Can the man who has grown BJP in TN win an election?

14 April,2024 05:02 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Krishna Kumar Padmanabhan

Party State President K Annamalai faces trial by fire in Coimbatore, which has a soft corner for the saffron party; two men stand in his way

Singai Ramachandran vs K Annamalai

Ask anyone who is not a hardcore DMK/ADMK faithful in Tamil Nadu, they will admit that the BJP has seen some growth in the state, all thanks to the efforts of the extremely polarising party president K Annamalai. The only question the upcoming Lok Sabha election will answer is: By how much? The party's vote share last time was around 3.5 per cent in the state.

Annamalai, 39, who took voluntary retirement as a Karnataka cadre IPS officer to join the BJP, was expecting to campaign for candidates across the state. But come the deadline for filing nominations, he was asked by the party bosses to contest a seat himself - Coimbatore, which has already given the party an MLA in the last assembly elections. Even way back in 1998, it had elected a BJP man, CP Radhakrishnan, to Parliament.

Reluctant fundamentalist

This put the barnstorming state president in a quandary - whether to focus on his constituency, or keep up with his state tour. He has found some middle ground, dividing his time between Coimbatore and the rest of the state. His seniors and party bosses have pitched in, campaigning with him or on his behalf when he is away. Like Saturday, when Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman flew into Coimbatore to galvanise the support of the women voters with a road-show. (Annamalai is in the southern Theni district, supporting an ally.)

BJP's women cadre await the arrival of Union Minister Niramala Sitharaman at Gandhipuram, Coimbatore, on Saturday

Though he helicopters in and out of Coimbatore, BJP's election managers are a happy lot. They are more than satisfied with the response Annamalai's meetings are getting, especially the crowd they got in the urban areas when he went campaigning on Thursday night. They believe (or know) that the crowd was not organised by the party, but organic, comprising aam aadmi voters. So enthused was Annamalai that he pushed past the 10 pm deadline, earning him an FIR for breach of code of conduct.

IIM-Lucknow vs IIM-A

Annamalai is known to make outrageous allegations against opponents, and move on when refuted. For instance, the prestigious PSG-Tech and IIM Lucknow alumni alleged that his ADMK rival, Singai Ramachandran, got into PSG-Tech only via an "MLA quota", whatever that meant. In fact, Ramachandran later went to IIM Ahemedabad. Ramachandran lost his dad aged 12. Even when presented with this fact, Annamalai has neither retracted his statement nor apologised.

Things got worse on Friday, when Annamalai reportedly said the ADMK as we know it will be wiped out and current chief Edapadi Palaniswamy will no longer be the boss. Ramachandran was so upset that he called a 30-minute press conference on Saturday to refute all accusations levelled by Annamalai.

‘His fight is versus NOTA'

Sitting down with mid-day later, Ramachandran said about the unsavoury comments: "Maybe it is the fear of failure that makes people say stupid things. The BJP's fight in Tamil Nadu is with NOTA (the party routinely finishes below NOTA numbers in many constituencies) and they should focus on that."

TN Industries Minister TRB Rajaa (second from left) campaigns for Ganapathy Rajkumar, who seeks votes at Peelamedu

Ramachandran, who is the ADMK IT Cell head, also stresses on Annamalai's outsider status in both Coimbatore and Tamil Nadu. "He lost in (neighbouring) Karur, and he has come to Coimbatore now. Tomorrow, he will lose here and happily move on to Chennai. He has no skin in the game. And then he brings Karnataka leaders to seek votes from Kannada speakers in Coimbatore. Which is fine, but one shouldn't forget that these are the same leaders who say they will not give a single drop of water to TN," he said.

GST demon

Ramachandran and even the DMK contender Ganapathy Rajkumar are both assured that GST is a main concern in the industrial hub. "Manufacturers of motors, pumps, grinders and textiles are all suffering. The GST on job orders is 12 per cent. We want it brought down to five per cent," Ramachandran said. He also slammed the Stalin government for high power tariffs. "A medical store whose bill used to be Rs 6,000 a month now pays Rs 12,000 as electricity bill. If we come back in the later assembly elections, we will reduce it," he said.

The genteel lit grad

Rounding off the three-way battle in Coimbatore is former mayor Rajkumar, a former ADMK man who joined the DMK in 2020, citing loss of respect in his earlier party. Facing off against two MBA grads, Rajkumar is no academic slouch himself, with an English literature degree and a PhD on Jayalalithaa's growth and popularity as a mass leader.

AIADMK's Coimbatore candidate Singai Ramachandran addresses the media to deny accusations and slights flung by BJP rival K Annamalai on Saturday. Pics/Krishnakumar Padmanabhan

On Saturday evening, his party minister TRB Rajaa was there to campaign for him at Peelamedu, not very far from where Sitharaman was campaigning for Annamalai. Rajkumar started his evening with a temple visit, as party men decked in DMK colours waited outside. A strange sight for the famously pro-atheist party.

29-paise PM

Rajaa began by laying out the options in front of voters, saying the DMK always comes to people with a list of its programmes and achievements like honorarium for homemakers, and free bus rides for all women. "But what does the ADMK have to tell you? They are in no man's land in this national election. Neither with the NDA nor with INDIA. They cannot be part of any national government. Don't waste your vote on them," he said.

And between the two national coalitions, what does the NDA have to offer, he wondered. "Do you know why my friend Udhay Stalin calls him 29-paise Modi?" he asked the crowd. "Because, of every rupee we pay as tax, only 29 paise returns to the state. Ok, fine. We are a developed state. What do they use this money for in under-developed states? Not one school has been built. They build giant statues that serve no purpose. So, there is only one coalition to vote for."

Rajkumar stood with folded hands as Rajaa ended his speech, as the convoy moved to the next street corner. His demeanour has given rise to nasty rumours that he is a lightweight posted by the DMK to ensure all the anti-Annamalai votes consolidate with the ADMK. Either way, what stood out in the DMK campaign is that, unlike the ADMK, they do not mention Annamalai much, like it is somehow beneath them. All their barbs are aimed directly at the PM.

Social media wars

Back at the ADMK office, Ramachandran has a war room. And it is undeniable that Annamalai is front and centre of the conversations between the candidate and his managers. That Annamalai tendency to hit and run has the ADMK candidate worried. They started a video campaign on the fly on Saturday evening, hoping to scotch the BJP chief's accusations. Within five minutes, the video is sent out to party groups, from where it will go out to the general public.

"The mood was aggressive, but the answers were defensive," was one war room manager's verdict. "We were just replying to his allegations. We should make some counter-allegations against him." Ramachandran is not convinced. "Why should we put him on an equal footing?" But he promises to consider the suggestion. Therein lies Annamalai's first win, irrespective of the election outcome.

Nirmala Sitharaman takes part in all-women poll rally in Coimbatore

Senior BJP leader Nirmala Sitharaman participated in an all-women election rally taken out here on Saturday by the party's women wing members in support of state president and Coimbatore candidate K Annamalai. Speaking to reporters, Sitharaman said that based on her interaction with women self-help group members and other sections, it was clear that people decided to support the BJP in the April 19 Lok Sabha polls. "They would ensure a clear mandate to Annamalai too," Sitharaman said at the conclusion of the massive rally. The Union finance minister said Prime Minister Narendra Modi not only launched numerous welfare schemes but also reviewed their implementation and made sure that the benefits reached the people.

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