Kiruttinan, who did not toe his line, but later he was acquitted of all charges. Then there is the instance of his supporters burning the office of Tamil daily Dhinakaran run by Maran brothers. The newspaper's ‘crime’ was that it carried a survey saying only two per cent respondents favoured the possibility of Alagiri succeeding his father Karunanidhi, while the majority vote went to Stalin, two years younger to him.

Stalin eventually won over all of Alagiri’s loyalists—for he came to control the DMK with the backing of his father. Alagiri maintained a low profile till Karunanidhi's death in 2018. His efforts to raise a rebellion after his father's demise too petered out.

Despite his recent attempts to draw attention to himself, any move against Stalin, whom the DMK feels is well-positioned to be the next CM, will only lead to Alagiri permanently burning the bridges with the family. By launching his own political party or extending support to BJP as is being speculated, he could at best only end up embarrassing Stalin, given his lack of support inside and outside the party.