Southern Lights | In Coimbatore, three first-timers seek votes to bring the small town into 21st century | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Southern Lights | In Coimbatore, three first-timers seek votes to bring the small town into 21st century

Apr 06, 2024 12:16 AM IST

The candidates in the race are from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the opposition All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and the Bharatiya Janata Party

In the blazing heat of peninsular India, as candidates across parties are upping their campaigns, in Coimbatore, a three-way contest is unfolding. The candidates in the race are from the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the opposition All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). All three candidates are highly qualified and each is putting up nuanced arguments for the electorate to consider.

Coimbatore, Mar 27 (ANI): Tamil Nadu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president and Coimbatore Lok Sabha candidate K. Annamalai greets supporters prior to filing his nomination papers from the Coimbatore parliamentary constituency for the upcoming elections, on Wednesday. (ANI Photo)(K Annamalai-X) PREMIUM
Coimbatore, Mar 27 (ANI): Tamil Nadu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president and Coimbatore Lok Sabha candidate K. Annamalai greets supporters prior to filing his nomination papers from the Coimbatore parliamentary constituency for the upcoming elections, on Wednesday. (ANI Photo)(K Annamalai-X)

At 36, Singai Govindarasu Ramachandran, is the youngest candidate representing the AIADMK. A favourite among the youth, Ramachandran holds a diploma in electrical and electronics engineering, and a Bachelor of engineering in electronics, and communication engineering from the Coimbatore-based PSG Institutes, as well as an MBA degree from the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A).

Locals see him as their boy and relate to him as a college senior.

“He lost his father when he was just 11. Ramachandran has worked hard to earn his stripes. He was a merit student throughout and it is for this reason that our party matriarch and former CM J Jayalalitha appointed him as secretary of the IT wing in 2016 when he chose to sit out the placements and work for the party instead,” said Ramya Venugopal, Youth in-charge of the party’s state unit.

There’s more stacked up in his favour. AIADMK is very strong in western Tamil Nadu and it won all the assembly segments during the 2021 election.

Ramachandran’s rallies have been about bringing about a change in everything from Coimbatore’s visage to its infrastructure, from making it an IT services alternative to Chennai to altering its Tier II status. Tens of thousands of students and young professionals come to Coimbatore in pursuit of academics and employment. When he dresses in a white shirt and khaki pants, he attempts to connect with the young voter donning a corporate image, and when he speaks of continuing former CM and AIADMK supremo J Jayalalitha’s schemes for the women, he tries his best to resemble the typical Dravidian politician who you would find in a ‘veshti’, or ‘dhoti’.

Standing atop his campaign vehicle, he asks the youth gathered after college hours around the Fort area: “Why can’t Coimbatore be like Hyderabad or Bangalore? For nearly six decades, we have shown the world how well our textile industry and the MSME (micro, small, and medium enterprises) has progressed. It is now time to level up and have Infosys, TCS, and Wipro in Coimbatore. Two leaves will do this for you,” he said, referring to his party’s famous party symbol.

He flashes the same cutout of the party symbol when he walks through the bylanes of semi-urban Coimbatore. The 7 am campaign on foot is usually reserved to meet the women constituents. He takes his orders from SP Velumani, often referred to as the right-hand man of the AIADMK general secretary E Palaniswami. “I am trying my best to retain the women’s votes that Amma always won through her welfare measures. The 2024 election will be a test for us in this regard,” he said as he trailed off with folded hands greeting women outside their homes in Singanallur.

As a Naidu, Ramachandran belongs to a linguistic minority in this constituency, but the community is wealthy with a number of industrialists pledging their support to the party for many decades.

Political Analyst Kishore K Swamy said, “The electorate votes for AIADMK and not for Ramachandran here. It is Velumani’s influence that will help AIADMK put up a good fight.”

Contrast the narrative trotted out by the AIADMK against what Annamalai from the BJP is saying. If Ramachandran’s pitch was about giving Coimbatore a Hyderabad-Bangalore-like makeover, BJP’s Kuppuswamy Annamalai presents a larger canvas.

The saffron pitch

Standing shoulder to shoulder in this fight alongside Ramachandran, Annamalai’s focus in this contest is focussed on helping the BJP gain a toehold in Tamil Nadu. As a 38-year-old Tamil Nadu (TN) BJP president, he uses his erudition and affinity for statistics by plucking numbers from the air at will. Comparing the Centre’s allocation of schemes to Tamil Nadu, he boasts of the number of beneficiaries who have gained from at least half a dozen schemes. Speaking of coalescing development and welfare, one would not be off the mark in saying that Annamalai’s speech sounds like an extract of PM Modi’s speeches at his rallies in north India.

Taking on both the Dravidian parties, Annamalai’s campaign speeches are a summary of what he has accused regional parties of since his entry into politics: corruption, hatred for Sanatana Dharma, breakdown of law and order, and lack of development.

Another engineer-turned management graduate from IIM-Lucknow, Annamalai never hesitates to exhibit his access to New Delhi and PM Modi. Speaking of introducing a mini-manifesto for his constituency, he blares through the loudspeakers saying, “Do not doubt if I can keep my promises made to you all. I have access to New Delhi. I will ensure Coimbatore is treated well.”

Annamalai, another alumnus of PSG College of Technology, belongs to Karur in the Kongu region. He belongs to the dominant Kongu Vellalar Gounder community that is spread across western Tamil Nadu. He’s forceful when he speaks of the BJP’s ‘Viksit Bharat’ agenda for the next five years but mellows down to sound like the small-town boy when he requests the people to vote for him. Having led the yatra across the state last year, Annamalai has probably learnt how to deflect attention from his lack of experience in politics and wear it as a badge of honour instead. This is his first LS election: flanked by Coimbatore South MLA Vanathi Srinivasan, BJP’s Mahila Morcha head and other senior leaders from the party, Annamalai switches between promises delivered to the electorate and guarantees for the next five years. The students say they like him because he looks like them and the women nod in agreement when he speaks of changing the liquor policy in the state - a grouse that womenfolk have held against the DMK for its excesses in benefitting from revenue it garnered from granting liquor licences. “The people want change in Tamil Nadu. And I am sure it will begin with Coimbatore,” he said.

And finally, the ruling party candidate

DMK’s Ganapathi P Rajkumar calls Annamalai arrogant. Also a Gounder like Annamalai, he has a Master of Arts degree, a law degree and a PhD in Journalism and Mass Communication. Previously with the AIADMK, Rajkumar has also held official posts. He was the fifth mayor of Coimbatore from 2014 to 2016. He switched parties in 2020 and his candidature for the constituency is viewed by many as DMK’s keen intent to win this seat. Touring around Sai Baba Colony in Coimbatore, he is careful not to antagonise the local folk by using anti-Hindu language. He makes no references to Udayanidhi Stalin because in his door-to-door campaign, he is greeted by women waving camphor and holding plates with lamps lit. Protecting Tamil language, culture, and jobs for Tamilians is his primary pitch. Waxing eloquently about the contribution of EV Periyasamy, or Periyar, the Dravidian idealogue, he vows to fulfil all the pre-poll promises his party made during the state election in 2021.

Rajkumar is more familiar with Coimbatore than his counterparts. He talks to people drawing references from previous interactions. “You made me win the last time. I have ensured that all the women in Coimbatore are getting 1,000 every month. We will continue taking good care of you,” he said. Waving to the women from his vehicle, he rattles out his government’s achievements, the first of them being the number of jobs. Of the 31 lakh jobs created in the last three years, 26 lakh jobs have been created in the last six months, he says, appealing to the women to convince their families to stay with the DMK. Women, as a political constituency, have been nurtured carefully by the DMK since its return to power in 2021. From monthly allowances for women to free bus travel for college-going students and a 50% representation for women in local bodies, the DMK has tried to mimic Jayalalitha’s policies. Since his debut into politics in 1989, he's been a councillor and mayor, but this is Rajkumar's first big fight as a contestant for Coimbatore's parliamentary seat.

Comparative analysis

Sri Kumar, a political analyst who’s watched elections since the 1990s said, “Coimbatore’s been the one seat that the BJP has always contested since 1989 winning it thrice making the party symbol a familiar one. However, their booth management is not as impressive as their media management. This could be their biggest drawback and may even cost them a win if the party does not back its ‘A’ candidate here.”

The party is counting on winning all the votes that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) won when it retained the seat five times since 1951. “That DMK chose to field its own candidate shows that they are serious about this seat,” Sri Kumar said. Senior leader and CM MK Stalin’s sister K Kanimozhi has already campaigned in Coimbatore and actor Kamal Hassan who is not part of the DMK alliance is expected to conduct roadshows in all six assembly constituencies that fall under Coimbatore. Besides Coimbatore, Kanyakumari, Tirunalveli, Virudhunagar, Theni, and South Chennai, are among the handful of seats that promise a three-way contest. The loudspeakers are blaring, drum beats are rolling to the 32nd note, and firecrackers are being set off as candidates from all the parties have begun upping their campaigns here. But as a political analyst puts it, “In Tamil Nadu, caste, candidate, coalition, and currency will have to favour the victor.”

Deepika Amirapu is a freelance journalist based in Hyderabad. Each week, Southern Lights examines the big story from one of the five states of South India.

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