Chennai The road to Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)’s mega party conference along the Trichy highway on Sunday was dotted with party flags and larger-than-life cut-outs of Dravidian movement leaders E V Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar, C N Annadurai, M Karunanidhi and current party chief M K Stalin. Besides them was a cut-out of youth wing secretary Udhayanidhi Stalin, the son of M K Stalin, a reflection of the rise of the party’s third generation, particularly in Trichy — interesting, because, in some ways, this is the first state election the party is fighting under Stalin’s leadership.
Elections in Tamil Nadu will happen in one phase across all 234 constituencies on April 6.
This district holds a nostalgic value for the DMK . Sunday’s meeting was the first presided by Stalin since his father Karunanidhi’s demise in August 2018. At the conference, the DMK chief recalled that the party held its first meeting in Trichy in 1956 under Annadurai, and decided to take the plunge into electoral politics. The party formed the government in 1967, winning 179 of the 230 seats on offer then. The state was called Madras, and one of the first moves of the new legislature was to pass a law changing it to Tamil Nadu. Annadurai died in 1969 and Karunanidhi succeeded him as chief minister.
“Trichy showed us the way,” Stalin said at the grand venue set up across 35 acres. The DMK has been known to save important announcements for this venue, one of its favourites.
Stalin chose the district to unveil his 10-year-old vision for Tamil Nadu. He promised that if elected, his government would give ₹1,000 to women heads of each household every month, provide a million jobs a year, and boost broadband connectivity across villages.
A DMK leader present at the venue who asked not to be named said Trichy serves as a bridge between north and south Tamil Nadu, and therefore, all major announcements are made here to mobilize cadre and send the party’s message across the state.
On Sunday, Stalin made party workers take a vow that the DMK would run a corruption-free government for all. “Nobody can defeat the DMK if this reaches the people. Take my vision to the millions of people of Tamil Nadu before April 6 (polling date in the state),” he said.
Trichy is a study in contrasts — a business hub with several small industries running along the Cauvery delta where farming is a primary occupation, and is home to several premier educational institutions. For the March 7 conference, Stalin was accommodated in a guest house by Dhanalakshmi College on the Trichy highway.
In the 1960s, many from the Congress switched over to the DMK which had started gaining strength and popularity in the state. “DMK has good support in the district in the upcoming elections, but the challenge is how Stalin will manage the friction within his party leaders,” Ramu Manivannan, head of political science department in the University of Madras, said.
The party’s principal secretary and Tiruchirappalli West constituency MLA K N Nehru organized the mega conference, along with district secretaries. Poll strategist Prashant Kishor’s Indian Political Action Committee (I-Pac) was tasked with roping in vendors and micromanaging the event.
As principal secretary, Nehru is number four in the pecking order in the DMK’s organization but his status as party strongman, arising from his position as Tiruchirappalli district secretary, a post he has held for three decades, is now being challenged within his party by younger leaders such as Udhayanidhi Stalin and his close aide Thiruverumbur MLA Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi.
Mahesh’s grandfather Anbil Dharmalingam played an important role in the party’s growth in Trichy and was a close associate of Karunanidhi. Following Nehru’s elevation to the party headquarters in Chennai in 2018, the party trifurcated Trichy and Mahesh was appointed one of the three district secretaries.
Both Nehru and Mahesh received high praise from Stalin at the event, a move to ensure both the old guard and the new generation remain motivated.
The DMK chief claimed that Sunday’s meeting, which attracted an audience five times larger than the party’s previous conferences. The venue was set up like a concert with three stages and surrounded by 500-feet long LED screens. There were fireworks and a DJ blaring the party’s campaign song. Stalin waved at the crowd as he walked down a kilometre-long ramp designed like the party’s rising son symbol. He was followed by Nehru.
The loudest cheer from the cadre, however, was reserved for Udhayanidhi. The speakers at the conference were constantly interrupted by the noise from his supporters, forcing the managers of the event to urge Udhayanidhi to control them.
A few supporters from the youth wing also tried to climb the stage where Udhayanidhi was seated along with MP Kanimozhi and other legislators.
“Udhayanidhi and Mahesh are very close and the young people consider them as ‘mass’,” a DMK worker from Trichy G Arumugam said.
In the local lingo, “mass” is a status attributed to actors and politicians who have a huge fan following. Udhayanidhi entered Tamil cinema as a producer and distributor for Red Giant Movies and played the lead role in several films before joining politics. He is one of the star campaigners of the DMK camp.
Trichy has nine assembly constituencies – Tiruchirappalli East, Tiruchirappalli West, Thiruverumbur and Srirangam, Manapparai, Lalgudi, Manachanallur, Musiri and Thuraiyur (reserved) – of which the DMK has four sitting MLAs (the AIADMK won five in 2016). Late AIADMK chief minister J Jayalalithaa was elected from Srirangam constituency in 2011 and claimed her ancestors used to live there.
According to local DMK workers, the party does well in the region usually, although they point out that in 2011, when some DMK leaders were involved in the 2G spectrum case, the AIADMK did very well.
Nehru, who was also the former transport minister and elected from Lalgudi in 1989, lost Trichy West in 2011 to the AIADMK’s Mariam Pitchai.
The AIADMK won the assembly elections in both 2011 and 2016.
In 2016, Nehru regained the seat. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, senior leader S Thirunavukuarasar won the Tiruchirappalli parliamentary seat for the Congress.
“After 10 years, it will be good to have a change of leadership in the state. Maybe they (DMK) will support us in our angst against rising prices of fuel and vegetables,” S Selvakumar, who works as a waiter in the Trichy tollgate area, said.
Last month, Nehru, Mahesh and other local leaders spearheaded a protest against the fuel price hike and alleged that the AIADMK’s education- and farm-loan waivers were inspired by the DMK.
It’s industries make Trichy attractive to migrants. Several young people from other districts have moved to Trichy for better job opportunities. “I belong to Tirunelveli where my family traditionally votes for the AIADMK and I’ll do the same,” K Harish, who helps his brother run a small artifacts shop, said.
Supporters of Nehru’s son, Arun Nehru, have filed an application for him to contest from Lalgudi constituency.
Meanwhile Udhayanidhi is seeking to make his political debut from Chennai’s Chepauk , his late grandfather Karunanidhi’s borough.On Saturday, he was interviewed by a panel that included his father and other senior leaders on his candidature.
According to party insiders, Stalin will take a final call as several other leaders’ sons are also looking to contest the polls amid allegations by the rival AIADMK-BJP combine that the DMK-Congress are indulging in dynastic politics.