ON MARCH 10, the BJP organised a demonstration in Chennai against the DMK government for allegedly hounding its state president K. Annamalai. The event witnessed an unusual incident. A local BJP functionary declared that his party was the “real” opposition in Tamil Nadu, casting aspersions on ally AIADMK and its leader, Edappadi K. Palaniswami. BJP vice president Karu Nagarajan soon grabbed the mike and ended the leader’s runaway speech, as leaders like Khushboo looked on bemused.
Tensions in the BJP-AIADMK alliance have been simmering for long. On March 5, more than a dozen BJP functionaries, including IT cell chief C.T.R. Nirmal Kumar, defected to the AIADMK. Nirmal’s resignation letter accused Annamalai of having underhand dealings with DMK ministers. “The party is led by a mentally stunted person,” he wrote, “and it is inching towards destruction.”
A day after Nirmal jumped ship, several of his former colleagues followed suit. Nirmal said Annamalai had humiliated the IT cell through actions and words. Apparently, he once hurled a dossier across a desk and blamed the IT cell for not boosting his image. “I have been tolerating everything for the past one and half years, but there is nothing more petty than spying on one’s own party cadre,” Nirmal told THE WEEK.
Sources in the BJP said that Nirmal had first approached Palaniswami three months ago. The AIADMK leader was apparently reluctant to take him in. He relented only after receiving an internal report that said Nirmal could help strengthen the AIADMK’s IT wing.
Though Nirmal’s colleagues who switched over to the AIADMK are very active online, they do not have ground support. But the defections are significant, because of the nature of allegations against Annamalai, a former IPS officer. “He is completely jittered,” said a senior BJP leader. Annamalai’s news conferences in the two days following the defections showed how unsettled he was. “I am also a leader; a leader like [former chief ministers] J. Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi. Tamil Nadu politics revolves around me,” he declared during a conference.
Amar Prasad Reddy, Annamalai’s confidant and president of the BJP’s sports and skill development cell in Tamil Nadu, accused the AIADMK of poaching. “As an alliance partner, the AIADMK should not have done this,” he recently tweeted. Referring to the AIADMK’s recent rout in the bypoll in the Erode East constituency, he wrote, “The voters have shown the exit door to those who considered the Kongu region as their citadel. They made them lose with a margin of around 66,000 votes. The BJP is the only future for Tamil Nadu.”
Nirmal said Annamalai’s leadership style was divisive. “The BJP has had many leaders. Under Tamilisai Soundararajan, the party’s membership increased. L. Murugan kept party cadres vibrant. But Annamalai always behaved like a police officer. He was never pleasant. He used to shout and chase leaders out of his room, even those who came from far-off districts to take a photo with him,” he said.
According to Nirmal, Annamalai runs his own 24x7 war room to boost his image, and has little patience for resolving party issues. He also has no qualms about muzzling dissenting voices. Apparently, veteran leaders such as Pon Radhakrishnan, Vanathi Srinivasan and Nainar Nagendran have either been sidelined or ignored.
In December, for instance, BJP leaders C.P. Radhakrishnan and Srinivasan wanted to capitalise on the news of a car explosion at Coimbatore’s Kottaimedu region. After apparently obtaining Annamalai’s consent, Radhakrishnan told journalists in Coimbatore that the party had called for a day-long bandh.
“But the very next day,” said a senior BJP leader, “Annamalai informed the High Court that the BJP was against the hartal.” The result was that Radhakrishnan’s credibility took a huge hit, and he had to leave electoral politics to take charge as governor of Jharkhand.
Sources said work pressure had forced Annamalai to seek the BJP’s national leadership’s permission for a fortnight’s leave. Apparently, the request was denied and it was suggested that he quit if he could not handle pressure.
A senior BJP leader said Annamalai did not have his ear to the ground. “There are many issues in the party―faction feud, differences between party functionaries, and so on. Though he is the party leader, Annamalai does not know what his own partymen are doing,” said the leader.
Ties between Annamalai and Palaniswami have long been strained. Both belong to the Gounder community; some analysts believe that the BJP is using Annamalai to keep Palaniswami on his toes. Currently, though, Palaniswami has the upper hand.
“The AIADMK is not a mirror; it is an ocean,” D. Jayakumar, party spokesperson and former minister, told THE WEEK. “Stones thrown at the ocean can only sink. People are joining us on their own will. Annamalai should have the maturity to accept that.”
AIADMK leaders have criticised Annamalai for comparing himself with Jayalalithaa. “Amma (Jayalalithaa) was the tallest leader the state has ever had. Annamalai has been in politics for just two years,” said former minister Kadambur C. Raju.
Though AIADMK leaders are upset, they do not want the party to break off the alliance. A top-level source in the BJP said Palaniswami had a hotline to the BJP leadership in Delhi. Apparently, it is Palaniswami’s son who attends calls and translates messages.
Both the AIADMK and the BJP want to defeat the DMK-led alliance in the Lok Sabha polls next year. “There is no rift in the alliance,” said Jayakumar. “The AIADMK remains part of the National Democratic Alliance and the BJP remains our ally in Tamil Nadu. Just because of few senior members have joined our party doesn’t mean that we are targeting the BJP.”