Forty years ago, renowned primatologist Frans De Waal wrote his globally acclaimed book Chimpanzee Politics in Dutch. M.K. Stalin in Tamil Nadu – still in his late 20s then – may have hardly noticed. The intervening decades revealed remarkable parallels between humans and primates in pursuits of political power. Blackback gorillas, for example, prepare themselves by observing – and assisting – silverback gorillas to later ascend as rulers of the pack. In Tamil Nadu, M.K. Stalin – emulating his much-admired father M. Karunanidhi’s indefatigable stamina – continued to patiently groom himself for many decades. Now, Stalin is the state’s new chief minister. What should he do to preserve his political power?
Freshly sworn in, Stalin has swiftly begun using his authority as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. He has made some stellar ministerial appointments and placed some upright administrative officers in key roles. Tamil Nadu has embraced this rapid infusion of administrative energy – including lockdowns and aid for people at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Yet in the years to come, to preserve power and carve a legacy for himself, Stalin will have to practice gorilla politics.
Silverbacks preserve power by exercising formal authority in three ways – by providing protection, by offering direction, and by maintaining order.
First, most politicians do not need lessons on how critical providing protection is in gaining authority or preserving power. Consider Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He understood that promoting protection against Pakistan will garner him votes. Today, the Covid-19 pandemic is his new Pakistan. But not everyone can diagnose an unfamiliar threat or discern its destructive nature. People, though, will only repose trust in those who move fast to protect them. Stalin’s key lieutenant, Finance Minister P.T.R. Palanivel Thiagarajan, knows firsthand the virtues of execution speed. From Wall Street, he had seen the US administration’s swift execution in 2008-2009 to protect the country from an unprecedented economic collapse. Yet with the current pandemic, any administrative excellence will – at best – be a first step. Facing more agony in subsequent waves, people will forget today’s swiftness of action.
To preserve power, M.K. Stalin has to level now with people both on the unpredictable path of the pandemic and on the unimaginable losses they will have to endure. Lockdowns and vaccinations are known technical solutions. Against an aggressively evolving virus though, these solutions will unlikely offer enduring fixes. For years to come, people will have to co-evolve and experiment with the unknown. They need to be truthfully told that we need to learn to co-live with the coronavirus’ variants for some time; and that we have to experiment together – scientifically and socially – to find lasting solutions.
Second, to robustly direct Tamil Nadu, Stalin should focus on ripe issues. He can begin by asking the right questions.
For example, because of the ongoing pandemic and the Chennai floods a few years ago, how to face recurring disasters is a ripe issue in Tamil Nadu. During such difficult times, citizens deeply yearn to engage, informally pool together, and collectively find solutions. How do you then mobilise masses – and formally galvanise their collective strength – during a disaster?
Another ripe issue in the state is education. Tamil Nadu has seen palpable opposition to the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for undergraduate medical education. While we need more doctors to save lives today, Stalin should also ask why so many rural youths commit suicides for failing to become one. Where did Tamil Nadu go so wrong? Some doctors in the state who quit their medical profession to become world-class farmers – such as Dr R. Mahendran who was until recently Kamal Hassan’s second-in-political-command – may have better answers. Such physicians can show the youth that farming does not diminish one’s social status; that wealth can be generated in many fulfilling ways; and that one can enjoy a better quality of life in their own village. Perhaps, this is the time to glorify organic farming and forestry in the state.
And, with many losing jobs, this uncertain time can spur creation of new jobs. Stalin has the opportunity to direct with bold reimaginings on this front too. For example, if the 1990s saw a boom in STD telephone-booth entrepreneurship, and the last 20 years an explosion in Internet-based businesses, can this decade’s youth use 3D printers to produce goods or services in every street corner?
Stalin’s questions will determine the direction of the state — and the longevity of his leadership.
Finally, to preserve power, silverbacks maintain order in the following three ways – by orienting roles, by managing conflicts, and by upholding norms.
M.K. Stalin will have to begin by orienting or disorienting people’s roles to orchestrate social progress. For example, when Jaggi Vasudev stirs with a call to ‘free temples from government control’, Stalin’s party will easily see him in the role of a Hindutva-peddling politician. Instead, Stalin can reorient his role: “Thank you, but how can you become part of my government’s efforts to reduce deficiencies in the state’s temple duties?” Many US presidents made opposition party members their Secretary of Defense for a reason.
Also, Stalin should expect conflicts to emerge as new faces within the DMK take centre stage and gain national attention. The old vanguards of the party will feel left out. Or the tension between past glory and future promise could engender conflicts. Tamils rightly take enormous pride in their ancient culture; yet one cannot ignore the current squalor on the streets of the state. So, Stalin’s moves towards modernity will undoubtedly beget more conflicts. To lead, he will have to let these conflicts emerge – and expose them for debate – instead of suppressing them.
And, upholding norms is where the previous administration failed. It did not act when a woman IPS officer alleged that a special Director General of Police harassed her in a moving car; or when police excesses became the norm during last year’s lockdown. The more quickly Stalin moves to uphold norms better, the more likely he will preserve his power longer.
These are extraordinary times. M.K. Stalin comes from an extraordinary background with extraordinary aspirations. But in trying times, ordinary people will just struggle to wade through their ordinary lives. If Stalin takes care of the ordinary, “the extraordinary will take care of itself”, as William Martin said.
Satheesh Namasivayam was formerly affiliated with the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he graduated from. He co-authored ‘Leading without Licence’. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)