Chennai: With a question mark dangling over DMK president MK Stalin's leadership skills, one would have expected the party to go all out for victory in the by-election in Tiruvarur, Tamil Nadu. But by asking for, and now being happy over the postponement of the poll, the DMK leader looks to have given room for a fresh debate on his ability to lead a big political party. And it may also worry the Congress that its chief ally in Tamil Nadu is so unsure of itself. 

The Election Commission has cancelled the by-election announced for the Tiruvarur constituency (it had fallen vacant after the death of DMK chief M Karunanidhi) following representations from almost all parties in Tamil Nadu, including the AIADMK and the DMK.

To be sure, there was a case for postponement. With Tiruvarur being one of the places hit by cyclome Gaja last month, most parties felt that the relief work, which is still on in the locality, will be hit by the by-election. 

But some political observers in Tamil Nadu also feel that the DMK may have used the Gaja relief work as a convenient ruse to cover up the party's reluctance to face the electorate now. 

This is kind of surprising given that the popularity of the incumbent AIADMK government is at its lowest ebb. And in a recent opinion poll conducted by a news channel, Stalin's stock as a chief ministerial candidate was seen as rising.

If anything, this is the time for the DMK to move in for the kill, as it were. Instead, we see it playing extremely safe and defensive. The question that inevitably crops up is: Why?

Speaking to a lot of DMK insiders and many political analysts in Tamil Nadu, one could trace the sense of unease in the DMK to the dour, uninspiring approach of Stalin. He is a sincere leader of his party. And quite unlike Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, Stalin has not been foisted on the DMK. Stalin, as a matter of fact, has put in a lot of work for over 30 years in the party, and was one of the leaders to be jailed during the Emergency period. "Despite all his credentials, as a leader he seems to be no patch on his dad (Karunanidhi)," said L Sundar, a professor of Tamil in Salem (he has a doctorate in Dravidian studies), "Karunanidhi had a bold streak and an enviable knack to get people fall in line with his thinking. He was not afraid to speak his mind. Stalin does not seem to have inherited those genes."

That seems an unflattering summation of Stalin. But a few others, with a more charitable disposition, say the Karunanidhi-Stalin comparison is wrong. "Stalin is in a different mould. Give him some time, he will flower into a leader in his own right," said a party insider.

But giving time is not possible, as the biggest test --- the general elections --- is already around the corner, and Stalin has to quickly get his act together. One school of thought has it that Stalin is unwary because of what transpired in the RK Nagar by-election (in December 2017).

It was the first biggest test that Stalin faced as a leader. Though Karunanidhi was alive then, for all practical purposes, it was an election that the DMK fought under Stalin's aegis. Then too, going into the election, it was predicted by the poll pundits that the DMK would win hands down. With the AIADMK votes split and the party in disarray, the DMK was touted to triumph big.  As it happened, the DMK flunked the test badly. It was drubbed; its candidate lost his deposit.

"Though money power played a big part in TTV Dhinakaran's win in RK Nagar, the DMK defeat defeat is clearly rankling in Stalin's mind. It made him more uncertain. It is evident even now in his approach in Tiruvarur," says Sundar.

When the leader is hesitant, the party rank and file are quick to sense that. You cannot hide inadequacies that easily. And so the DMK saw plenty of inner-party conflicts as it got down to finalise the candidate for the Tiruvarur by-election. The likes of former Minister TR Baalu and his son TRB Rajaa openly flexed their muscles against the local strongman Poondi Kalaivanan (who was eventually named.) Such things were unheard of under Karunanidhi.

"Tiruvarur was supposed to be the DMK stronghold. It has won the seat six times. In any case, it was the seat of Karunanidhi. Yet, the DMK never exhibited the confidence that it logically should have. So questions will be raised against Stalin's leadership," says G Rathna, a freelance journalist and content provider. "Stalin is clearly afraid that a loss now can set the tone for the general elections to follow."

That may not sound nice for the Congress which is hoping to ride piggyback on the DMK in Tamil Nadu. 

Outside the party, too, Stalin is not having it easy. His words that Rahul Gandhi will be the opposition's Prime Ministerial candidate were quickly rebuffed by the likes of the Trinamool Congress and the Communists.

The final word on the subject has to go to Sundar, as he says: "if Stalin, despite his long political career, has such shortcomings, imagine what it would be for other drop-in dynastic leaders?"

Surely a point to ponder.