Buoyed by recent wins in three states, Indian opposition parties are beginning to smell victory over Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling party, the BJP. However, one crucial detail remains unaddressed ahead of crucial general elections in April next year. The opposition is still without a Prime Ministerial candidate who is able to take on Modi.

In the run-up to the 2004 parliamentary elections, it was the late Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch M Karunanidhi, who declared then Congress president Sonia Gandhi as the leader of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), an amalgamation of parties opposed to the BJP. Karunanidhi announced “we welcome Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law and (wish) victory to India’s noble daughter”.

Fourteen years later, Karunanidhi’s son and president of the dominant DMK, MK Stalin, in an attempt to emulate his legendary father, took the lead and proposed Sonia’s son Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate of a Congress-led alliance for the 2019 elections.

The announcement was made at a rally in Chennai attended by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu and Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. However the proposal has received a lukewarm response from other regional parties and potential Congress allies.

Taking on Modi

DMK sources insist there were no back channel talks with the Congress party and that Stalin’s announcement was made entirely on his own volition. They claim he received no counsel from Congress, and nor did he provide them with information on his proposal ahead of the speech at the Chennai rally.

The same sources claim that the reason Stalin seized the initiative and made the announcement was to build up his stature and pitch himself as a key architect of a Congress led-alliance, just as his father had been.

Ideally, the announcement might have waited until more allies came on board and a Congress-led alliance took clearer shape. Even the Congress party, despite it being obvious that Rahul Gandhi is their unanimous choice for a prime ministerial candidate, has never made a strong public pitch for him. They know that such a position could divide the opposition even before it formalizes a pre-poll alliance.

This is because it is not clear if many regional forces would accept the Congress as an unconditional leader and Rahul Gandhi as the only prime ministerial choice. Many regional power-brokers, though opposed to the incumbent prime minster Modi, are apprehensive that he might have the edge in a personality-driven campaign.

Following independence from colonial rule in 1947, India has adopted a parliamentary election system in which the choice of a prime minister is made after the polls.

In fact, when Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, was asked about a prime ministerial candidate before the recent assembly polls in five states, he left the question unanswered, saying that it will be decided at a later stage.

However, following victories for the Congress party in three state assembly polls, fresh confidence makes some think the party may be ready to turn the 2019 polls into a Rahul versus Modi battle. In effect, Stalin’s announcement, though premature, will be a message to potential allies that they have to take a stand.

The DMK party’s upper house Member of Parliament, Kanimozhi Karunanidhi argues that: “It is important to build a cohesive alliance and for that it is imperative to declare, unambiguously, the prime ministerial candidate of the alliance. We are sure all secular and democratic forces see (Rahul) Gandhi as the obvious choice,” she told Asia Times.

Given the personal nature of his attacks during campaign speeches, Modi is certain to target the Congress president during his campaign. This makes it likely that it will turn it into a personality contest, in which case some feel it is advisable to fight back with clarity on the leadership issue.

Testing the waters for unity

This is a test balloon, but sooner or later the regional parties may have to fall in line and take sides in a two-way election fray. However, Stalin’s priorities are different. He is clearly with Rahul Gandhi and has put the DMK on an ideological collision course with the BJP.

In his first speech after taking charge as president of the DMK in August 2018, he declared that the central government was “destroying” core Dravidian values of secularism, rational thought and social justice. Those in southern India identify themselves as an indigenous political entity called the Dravidians.

Political observers say that, compelling as the DMK can be, on its own it could not possibly sweep the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu. The Congress has an estimated 5 to 6% vote spread around the State and an alliance with it gives a clear direction to the DMK at a national level. This is important to attract smaller regional parties in the state.

Regional parties

In the past, Tamil Nadu has delivered decisive sweeps to one side or the other. For instance, in 2014 the Late J Jayalalithaa led her AIADMK to win 37 of the 39 seats in the state, and in 2004 the DMK led UPA in the state and won all 39 seats. Whatever the alliance, victory seemingly comes by a massive margin, which potentially makes the numbers decisive in the event of a hung verdict in New Delhi.

Stalin needs such a sweep as his party has been out of power in the state since 2011 and in central government since 2012. Given that Tamil Nadu will face its first election since both J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi passed away, this could be a litmus test for MK Stalin.

Unlike his father, who remained at the helm of the party through five decades despite severe electoral blows, the son does not have the stature to remain the unchallenged leader. This means that, if the party does not perform in 2019, he could be in trouble.

Hence Stalin has cautiously cemented a formidable State level alliance with the Congress, Left parties, Marumalrchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and Dalit leader T Thirumavalavan’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK).

He has portrayed the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam faction as a “proxy of the BJP” and one that is “destroying” the secular fabric of the State. By doing so, he has positioned the DMK as the only possible custodian of Dravidian values and created a narrative where any party that does not ally with him will be seen as siding with Hindutva forces, which will make them a threat to Dravidian values.

This puts the DMK on firm footing to deal with changes in Tamil Nadu’s political dynamics if superstar Rajnikanth launches a political party and tilts his support towards the BJP. At a national level, Chandrababu Naidu was the one reaching out to regional allies on behalf of the Congress. But after the Congress-TDP alliance lost the Telangana assembly election to the TRS, Naidu’s stock has fallen.

Given that the TRS may emerge as a force to be reckoned with in a post poll scenario, Stalin could be in a better position to reach out to it, if the need arises. Furthermore, the TDP was a BJP ally until recently and the DMK has been with the UPA since 2004 and has greater ideological credibility. Its close relationship with parties like the Trinamool Congress could further help cement alliances.

The flip side seems to be that, as Stalin has put all his eggs in one basket, a defeat could prove very costly. He seems to be motivated by a deep desire to build a stature comparable to that which his father enjoyed. However, the complexity of the bigger political picture, with its multiple possible permutations for outcomes, may put such a quest beyond the DMK president, at least for now.