Word on the street is that the BJP made a monumental blunder by allowing its alliance with the AIADMK to crash in Tamil Nadu. All it would have taken to salvage it was to replace the state BJP chief. Popular perception is that the BJP is too smart to make tactical errors that will prove politically costly, but that this time, ego got the better of it.
The fact is the ruling party did not want to repeat the mistake it made in Telangana. Bandi Sanjay as BJP chief in Telangana had been doing just what K Annamalai is doing now as party chief in Tamil Nadu - creating a positive buzz, going on padyatras, and dictating the political headlines and the narrative in a state where its political presence does not justify the kind of dust it has managed to kick up.
Bandi Sanjay Kumar and Annamalai Kuppuswamy may seem as different as chalk and cheese. Sanjay rose from the ranks through his early association with the RSS and the BJP's student wing ABVP. The college dropout went straight from being a municipal corporator to BJP MP in May 2019, and became Telangana BJP chief in 2020. He created such momentum for the party that there was talk the BJP could emerge as the challenger to the K Chandrasekhar Rao's BRS (Bharat Rashtra Samithi), edging the Congress out of the narrative.
Annamalai is a 2011 batch IPS officer-turned-politician who is both sharp and ambitious. He resigned from the All India Services in 2019, contested and lost the Aravakurichi seat in 2021, and yet quickly rose to become Tamil Nadu BJP chief. For the leader of a party that has skeletal presence in a state dominated by a duopoly of Dravidian parties, he managed to be noticed and heard. It is to his credit that he was even spoken of as a possible Chief Minister candidate in the not too faraway future.
Both were carefully chosen in terms of caste and their ability to challenge and upset the way caste equations have been politically stacked up in Telangana and Tamil Nadu. Bandi Sanjay belongs to the Munnuru Kapu, numerically the most powerful in the Backward Classes community that comprises 52% of the Telangana electorate.
K Chandrasekhar Rao or KCR belongs to the numerically insignificant Velama community and the Congress has traditionally been considered a party of the landed gentry, the politically powerful Reddys. Bandi Sanjay could potentially mobilise the Backward Classes community and give them a chance at leadership.
Annamalai is a Vellala Gounder, quite a powerful and wealthy OBC community with influence in western Tamil Nadu (AIADMK chief EPS is a Gounder too). The choice of Annamalai is also an attempt to tackle perception in Tamil Nadu that the BJP is Brahminical and a party of the upper castes.
Both managed to get under the skin of the state's ruling party, create situations that forced seniormost political opponents to react.
Bandi Sanjay led the Praja Sangrama Yatra that earned praise directly from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Annamalai is leading his footmarch titled En Mann, En Makkal (My soil, my people) to expand the cadre base and strengthen the BJP in Tamil Nadu.
The mistake perhaps is that they ended up annoying their own party men with their rise and voice. They did not show any interest in actively taking along seniors. Instead, they charted their own course and dictated that others follow. Bandi Sanjay was replaced in July by Kishan Reddy, a past chief. Sanjay was kicked upstairs and made national general secretary of the party.
In August, BJP legislators from different states of India trooped into Telangana to assess the ground situation. 119 elected representatives travelled to each of the 119 constituencies and reported to the party leadership. The common thread in the report was that almost all of them had been asked two questions by locals - why Bandi Sanjay was removed as BJP Telangana chief and why KCR's daughter K Kavitha had not been arrested in the Delhi liquor case despite the BJP's Telangana leaders declaring it a matter of time.
Many Telangana unit leaders admit it was a mistake removing Sanjay as party chief given the fact that under his leadership, the party machinery had dynamism. Sanjay, with his acerbic verbal attacks, was getting under the skin of the BRS leadership and the BJP was emerging as an alternative. Besides, his post worked the magic of drawing the Backward Class leaders and voters to the party. However, Delhi allowed itself to be convinced that Sanjay was not taking senior colleagues along, that leaders from other parties were not willing to join BJP and work under a relatively young leader like Sanjay.
The reality - ever since Sanjay was removed, the party is seen to have lost momentum and slipped into a moribund state. In fact, instead of the entry gate, its own leaders are rumoured to be looking at the Exit gate.
For the BJP in Tamil Nadu, it is a case of Once Bitten, Twice Shy. Annamalai has given the BJP leadership hope that they could significantly improve the party's footprint and vote share in the coming elections, even if the ground situation may not indicate that as of now.
Annamalai seemed to challenge revered figures like a Periyar and CN Annadurai, something unthinkable in Dravidian politics. Even J Jayalalithaa was not spared. Annamalai also showed reluctance to publicly accept Edappadi Palaniswamy as Chief Minister candidate of the AIADMK-led NDA alliance in Tamil Nadu. The AIADMK could not ignore the public humiliation, obviously.
The AIADMK is not openly saying that the reason for its breakup with the NDA is that it did not want to concede the number of Lok Sabha seats (reportedly 15) the BJP is demanding for the 2024 elections. All it would have taken to publicly appease the Dravidian partner was to replace Annamalai, but the BJP was clearly unwilling to do that.
From bringing the Sengol (sceptre from Tamil Nadu) to the new parliament, to the outreach to Shaivite Adheenams (like reachout to Karnataka Mutts) and organising Kashi Tamil Sangamams, appreciating Thirukkural (Tamil literature), citing Tamil poet Subramania Bharati and a 3000-year-old Tamil quote in the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it a point to show that he respects Tamil identity, culture and pride in their language, to people who have traditionally been hostile to Hindi dominance, sanskrit and Brahminism.
After the death of Jayalalithaa, the BJP did hope to make political gains capitalising on the chaos and power battle within the AIADMK to emerge as a political force in Tamil Nadu. But EPS has shown with over 33 per cent vote share and 66 seats in the state assembly that he is not going to be a pushover.
The BJP wants to make steady progress in increasing its political strength in Tamil Nadu by creating its own independent identity, exploiting public disenchantment with both the Dravidian parties, and pitching itself as a non-Periyar, non-Brahmin, nationalist Hindu party where Tamil identity, culture and language are all respected.
Playing second fiddle to either of the Dravidian parties is not going to help the party in the long run. Besides, getting the support of either Dravidian party in parliament may not be a big challenge for the BJP, given the use of central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate, Income Tax and the CBI. So, the choice to plough their own furrow, in the hope of reaping political benefits.
Going the Annamalai way is, for now, their chosen path.
(Uma Sudhir is Executive Editor, NDTV)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.