Even as his party’s most powerful ally in the South — the AIADMK — has parted ways pointing to him as the root cause of the bad blood between the two parties, BJP Tamil Nadu president K Annamalai is continuing with his yatra ‘En Mann, En Makkal’ (My Soil, My People).
South First caught up with Annamalai’s padayatra as it entered its 39th day on Tuesday, 26 September, a day after the AIADMK severed all ties with his party.
IPS officer-turned-politician Annamalai looked unperturbed by the political development as organisers hurriedly prepared for the resumption of the yatra at 4 pm from the Kothanda Ramasamy Temple at Ram Nagar behind the busy Gandhipuram bus terminal in Coimbatore.
The temple is in Coimbatore South Assembly constituency, where Vanathi Srinivasan of the BJP defeated star candidate and Makkal Needhi Maiam supremo Kamal Haasan in the 2021 Assembly elections.
Several troupes of entertainers were in attendance to perform various art forms — Kathakali, Poikaal, and various other dances — even as a band whipped up a frenzy with drumbeats even an hour before the scheduled beginning of the padayatra.
Banners fluttering in the wind proclaimed Annamalai as the saviour of the state and a lion in Tamil Nadu politics. A makeshift wooden dais was set up in the middle of the road, from where the BJP leader would resume his yatra.
The banners are in line with the image the BJP in Tamil Nadu intends to build for Annamalai — that of an angry young man who caters to Tamil Nadu’s penchant for politics of personality cults.
With AIADMK no longer a “burden”, Annamalai can now wholeheartedly go after all icons of Dravidian politics and its ideology.
Orange and white T-shirts and a rope
K Annamalai is a crowd-puller who gets as many waves as he gives to the crowds along the path of his padayatra. His security is of prime concern for his cadres.
Volunteers clad in orange T-shirts control the crowds at the padayatra while others in white T-shirts take care of the VIPs and businessmen who are allowed close to the dais. The VIPs get to interact with the party leaders.
A rope tied across the road divides the VIPs from the cadres and ordinary people behind, and it restrictes them from moving closer to the dais. The volunteers keep a watch over them.
K Suresh, a volunteer proudly sporting the orange T-shirt, said those behind the rope were BJP cadres. The organisers have instructed the volunteers not to allow them near Anna — or big brother, as they call Annamalai. The organisers clearly did not want any commotion.
Journalists were allowed inside the rope-barricaded encloser but were kept a bit away from the dais. The organisers repeatedly requested them not to pose any questions. The media was also told that Annamalai would not field any political questions.
The journalists seemed not impressed. They asked one of the district functionaries why they could not ask questions when Annamalai would be speaking politics. The functionary grinned and moved away.
This reporter caught up with Annamalai right before the yatra. Following an exchange of pleasantries came an assurance of an interaction during the walk.
The three-tier security around Annamalai and a specially-designated media cell worker deputed to walk with this reporter, however, made it impossible to access Annamalai during the padayatra. We were told by key functionaries and security persons that Annamalai would not be talking, including on politics, to the media during his walk time.
Late by an hour, Annamalai, along with Vanathi Srinivasan, reached the venue as firecrackers went off and confetti cannons rained glittering paper.
The BJP leader was welcomed and greeted by the VIPs, businessmen, and other functionaries. Floral crowns, silver swords, garlands, shawls, etc, came out and were presented to Annamalai, even as the cadre cheered from behind the rope. A full-fledged giddy fair of sorts.
A district functionary, on condition of anonymity, told South First that businessmen affiliated with the party took care of the expenses of the cultural activities and other programmes related to the yatra.
In Coimbatore South, the yatra went through Kamarajapuram, the flower market, Mill Road, Idyar Street and concluded at Raja Veedhi. It did not disrupt the normal traffic.
Coimbatore is special for Annamalai and for his party the BJP. Coimbatore’s communally-disturbed past and charged present makes it the perfect fertile ground to further BJP’s prospects. A page straight from Karnataka’s communally charged Udupi, Bhatkal and Chikmagalur where Annamalai has served as a police officer.
Annamalai either walks or travels in a vehicle designed exclusively for the padayatra.
“It is his (Annamalai) choice. He will decide where to walk and when to take the vehicle. On 25 September, the police advised him not to get down on the road since the traffic was heavy,” media coordinator Manikumar said.
People were interested in meeting Annamalai. However, due to the security cover, they could only wave excitedly at the leader. People associated with the BJP functionaries waited at certain points to interact with Annamalai. They were allowed to click selfies.
Further, traders and functionaries of various caste outfits were allowed to meet the BJP leader for a minute’s interaction. Annamalai interacted with the people, trying to win them over. The padayatra is also an exercise in displaying Annamalai’s and, in turn, the BJP’s willingness to accommodate leaders from different castes.
Annamalai started his padayatra walking with women workers for a kilometer. The walk symbolised the Women Reservation Bill brought in by the BJP.
Muthusamy, an auto driver, who witnessed the rally said the yatra has boosted Annamalai’s popularity. “But, who will benefit from this yatra? Annamalai or the BJP? I don’t think the party will gain more popularity than Annamalai,” he opined.
Gajalakshmi, a florist from the Poo (flower) Market, eagerly waved at Annamalai. When asked what she knew about the BJP leader, she said she heard that he was a good policeman in Karnataka. “I don’t know about his role as a politician. He speaks ill about Thanthai Periyar, Amma (Jayalalithaa), and supports Modi,” she said.
The crowds are keen on meeting Annamalai but only a select few do meet him.
Outer circle of security is by the BJP volunteers with orange T-Shirts. The next layer of protection is given by the Tamil Nadu police and in the inner circle, the CRPF commando protect him, as he is covered with Z category security.
BJP functionaries’ recommendation alone allows one to garland, take selfies or talk to Annamalai, but only after approval by the yatra’s coordination team. The team picks the guests on various yardsticks including community background, known faces from the locality, minorities (particularly Muslims), businessmen, other party functionaries. They will be given a point of place to meet the BJP leader and no unknown persons are allowed to be with Annamalai, during the yatra, more than a minute.
S Kumaran, a BJP worker from the Paal (Milk) Company said that the cadres believed that Annamalai was the right person to take on the Dravidian parties. “Even Murugan ji held Vel Yatra. But it was not as notable as Annamalai’s yatra. No leader had this much support from the youth,” he claimed.
Recognition as a community leader
Youngsters form the biggest chunk of crowds at Annamalai’s yatra. Most among the Gounders see him as an icon of the community. Apart from them, youngsters and businessmen from Brahmin and Naidu communities are conspicuous in the road show.
If there are any doubts that Annamalai and his party are focusing on luring the AIADMK’s voters, a day in the padayatra will put them to rest.
Eswaramoorthy, an engineering graduate from Kavundampalayam, said that he was not a member of the BJP but a sympathiser. “Earlier, I was supporting the AIADMK but there is scope only for those who have money. I don’t think that the AIADMK is an option for the politically ambitious middle-class youth,” he said.
“Though EPS (Edappadi Palaniswami) belongs to our (Gounder) community, he opposes the DMK only for political gains and not ideologically. But Annamalai takes on both Dravidian parties without compromise,” he explained. Annamalai is slowly emerging as the alternate “Gounder” leader to take on the DMK.
Meanwhile, in Idayar Street, the leaders of the Viswakarma community met Annamalai and extended their support.
Paranjothi, a 67-year-old DMK functionary, who owns a garment shop in Town Hall, admitted that Annamalai was a crowd-puller.
“But whether he is capable of turning those crowds into votes is a big question. During the MGR regime, lakhs of people used to attend the public meetings of Kalaingar (M Karunanidhi). But when it came to voting, they chose MGR. Even Kalaingar mentioned it in public meetings,” he told South First.
He contended that Annamalai’s lies were being exposed in the media.
“It is obvious that he is trying to set a narrative that Tamil Nadu politics is DMK versus BJP and trying to boost his image. But the people of Tamil Nadu had never accepted a communal party,” he said.
It was nearly 10 pm when Annamalai concluded the padayatra at a public meeting in Raja Veedhi. It took him nearly five hours to cover a distance of 6 km.
On the ground, South First learnt that Annamalai’s yatra has gained attention among the public. But has it created an impact on the common man? The answer could not be an affirmative one.