A not-so-broad alley in New Siddhapur is festooned with BJP flags. At the intersection of the alley with another street, a photo of Dr BR Ambedkar sits on a small table with a rose garland. It’s Ambedkar’s birthday, and a fairly large gathering of people stands anxiously. K Annamalai, BJP’s rock-star candidate for Coimbatore, is set to come here, a locality in the heart of the city, to pay floral tributes to Ambedkar.

Among those waiting eagerly is V Santhanakrishnan, who runs a modest departmental store in New Siddhapur. Family Food Corner is run by him and his wife. “I have never seen such popularity for BJP in New Siddhapur,” Santhanakrishnan tells businessline. 

Presently, a vehicle trundles through the street, followed a few more. The crowd peers through the windows of each to see if Annmalai is sitting within. Finally, a van in bright saffron with lotus motifs rolls in. The crowd mobs the van — Annamalai has difficulty in getting off the vehicle and wading through the cheering crowd to the Ambedkar photo. 

New Siddhapur has a sizeable SC/ST population, a traditional DMK bastion. Santhanakrishnan reckons that there are about 4,000 voters here.

There is little doubt that Annamalai is hugely popular in Coimbatore. That sense is unmissable when you chat up commonfolk — autorickshaw drivers, petty shopkeepers, tea shop owners, and street hawkers. Most of them that bl spoke with said they felt that “Annamalai only will win”; some felt DMK would, but only a few mentioned AIADMK. But even those who say they would not vote for BJP admit that Annamalai has gained ground. 

“Only because of Annamalai,” says Santhanakrishnan, a Naidu — the same community as Singai Ramachandran, the suave IIM-Ahmedabad alumnus and AIADMK’s Coimbatore candidate. Yet Santhanakrishnan’s family will vote for Annamalai, as will a growing number of Naidus. 

“Annamalai will win,” says Sivakumar, an autorickshaw driver, who heads the 30-member Friends Auto Stand in Gandhipuram, Coimbatore. 

So, is Annamalai sure to win the city, which has been an AIADMK stronghold? Not quite. Scratch the surface, and a different reality emerges. 

The other reality is evident when you engage in deeper conversations with common folk. A worker in a fruits and snacks shop in Gandhipuram bus stand observed that, while Annamalai may be popular, an envelope with currency notes thrust into the hands of voters on the eve of voting day will invert everything. 

 “What really matters is money,” said the shop worker.  

What if all parties give money? Well, the vote is for whosoever pays the highest.

People point out that in the 2019 elections, the BJP candidate, CP Radhakrishnan, was supremely confident of winning until the counting ended. CPR, today Jharkhand’s governor, came second, polling 31.47 per cent of the votes. 

In TN, money plays a vital role in elections, but this time in Coimbatore, it plays a bigger role because BJP’s opponents are determined to see Annamalai lose and equally BJP is determined to win. 

Coimbatore has 19.58 lakh registered voters. A fifth of them form AIADMK’s rock-solid base. Minorities, who constitute 18 per cent have traditionally supported DMK, though this time the presence of SDPI in the AIADMK alliance might swing some votes. The SC and ST communities constitute another 20 per cent. Due to their economic backwardness, they are said to be the most influence-able by financial lures. This segment can prop up or topple Annamalai. 

The other factor that weighs against Annamalai is the infighting within BJP. Annamalai is as unpopular among TN BJP leaders as popular he is with the masses. Several BJP leaders told bl that Modi, during one of his roadshows, called the senior leaders of the party and told them in no uncertain terms that he would brook no intra-party rifts. But that helps only so much. One BJP leader, who was denied a ticket, said that Annamalai was a good speaker but not a good administrator. 

Yes, Annamalai is very popular among the people. If it were a popularity contest, he would win hands down, but his popularity does not assure him of a victory at the hustings, where other factors come into play.