Will Coimbatore opt to go with the RSS-BJP combine or the Mahagathbandhan? Only Adi Yogi knows for sure
As the second largest city of the state, Coimbatore is distinct from other big towns of Tamil Nadu. Partly because of the gateway to parts of adjoining Kerala
Editor's note: This column presents the travel notes of a student of Indian politics and serves as a journal marking the run-up to General Election 2019. Sandip Ghose's day job as a marketing executive takes him deep into the country's interiors, which affords him the chance to listen to, and make sense of, India's concerns. These pieces will run in tandem to the frequency of his travels. Views expressed here do not reflect those of Ghose's employer.
Outside the Coimbatore airport, a giant billboard of Adi Yogi greets visitors. The targets of this 'in your face' spiritual marketing is obviously not the regular temple-goer. They are affluent religious tourists arriving from Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, heading to the fashionable spiritual retreat at some distance from the city. In holiday season, they often outnumber the vacationers going to the Nilgiris.
There is something neat and civilised about the ambience of the airport. In a way, it typifies the city and its people. Once known as the "Manchester of the East" for its textile industry, Coimbatore has a character of its own. The Coimbatore Club is still referred to as the "English Club" by the locals.
As the second largest city of the state, Coimbatore is distinct from other big towns of Tamil Nadu. Partly because of the gateway to parts of adjoining Kerala. Palakkad is 55 kilometres away. After Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore, Coimbatore is a major medical tourism destination in the South. It is also developing as an education hub.
Along with the nearby areas of Tiruppur, Erode and Salem, Coimbatore remains a major industrial hub of the South. This bring a steady stream of business travellers to Coimbatore, or Kovai as some prefer to call it. It now hosts many of the national and international brands of hotels.
On my frequent trips through the city over the past few years, I have been intrigued to see a noticeable presence of BJP billboards on the arterial avenues. Then one has read about the presence of RSS in the area and occasional incidents of violence against the RSS against its local karyakartas.
This also explains the RSS holding a three-day conference in Coimbatore last year and Narendra Modi attending the inauguration of the Adi Yogi statue with huge fanfare.
Chilling over beer at the club to beat the summer heat, I have sought enlightenment on the local political milieu from fellow thirst-quenchers. From their perch at the bar counter, they educated me on the most fascinating history of this region known as Kongu Nadu. A brief flashback to the past may be instructive in understanding present polity of this north-western corner of Tamil Nadu.
Archaeologists have found evidence of an industrial colony from 2,500 years ago. It fell on an ancient Roman trade route with a Chola highway running through it. After being tossed between the Cholas, Cheras, Hoysalas it became a part of the Vijayanagar Empire and finally, the Kingdom of Mysore. After the defeat of Tipu Sultan in the Anglo-Mysore Wars, the British annexed it to the Madras Residency.
For me this cultural cross-fertilisation is best reflected in types of biryani available in the city. In Coimbatore, one can find authentic outlets serving Ambur, Dindigul, Hyderabadi and Kerala biryanis. Stretching the point a bit, it might also explain Kongu Nadu's aspiration to be carved out as a separate state.
This assertion of a separate identity was channelised into a Brahminical push-back, contributed to partly by the Muslim dominance in neighbouring parts of Kerala and erstwhile Mysore. That gave RSS an entry into the area as far back as in the 1960s, I was told. However, the RSS ceded space to the AIADMK over the years and only now is it showing some signs of resurgence. But, very early days yet. Will AIADMK's hold in the area weaken after the demise of J Jayalalithaa? In the new fluid landscape of Tamil politics no one is sure. But, they rule out DMK gaining strength in Kongu Nadu post-Kalaignar.
The road to Ooty via Kotagiri is one of the finest hill highways of the country. That was thanks to it passing by Kodanad Estate, which served as the unofficial summer capital of Tamil Nadu during Amma’s regime. One would then see cars with red beacons and SUVs of politicians lined up near the Kotagiri bus station.
Now the crowd and the buzz have evaporated. Kodanad Estate has reportedly fallen into disrepair. Some tourists still take the short detour to the Kodanadu view point for the sake of nostalgia. Who knows if it will be converted to a tourist destination someday in the memory of Jayalalithaa. But, for now, although the centre of gravity has shifted back to Chennai, Amma’s influence still pervades in the Nilgiri air.
The Dussehra and Diwali breaks brings large contingents of the Chennai business gentry to Coonoor and Ooty. Conversations over cards, coffee and cognac inevitably veer towards politics. The common refrain is "Who’s running the state?". But, they provide the answer too.
Tamil Nadu has one of the most efficient bureaucracies. It is still one of the most coveted IAS cadres. The state delivery system especially on healthcare, education and public infrastructure is arguably the finest in the country. MGR is given much of the credit for creating this strong administrative foundation. But, others who followed him also deserve acknowledgement for not tampering with it. So despite high level of political corruption, the government can pretty much run on auto-pilot.
The Chennai peerage accepts the swing in sentiment towards the DMK with the chaos that followed Jayalalithaa's demise with warring factions in the AIADMK. But, they are not sure about how far MK Stalin will be able to capitalise on it. Their reservations stem from two thoughts. First, it is not clear after the death of M Karunanidhi how much money power Stalin commands. No one can yet write off Sasikala totally. Some suspect she may be holding the purse strings even from prison. Votes in Tamil Nadu are not "got" but "bought", they say. In that, AIADMK may still have an edge.
The second area of concern is the major organisational changes that Stalin has initiated. He is systematically dismantling the decentralised structure of the party with by replacing the powerful district bosses with his own handpicked loyalists. Whether this would lead to any ground level dissonance cannot be predicted.
However, by openly declaring his support for Chandrababu Naidu in Telangana, Stalin has effectively jumped onto the Mahagathbandhan bandwagon. Whether the gamble pays off will depend on how the Congress-TDP alliance fares in the Assembly polls. If it does well, it might revive the prospects of a Coromandel Coalition to keep the BJP out from the South of Vindhyas.
As far as Modi and Rahul Gandhi go, the common voters in Tamil Nadu are likely to be agnostic — irrespective of what mood of the nation surveys may show. What will influence their choice is how the national alignment take shape. Kamal Haasan has already thrown his lot with the "secular" forces.
There are speculations of BJP trying to play the Hindu card in Tamil Nadu as well. The RSS and Yogi Adityanath may be marshalled for campaigning. Or will Rajinikanth be the wild card entry for the NDA?
At this point, only the Adi Guru may have the answer.
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