Charged with the crucial task of clearing the BJP of its “outsider” tag in the land of Dravidian politics, in an interview with indianexpress.com, K Annamalai, the newly appointed president of the state unit of the saffron party makes a difference between Congress, “a national party” and BJP, a “nationalist party”. The 37-year-old former IPS officer of the Karnataka cadre also voices his views on NEET, the Mekedatu issue, responding to criticism that his party is trying to overshadow AIADMK to create a straightforward BJP versus DMK narrative in the coming years.
How does it feel to be promoted to state president within 10 months of joining the party?
Unlike other parties in Tamil Nadu where they continue to promote the same people, BJP is different. The rest of the parties are based on the Numero Uno theory. There is no question of seniority here, everyone has a role to play. I think it comes with training and ideology. BJP functions as a team. I have now been given the responsibility of leading the party here. Yes, it is a huge responsibility and I have to fulfill it.
What difference do you find between politics and civil service? What is your approach to party issues?
While a cliché, politics is another cup of tea. As a bureaucrat you have a direct approach, it is yes or no and there is nothing in between. In politics you sail together with other people. In the end it’s people’s problems, you have to deal with different emotions. Politics requires a lot of evolution, maturity and the ability to take different points of view. In different issues, each of our members may have different opinions, but I will have to consider each point and make a statement regarding the party’s position. After my period as a bureaucrat, I had to unlearn and learn a lot.
BJP is branded an outsider in Tamil Nadu and despite its performance in the parliamentary elections, it is still considered a non-indigenous party. How do you look to counter this?
It is DMK’s political narrative to address the BJP as an outsider and they argue that the party does not belong here. Every BJP leader who ran in the recent parliamentary elections was from Tamil Nadu, don’t they belong to this country? There is a difference between a national party like Congress and a nationalist party like the BJP that represents regional ambitions. Tamil Nadu BJP will do what is right for Tamil Nadu, it will represent the people and their aspirations. For example, in the Mekedatu issue, the BJP really represents the interests of the farmers in Tamil Nadu and we believe that the dam should not be built as this will be a problem for our farmers during the drought. How can the Tamil Nadu BJP still be called an outsider? Even on national issues, we do not always change our position. We do what is good for the country, which means we do what is good for the state, for the people.
You come from a Cauvery Delta region and understand the ground situation of the Mekedatu issue and know what impact the construction of the dam can have on the farmers. At the same time, having served in Karnataka for several years, you also understand the local problems of that region. What is your position on this matter?
Bengaluru as a city has a significant population of Tamilians. The central region of Bengaluru alone has about five and a half lakh population of Tamils. A similar setup can be seen in areas such as Chikmagalur and other parts. My only concern is that politicians on both sides of the states have so far only stirred up emotions for political miles. You occasionally see riots and innocent people get into trouble by the politicians. We (politicians) sit comfortably in a certain room and comment on things, but on the spot the innocent people suffer. As a former police officer, I can tell you that in a riot, the common man is the first to suffer. We must understand that the BJP is not playing politics in this matter and that the party has taken a firm stance. There is a legal issue and NGT also comes into the picture. In its entirety, the project cannot get off the ground as the Supreme Court does not allow construction without the consent of the lower riparian states. We see a lot of reckless statements from both sides of the border. This is a matter of principle, Karnataka could do what is right for them, but Tamil Nadu, from a legal point of view and from the point of view of the lower riverbanks, we have full right to say that Mekedatu should not be built and I hope that people will understand the importance and do not bring emotions into this. They shouldn’t turn this into a state versus state, people versus people issue.
Your comments about controlling the media were widely criticized. You later clarified that it only targets social media, not traditional media houses. However, do you not think that your statement violates freedom of expression?
I never used the expression that suppresses or controls freedom of speech, it was used by a few media outlets who misinterpreted my speech in Tamil. The basic foundation of Indian democracy is built on a free press that includes free speech. Press is the fourth pillar of democracy, it encompasses everything. Newspapers/media can never be controlled, the government has paid a high price for trying. At the same time, society is changing rapidly. The old traditional media had a check and balance. They had an editor who decides what’s right/wrong, they had a Press Council of India, a broadcasting association and public feedback mechanism. Now news consumption is different. Yes, traditional media still plays a vital role, but the greater consumption is through news aggregators, so-called single person-run channels, social media pages. That’s the news with only two to three people on the ground who have a political connection, an ulterior motive. Once the new IT rules come into effect, you will see that news that lacks authenticity will drop drastically as it rides on social media. This is necessary as we enter a danger zone, fake news is destroying the very essence of the spirit of democracy.
Your party supports NEET and you said you would explain its benefits in every village in the state, but your ally AIADMK is against it. How do you look at it?
We are two different parties with different ideologies, but an alliance has been forged because our principles match. If we are on the same page on every issue, there is no need for two different parties, we can merge them into one. We have different bases and different thought processes and that’s how we all sail together. On nationalist issues, AIADMK supports BJP. Be it Article 370, Triple Talaq or the Farmer’s Laws, Edappadi K Palaniswami has vociferously defended them. At NEET, we argue based on numbers. From 2006-2016, of the 29,700 medical seats in Tamil Nadu, an average of 19 purely Tamil medium students from the rural areas were admitted. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, NEET had a tethering problem, only the Tamil translation accounted for 50% of the confusion. The syllabus was revised in subsequent years and 2020 was the best year for Tamil Nadu. Of the 183 questions, 173 were from Tamil Nadu. The state had a pass rate of 57%. In addition, 430 students from rural areas were granted admission. In terms of social character, NEET is a success. Look at the numbers, they don’t lie. DMK has a hidden logic to oppose NEET and we are concerned about the students. DMK has launched campaigns claiming NEET will not take place, now they are asking students to prepare for it. I hope the students had not listened to DMK’s false claims and prepared well for the exams.
By repeatedly targeting DMK, their families and organizing events such as ‘Vel Yatra’, is BJP trying to sideline AIADMK and portray a story of BJP vs DMK in the state?
AIADMK is the largest party. The opposition leader is Edappadi K Palaniswami. If you look at the politics in Tamil Nadu after DMK came to power, every issue they raise is against the BJP and the attack on the Center and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So of course the story is BJP vs DMK. Opposition can be done in two ways. Either you have a numbers-based opposition with ground-level support, or you are debating in the assembly about fake stories or wrong logic like increase in gasoline prices, etc. Yes, it’s an ideological battle right away between BJP and DMK, but it’s by no means way of saying we are the bigger opposition party. AIADMK is the biggest opposition party and that is the mandate people have given, but story wise it is between BJP and DMK.