Tamil Nadu

Analysis | Dravidian politics: From revolutionising campaigns to hiring strategists

DMK leader M.K. Stalin during his 'Namaku Naame' tour in Karur, Tamil Nadu on October 12, 2015. File photo   | Photo Credit: B. Velankanni RaJ

In Tamil Nadu where charismatic leaders have dominated politics, it is strange that the current buzz is around the exit of a behind-the-screens man from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Sunil Kanugolu, the poll strategist of DMK president M.K. Stalin for about four years, has resigned.

The founder of One Mind Generation (OMG) Research Foundation is credited with scripting the 2015-16 Nammaku Naame (We for us) roadshow that saw Mr. Stalin swap his white shirt and red-and-black-bordered dhoti with colourful modern attire and ride the bicycle and bullock cart. He had previously worked with Prashant Kishor handling Narendra Modi’s 2014 national campaign. The DMK has now turned to Mr. Kishor to turn the tide in its favour in the 2021 Assembly elections that could see actor Rajinikanth hit the campaign trail in his quest for Chief Ministership.

Screen charisma

This proves much water has flowed down the Cauvery since the time when crowds would queue up to buy tickets to attend meetings addressed by DMK founder C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi, Mr. Stalin’s father, who hailed from the delta that is irrigated by the Cauvery. Dravidian party leaders had revolutionised the art of political propaganda, awakening the masses with their sharp, powerful and socially relevant dialogues. Actors such as M.G. Ramachandran and S.S. Rajendran used their screen charisma to propagate DMK ideologies. The former eventually emerged as one of the most charismatic and successful leaders of Tamil Nadu.

While in the information era, leaders have to reinvent themselves and find innovative ways to connect with the younger voters, hiring celebrated election strategists may not be a sure shot recipe for political success. For all the brand building around him, Mr. Stalin on several occasions fumbles on facts and is found wanting in displaying the right body language.

The Namakku Naame campaign and social media engagement no doubt brought Mr. Stalin closer to people of different walks of life in the nook and corner of the State. But its success was limited to making the DMK the largest-ever Opposition party in the annals of Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly in 2016. In contrast, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who was perhaps the only big leader to stay off social media, relied on her traditional campaign strength and retained power. She reversed the trend of the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) being alternatively elected to govern since 1989.

In the same elections, Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) youth wing leader Anbumani Ramadoss engaged a strategist who came up with the catchy ‘Maatram, Munnetram, Anbumani’ (change, progress, Anbumani) phrase to project him as a worthy political replacement to Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. Mr. Anbumani campaigned like an evangelist and yet the PMK’s vote share was confined to 5.36%. He himself lost in Pennagaram, an Assembly constituency that falls within the Dharmapuri Parliamentary seat from where he won only two years earlier.

Second line leaders, who have their ears to the ground, often complain that political brand promoters come in the way of communicating with their leaders and end up forming a coterie, a role beyond what they were hired for. What leaders do not realise is that while party functionaries will remain with them, the strategists would have no qualms even in working with a political rival on a parallel strategy. Leaders sometimes tend to take political decisions that are away from reality based on what the strategists tell them. Mr. Stalin’s tweet hailing the film Asuran and its message on ‘panchami’ land in the midst of the recent byelection in the caste polarised Vikravandi Assembly seat and the consequent attempt to please the Vanniyars, both of which backfired, were apparently done at the behest of his hired advisers.

External strategists with no roots in active politics can only help build a leader as a brand and come up with a campaign that is on the lips of the people. To influence voters positively, leaders may have to depend on their charisma and their internal organisational machinery.

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This story has been corrected for an error in surname of poll strategist name Sunil.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 2:13:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/analysis-dravidian-politics-from-revolutionising-campaigns-to-hiring-strategists/article30121903.ece

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