“Have to see whether my sheep still listen to me since I am no longer a cop now,” Annamalai K had said in an open letter on 28 May, 2019, after resigning from Indian Police Service (IPS) insisting he wanted to go back to “enjoying simpler things in life”.
Now, as state president of the BJP in Tamil Nadu, when Annamalai speaks, everyone takes notice. Some take notice to cheer him on and others to vehemently criticise his eagerness to communalise issues.
Whether it was the suicide of a minor in Thanjavur or the Coimbatore explosion case, the BJP state chief has been at the forefront of giving sensitive incidents a communal spin, even questioning the integrity of the Tamil Nadu police — his brothers in uniform in a past life.
As a former IPS officer who has worked in communally-sensitive areas, Annamalai knows better, but he is now a politician with a plan. Both his baiters and fans agree on one thing — you cannot ignore Annamalai in Tamil Nadu politics, an achievement indeed for a leader of the saffron party in the state.
Angry young man persona
With his scrunched-up eyebrows, angry gestures, abrasive tone and defiant demeanour, Annamalai is still a work in progress, as per leaders of the BJP. The objective is to carve out an image in the likeliness of a quintessential Tamil cinema hero.
The angry young man fighting for the “right” cause, the one-man army taking on the powerful and mighty, the fierce messiah from the grassroots challenging those in power on behalf of people is the image the BJP wants to build for Annamalai — the basic storyline for thousands of movies, except the BJP’s script is centered around Hindutva.
His past stint as an IPS officer is a plus in building this narrative, so is the public perception of him as Singham, ‘Supercop’, ‘upright‘, that predates his time as politician. In fact, Annamalai has referred to himself as “a real-life Singham” in a memoir he has authored.
With his punchy counters, throwing open challenges to the DMK, declaring he will “hit back, if hit”, Annamalai shines in the role. The groundwork that his predecessors like now Telangana Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan and MP L Murugan laid in keeping the party in the media limelight and enhancing membership are helping Annamalai.
Manufacturing a cult
For a party that despises the idea of individual assertions, except when it is Narendra Modi, the BJP is all in favour of hyping up Annamalai’s image. Tamil Nadu’s penchant for personality cults lies at the crux of this experiment.
“From Periyar or Annadurai, MG Ramachandran or Jayalalithaa or Kalaignar Karunanidhi, Tamil Nadu’s politics is full of examples of people aligning themselves with a personality, an icon. There has always been a tryst between cinema, art and politics in Tamil Nadu. People like the idea of a larger-than-life leader. Annamalai is not from cinema, but he is slowly building a mass appeal with his personality,” a central leader of the BJP working in Tamil Nadu said.
Creating a “larger-than-life” image of Annamalai as the “lone voice against DMK” is only one part of the script.
When he is not accusing the DMK of being anti-Hindu or levelling allegations of mass conversions against Christian missionaries or accusing journalists of being agenda-driven or alleging radicalisation in the Tamil Nadu police force, Annamalai is seen furthering his party’s Hindutva script.
Sometimes you find him reciting Kanda Sashti Kavasam in a temple while churning out Islamophobic rhetoric in the guise of “protecting Hindus”.
Sometimes he is vehemently batting for Pattina Pravesam or demanding autonomy for government administered temples. While he keeps cadres mobilised in the forefront, the leadership of the BJP plans customised cultural outreach programmes with local deities, traditions and icons in mind.
The Karnataka model
Given his service as police office in communally charged Udupi, Bhatkal and Chikmagalur, Annamalai has seen, studied and understood how Karnataka’s Hindutva laboratory works and why cultural alignment is key to it, along with a generous dollop of Islamophobia.
What Annamalai does in Tamil Nadu is simply applying the same formula exported from Karnataka with slight modification to suit the Tamil Nadu’s palette. Coimbatore’s communally-disturbed past and charged present makes it the perfect fertile ground to further this divisive project.
The BJP polled about 2.6 per cent vote share and won four seats in the 2021 Assembly election where Annamalai himself lost, a dip from its 3.5 per cent vote share in 2016.
BJP’s ‘new blood’
But the gains the saffron party made in civic body polls, winning the third-highest number of seats under Annamalai’s leadership has given the party the confidence that his aggression is bearing fruit. There is also a steady rise in the membership of the BJP and footfall at RSS Shakhas.
Senior leaders in the state unit of BJP are discontent with Annamalai’s leadership style, but that the party is keen on letting that “old blood” go so “new blood” can take over. Even as recently as 28 October, the fissures in the functioning of the BJP State unit were on full display over a bandh call.
Despite the rumblings, the party has put its machinery behind propping up Annamalai, BJP National General Secretary (Organisation) BL Santhosh’s personal pick, in Tamil Nadu as the hero of its Hindutva project.