At least six to eight district secretaries of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the key opposition party in Tamil Nadu, are all set to bite the dust.
Working President MK Stalin is readying to set an example by giving marching orders to those district leaders of the party who have either not performed or have behaved as local chieftains. This move follows a series of meetings of lower rung office bearers of the DMK with Stalin at the party headquarters in Chennai which began on February 01.
“I am democratic when it comes to people’s politics,” said Stalin on the opening day of the meeting. “But I am not so when it comes to the party. Action will be taken without mercy on those who have serious complaints against them.”
And serious complaints were aplenty at the meeting.
Why This Session?
The complete debacle of the DMK in the RK Nagar by-elections, in which the party candidate lost his deposit, shook up the Dravidian party. A team was constituted internally to look into why the party could not even put up a semblance of a fight at RK Nagar. The team that spoke to grassroots cadre to find the causes, submitted a report that shocked the DMK leadership. There were serious rifts, fissures, in-fighting and back-stabbing within that small constituency. If this were the situation in the party in RK Nagar, how bad would the other districts be? The DMK had to find out and fix the problem.
It was in 2005 that then opposition leader and party President M Karunanidhi had called for a meeting with lower rung party workers to hear their grievances. This helped the party come back to power in 2006 – the DMK is a strong cadre-based political party which is heavily reliant on boots on the ground.
But party workers say that since then, the disconnect between headquarters and the cadre on the ground had only deepened. 13 years later, Stalin is attempting, ostensibly, to plug this gap. “Meeting the district office bearers is a routine process in DMK,” said Chennai South District Secretary for the DMK and former Mayor, M Subramanian. “They are the grassroots of the party. As we are waiting for election – whether local body or state Assembly polls – party headquarters decided to revamp the party and energise the cadre. The meeting will be helpful to the rural office bearers to get close with the party head. Also it will help to identify the inactive party bearers who are acting against party’s development. Whoever is proven guilty will be punished severely,” he said.
The grievance meeting began with office bearers of the western districts, the area where the DMK is the weakest in the state. Coimbatore was the first on the agenda. There are four district secretaries of the DMK in Coimbatore. As far as the party is concerned, it has carved up its own districts in terms of specific number of constituencies – this is not the same as the revenue districts drawn by the state. For instance, the revenue district of Coimbatore has Coimbatore City North and City South as well as Coimbatore Rural North and Rural South district secretaries for the DMK.
At present, CR Ramachandran is the district secretary of Coimbatore Rural North district. R Tamil Mani is his counterpart in Rural South. M Muthusamy is the district secretary for City North and A Nachimuthu is for City South.
“The main complaints against the district secretaries of Coimbatore as well as the entire western belt were that of them displaying partiality and favouring only certain people in the party,” said one office bearer who was at the meeting with Stalin. He spoke to The Lede on condition of anonymity. “The major issue is that of caste – the dominant caste here are Gounders and the DMK district secretaries and present AIADMK (ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) ministers from this area have a good rapport because they belong to the same caste. The other castes are left in the lurch,” he said.
As far as the DMK goes, if a party worker wants to submit a petition at the party headquarters in Chennai, he/she has to get permission from the respective district secretary. If any event is to be conducted, however big or small, permission must be sought from the district secretary. Armed with such powers, these local leaders are all powerful in their turf. And favouritism and bias is a constant complaint. This, according to the source, is also the reason for the Scheduled Castes in the western belt, the Arunthathiyars, largely preferring to vote against the DMK.
The district leadership though disagrees. “DMK is weak in western districts while compared with other regions of the state,” said R Tamil Mani, Coimbatore Rural South district secretary to The Lede. “We agree, but at the same time you should understand the votebank and political situation of the region. Out 10 constituencies in Coimbatore district, we lost 9 except Singanallur. But we lost the seats by a margin of 3000-5000 votes, while earlier the gap was 30,000-50,000. It shows the amount of development and strength of the party in this region,” he argued.
This situation of malcontent is evident in all districts comprising the western belt of Tamil Nadu, especially the Nilgiris. In the Nilgiris, an internal feud between former MP A Raja’s loyalists and the party’s district secretary BM Mubarak has been on the boil for a number of years.
Seniority Or Heirs?
In central Tamil Nadu, the issue is one of senior leaders versus dynastic politics. In Salem, former strongman Veerapandi Arumugam’s son ‘Veerapandi’ A Raja and the seniormost district leader R Rajendran are at war.
“There is a fear among cadre that they will be asked whose faction they belong to,” said another party worker who did not wish to be named. “For a long time, even functions were not organised because the worker would be branded as being a loyalist of Raja or Rajendran. And then they would be targeted by the opposite camp. A lot of these problems have been discussed even in Arivalayam (party headquarters in Chennai). As a result of this feud, the party has not grown or done any work in Salem,” he said.
A senior leader of the district told The Lede that when Veerapandi Arumugam was alive and held the powerful post of district secretary of Salem, it was accepted, since he was the seniormost leader. After his demise in 2012, his son Raja attempted to use his father’s base. “Now there are so many senior leaders in the district, why should we give way to a younger man just because he is Arumugam’s son?” asked the senior leader.
“There was an allegation even against Anna (CN Annadurai, DMK founder), when he was general secretary of the party,” R Rajendran, Salem Central district secretary told The Lede. “Difference of opinions and factions are common in political parties, we cannot avoid it. The competition between the factions should help to develop the party, it should not be used to develop individuals. Earlier it was there in our district but now we are working together under the guidance of our Thalapathy,” he added.
But Can DMK Change Anything?
In a cadre-based party dependent on its district secretaries, there is not much room to manouevre. A set of slighted district secretaries could well work against the party and overturn its fortunes in a close election.
“At least six district secretaries will be removed,” said a source close to developments. “They may not be the major people in the party but Thalapathy basically wants to set an example – to tell other leaders to behave, or else he will not hesitate to take action.”
But whether the symbolism will work is anybody’s guess. Immediately after the 2011 and 2016 elections a few district secretaries had been changed by the leadership, following electoral losses. But for all intents and purposes these district secretaries are only sidelined in name. They continue to wield power locally.
Take the case of former Erode district secretary NKKP Raja who was relieved of his post in 2016. Earlier, in 2009 he was expelled for violating party discipline and getting into a fight with another partyman. But he was brought back and made district secretary once again the very next year. NKKP Raja may technically not be the holder of the post in Erode but he has called the shots as far as the new appointments and office bearers go. So while S Muthusamy may be district secretary for Erode South and N Nallasivam may hold the post for Erode North, in effect, NKKP Raja rules over them both.
“This is not the first time such an exercise is happening in the DMK,” said N Sathiyamoorthy of the Observer Research Foundation, a political analyst. “It is possible to bring in a revamp but we will have to wait and see what the results will be.”
Another senior DMK leader who spoke on condition of anonymity was sceptical of the move. “In 2016 they formed a committee to enquire about complaints district secretaries and headquarters office bearers. The committee recommended that 70% of district secretaries should be changed, along with a few more reforms. But this was not implemented. This time also they will not do anything. It is just eyewash,” he said.
Another twist in the tale is the concept of ‘decentralisation’ as the DMK calls it. Before the 2016 Assembly elections, the party had carved up multiple ‘districts’ comprising upto 8 constituencies per ‘district’ and appointed secretaries for each. Now, the party plans to shrink the sizes of the ‘districts’ even further – each DMK ‘district’ will now have only 3 constituencies under one secretary.
This move, aimed to appease warring mini-lords of the districts, could well turn out to be yet another headached for the leadership. “The party may want to revamp the structure but the problem is that power and money are concentrated in the hands of a few,” said J Stalin, political journalist in Chennai. “It is next to impossible to sidestep these powerful people and install another person in their place.”
The DMK’s spokesperson TKS Elangovan agreed that the loss in the RK Nagar bypoll was indeed the trigger for this move. He told The Lede that when there is a loss, the party has to review and see what went wrong. He disagreed firmly with critics. “We cannot go on changing the district secretaries – that is not good politics. Those who have made serious mistakes will be removed, some we have to correct, with some we have to ask them to cooperate with the lower rung district cadre. It is not a punishing exercise, it is a correctional measure. It is an opportunity for cadres to talk directly to leaders also. It is a good exercise with a good intention,” he told The Lede.
The DMK’s top rung leadership – except for MK Stalin – are all either octogenarian or nearing their 80s. It has been over a decade and a half since these top leaders met the people of the state and their party workers on home turf. With elections lurking in the wings, the party will have to take firm measures to set its home right if it wishes to take on a multi-pronged contest in a decisive manner.