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Lok Sabha 2024: Can Annamalai Be BJP's Talisman in Tamil Nadu?

Effectively, both Modi and Annamalai would be launching the Lok Sabha campaign of the BJP for Tamil Nadu.

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(This is the sixth in a series of insightful reports from the ground, titled The Race From India to Bharat. The author travels all across India as 960 million voters get ready to celebrate the largest festival of democracy in the world: the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. What do ordinary Indians think and feel about the past, present, and future of India? Are they convinced that the old fault lines are healing?)

(Read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, and part five here.)

There is deep passion, a hint of steel, and a keen sense of anticipation as we discuss the new player in town. Raja M Shanmugham says it is for the first time in many decades as an entrepreneur and observer of Tamil society and politics, that he senses a small crack in the impregnable fortress that Dravidian parties have built, nurtured and sustained since 1967.

We are discussing K Annamalai, the president of the Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), a man with a seemingly impossible mission to make his party a force to reckon with in the state. A man from a very humble background, Annamalai is a former IPS (Indian Police Service) officer who took early retirement to join the BJP and spearhead a possible place under the political sun.

He has run such an aggressive campaign against the monopoly and alleged misrule of the two Dravidian parties that the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), a partner within the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) snapped off ties with the BJP, blaming Annamalai for the divide and rancour. Undeterred, the 39-year-old former police officer launched a five-month-long pan Tamil Nadu yatra. On 27 February, he will share the stage with Prime Minister Narendra Modi who will be addressing a rally that day in the southern city of Coimbatore.

Effectively, both Modi and Annamalai would be launching the Lok Sabha campaign of the BJP for Tamil Nadu, though some observers say that Annamalai, like Modi, campaigns around the year anyway.  
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The author spent two days in Coimbatore on 18 and 19 February. There was hardly any buzz in the industrial city over the scheduled climax of the Yatra. Perhaps the event was still a week away and Annamalai was busy travelling elsewhere. But Shanmugham says everyone is underestimating the groundswell of support for Annamalai.

“You see, the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and the AIADMK between them have a combined core vote of almost 50 per cent. Then there are many smaller caste-based parties. There still is a substantive chunk of voters in Tamil Nadu that is independent. They are increasingly looking at Annamalai as the future of politics in the state”, he says. According to him, Annamalai talks in a manner and language that common Tamilians understand and identify with. Besides, his relentless and facts-based criticism of the two major parties seems to have made them jittery.

The author asks: the vote share of the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections was around 3.5 per cent while it was close to 19 per cent in 2014. Shanmugham says that is because the BJP contested just five seats in 2019 compared to almost all seats in 2014. But he is candid enough to admit he doesn’t expect any miracles from Annamalai this time. He will be happy to see the BJP go past the 15 per cent vote share mark this time so that Annamalai lays the foundation for future growth. “Look at his age too. He is young and will go places in Tamil Nadu politics”, he adds.

There were about a dozen other people the author spoke with in Coimbatore. Most were disdainful when the name Annamalai cropped up. Gnanabharati is a veteran advocate who leans towards the Left. According to him, Annamalai is a joker who recently said that Shivaji came to Tamil Nadu about 50 years ago. Another veteran journalist K S Velayu who helped the author a lot in getting to meet people thinks that there is zero chance of Annamalai swaying Tamil voters.

Another wire service journalist makes his dislike for Annamalai, Modi, and the BJP very clear. “Tamilians will never accept the BJP. Even now, their leaders are trying to impose Hindi and the regime in Delhi is discriminating against the state”, he says. When the author shares all this with Shanmugham, the entrepreneur responds by saying that this kind of propaganda has been successfully practised for six decades or more in the state. According to him, the Dravidian parties have a vice-like grip over the state media. “You will rarely find a mainstream journalist here who is not prejudiced against Annamalai”, he says.

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Shanmugham goes on to add that Annamalai has adopted the Narendra Modi model of communication. Targeted by the mainstream media for years in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, Modi was one of the pioneers in using social media to communicate directly with voters. It seems like Annamalai is doing the same in Tamil Nadu with some degree of success. There can be no doubt that the 39-year-old leader is very active on social media.

But the fact remains that for every two people the author interacted with who liked Annamalai a lot, about seven disliked him for his BJP connection. Tamil Nadu is one of the rare states in India where C Voter surveys show Rahul Gandhi as more popular than Modi.

Shanmugham is unfazed by the facts. “Change does happen, you know. Tell me something. Did you expect a decade ago that a Ram Temple would actually be built in Ayodhya and Mr Modi would be there to do the honours?“ Of course, Shanmugham was honoured to be one of the invitees to attend the Pran Prathistan ceremony of the Ram idol at Ayodhya on 22 January. He was deeply moved by his two-day stay in Ayodhya and he could sense a new sense of pride and a resurgence of the Indic civilisation.

To make it clear, even the author, who is very wary of hard-line Hindutva, felt a sense of pan-Indian energy when he was at the Ram Temple and the Saryu Ghat on 14 and 15 February. There has never been a tax on hope.

(Sutanu Guru is the Executive Director of the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.) 

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  K Annamalai 

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