The throne of India sits in Delhi, the seat of power created by outsiders such as the Ajmer kings, Muhammad Ghori, the Sultanates, the Mughals and the British before it returned to Indian hands. Since then the gilded pedestal of Indraprastha has been the most coveted prize by leaders from India’s 29 states and seven Union Territories, Narendra Modi being the latest.
With the General Elections just a couple of months away, the capital of India has become a battlefield of ambition as regional leaders and parties leverage their clout into a national play to occupy the Prime Minister’s residential complex at 7, Lok Kalyan Marg.
One prominent leader spreading his political footprint among them is N Chandrababu Naidu, Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh and the supreme leader of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Naidu is not an easy read—a leader who has been part of many coalition governments at the Centre, a power player who keeps away from the catbird seat, a skilled negotiator who has the savvy to project an unthreatening image to allies and a convincing champion of his state when the occasion arises.
Now, the former NDA constituent is leading the Opposition charge from Delhi, deploying his formidable diplomatic skills to bring temperamental egos to the table to take on Modi and the BJP in the coming elections. The struggle is real. In Andhra Pradesh, the stakes are higher. The division of the state has reduced its bargaining power in Delhi: from 42 Lok Sabha seats, it has come down to 25. If he loses the state elections to YSR Congress Party’s YS Jagan Mohan Reddy who has the BJP’s open support, many of his projects could be jeopardised. It is not smooth-sailing. The canny TDP boss has taken the fight to Delhi while Modi has hit the ground in Andhra Pradesh, spewing invective and inaugurating development projects.
The only other Opposition Chief Minister making waves in Delhi is Trinamool Congress (TMC) boss Mamata Banerjee whose enthusiasm for anti-Modi shows like Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s ‘Tanashahi Hatao Desh Bachao’ campaign is attracting eyeballs. However, no other non-BJP Chief Minister has generated the kind of political energy spanning so many levels like Naidu. “The CM has got everyone together, including Shiv Sena, Yashwant Sinha and Shatrughan Sinha on the anti-Modi-Shah platform. He enjoys pan-party confidence,” says Ram Mohan, TDP MP.
Like all consummate politicians, Naidu knows the power of optics. He has been a frequent flyer to Delhi ever since he broke away from the NDA and the poll cumulus became visible in the sky above South Block. Naidu even knows how to handle roadblocks in Delhi so well that sometimes he even takes the Metro to the airport. In April 2018, he landed in Delhi ahead of a TDP no-confidence motion in July against the Modi government.
Accompanied by his troop of MPs, he was seen in Parliament while meeting NCP chief Sharad Pawar. He met other Opposition representatives in Central Hall and dined with Samajwadi Party leaders in Andhra Bhavan. In October, he called on his Delhi counterpart Kejriwal and met BSP chief Mayawati, J&K National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah and CPI leaders D Raja and S Sudhakar Reddy. Mayawati and Naidu share an unusual rapport; Behenji refused to meet Naidu bête noire Pawan Kalyan who had sought a tie-up with BSP.
But she escorted Naidu after their meeting to his car and even blessed him. This gesture by BSP’s irascibly unpredictable Dalit queen showed Naidu’s skills as a negotiator in the murky backstage of the coalition script. Early this month, he met the Chief Election Commissioner and other members of the panel with other Opposition leaders alleging that the BJP was manipulating electronic voting machines (EVMs).
MAKING PRIME MINISTERS
Naidu is no stranger to Delhi’s game of thrones. His political skill to negotiate Delhi’s tenuous bridges was apparent for the first time in 1996, when the BJP formed a minority government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which collapsed after 13 days. Open season was declared for the PM’s chair in 1996. VP Singh refused the job, and Jyoti Basu, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav couldn’t make the cut for various reasons. Naidu decided to stay out of the fray, only too aware that the tenure would be temporary since any government in Delhi then would have to be formed with Congress support. The Congress has historically been an unreliable supporter as Chaudhary Charan Singh learned in 1980. Instead, Naidu became the kingmaker. He anointed HD Deve Gowda as Prime Minister. Predictably Gowda was toppled by the Congress in 1997 with the excuse that its president Sitaram Kesri was “unhappy” with him. Naidu once again persuaded the Congress to support his next candidate IK Gujral to replace Gowda. The Congress again withdrew support in November that year. Then it offered to support yet another ‘secular’ coalition. But Naidu put his foot down firmly and elections were declared. The BJP came to power and Naidu supported the Vajpayee government and got many concessions for Andhra Pradesh. Why did he not try to become the Prime Minister himself? “I’m creating a place in history for Andhra Pradesh. That is my legacy,” said the silver-bearded Naidu.
He is in a black shirt—a colour incidentally he doesn’t like—in protest against the Modi government’s refusal to grant Andhra Pradesh special status and has spent the day fasting on a podium at Andhra Bhavan. The compound is a sea of yellow, the TDP colour. Special trains from his state, loaded with over 4,000 people, including legislators, had arrived to cheer their leader.
The high-powered protest team included 26 ministers, 127 MLAs, 41 MLCs, 15 chairmen, 150 general body members and 2,000 supporters and whips. Politics is resonant with symbolism—a widely televised and reported power statement and a march to Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi have more value than a dozen meetings in Visakhapatnam. Naidu faces a stiff fight with Jagan, who depends on the still extant charisma of his father, the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy who was Naidu’s relentless foe.
Jagan’s party has the support of Modi and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao. The Pawan Kalyan (Jana Sena chief) factor is another source of worry for Naidu. To stem the tide from turning, Naidu announced a last-minute slew of welfare measures such as hiking state pensions from 1,000 to 2,000—a tenfold rise since he came to power in 2014.
“The TDP wasn’t sure it would be smooth-sailing. Now, the margin will be comfortable,” says a senior bureaucrat in Naidu’s office. An internal survey bears this out, he adds.
The lopsided weightage in Indian legislature ecosystem has prevented South Indian politicians, even powerful ones, from occupying the Prime Minister’s chair since 1947. The only exceptions were Deve Gowda and PV Narasimha Rao—while the former was an incidental PM, the latter was an accidental PM. C Rajagopalachari, R Venkataraman, J Jayalalithaa, M Karunanidhi, D Devaraj Urs and NT Rama Rao are examples of southern heavyweights denied their place in history. The enigmatic Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister has chosen to steadfastly position himself as the champion of his state instead of a PM aspirant.
The week began in Delhi with Naidu making the mandatory stop at Raj Ghat after which the stage was set for confrontation with the BJP with a demand for special category status for Andhra Pradesh and the fulfilment of assurances given during bifurcation. Manmohan Singh, when he was the Prime Minister, had stated in the Rajya Sabha on February 20, 2014, that the Centre would accord Andhra Pradesh Special Category Status, which was reiterated in a subsequent Cabinet decision. Special Category Status has been a contentious deal-breaker in many previous cases: Nitish Kumar had revolted against the UPA government over Special Status for Bihar. The Raghuram Rajan Committee had recommended Special Status to six states, including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Naidu’s exit from NDA has put pressure on Nitish—currently a BJP ally—who has become restive after the Rashtriya Janata Dal attacked him for doing a U-turn to stick on in power. Naidu is wielding the Special Status issue as a potent weapon of political, electoral and economic relevance. It would get the state Central funds, excise duty concession and 100 percent income tax exemption for 10 years. Such incentives would make Andhra Pradesh an economic powerhouse, which Naidu had achieved for the undivided state with infrastructure development and mega manufacturing parks. TDP believes that the BJP under Modi would not want a powerful leader in Andhra where it does not have much support.
THE TELANGANA FACTOR
Though the bifurcation decision cost the Congress party the Telangana election in 2014, Naidu shares a warm relationship with the Grand Old Party, with which he had aligned in the 2018 polls in which Telangana Rashtra Samiti led by K Chandrashekar Rao swept to power with a majority on an unexpected scale. The victory is attributed to Rao’s emphasis on modern politicians, professionals and youth—of the 119 MLAs, 43 are graduates, 26 postgraduates, two hold PhDs, 27 have diplomas and the rest have been educated till Class X. However, bureaucrats in Vijayawada say that KCR has just copied the Naidu model. KCR himself was a Congressman before joining the TDP in 1983.
The two are bitter enemies, though both were united in their demand for Telangana. Their relationship has remained acrimonious—Naidu calls KCR a BJP puppet. The day of Naidu’s fast in Delhi, Rao made an appeal to Andhra Pradesh voters to plump for Jagan in the upcoming state and Lok Sabha elections. This call has given credence to Naidu’s very public argument that both TRS and Jagan are conspiring with the BJP against Andhra Pradesh’s interests.
NEW OPPOSITION PIVOT
On the other hand, Naidu is now engaged in recreating the past. His Delhi fast became the focus of Opposition unity attended by the shining stars of the anti-BJP galaxy. Rahul Gandhi, Farooq Abdullah, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Sharad Yadav, Arvind Kejriwal, Ahmed Patel, Jairam Ramesh and even Manmohan Singh got on stage for some very vocal Modi-bashing.
Manmohan, who headed the UPA government at the Centre when Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated, said, “This (Special Category Status) demand had support of all parties when it was discussed in Parliament. I stand in solidarity with Naidu.” The promise must be implemented without any further delay, he added.
The gathering of ideologically disparate leaders gave the signal that Naidu had their full faith. Kamal Nath flew in from Bhopal. Prime Ministerial aspirant Mamata Banerjee sent her MP Derek O’Brien as a gesture of support. The surprise participant was Sanjay Raut, an MP belonging to BJP ally Shiv Sena. Though the Sena’s presence at Naidu’s fast was meant to shake the tree and get a favourable seat-sharing ratio in the polls, the fact that they chose Naidu to make their point speaks volumes about his rapport across parties.
“Uddhav Thackeray is the best friend of mine. Even Bal Thackeray was very affectionate towards me. I really appreciate the Shiv Sena chief for extending the cooperation,” the Chief Minister told reporters.
The political discourse in Andhra Pradesh reflects the overall toxic atmosphere in pre-election days. Venomous public exchanges between former allies Naidu and Modi have become worse.
The Prime Minister, who was greeted with black flags in Guntur during his first visit, accused his former colleague of being an untrustworthy ally who has systematically betrayed his benefactors. Naidu responded, “I didn’t take U-turn, but took the right turn, it is you who took a U-turn (on your promises).” Modi’s barbs at Naidu’s son Lokesh, IT minister in the Andhra Cabinet, provoked the habitually reserved Chief Minister to launch personal attacks on him, accusing him of neglecting his wife and marginalising LK Advani who had stood up for him against Vajpayee after the Gujarat riots. “The CM does me no favours. I’m like any other minister,” says Lokesh. He even calls his father “sir.”
The Opposition air is charged with the Prime Ministerial appetites of its leaders. In the forefront are Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati. Mamata’s irascible temperament, agitational style and tendency to leave coalition governments in a huff may not get her votes from her peers. Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party would cancel each other out like it happened in 1997. Rahul Gandhi hopes the Priyanka missile will deliver Congress the seats required to form the next government, or at least the most number of Lok Sabha MPs to head a coalition.
Chandrababu Naidu alone is keeping his cards close to his chest. Knowing the unreliable chemistry of coalitions, it is unlikely he will drop his hat in the ring considering the prospect of a messy mix of egos and seat arithmetic. He would not like to go down in history as a Deve Gowda or a Gujral. Only a clear victory in the elections for the Lok Sabha and Assembly in Andhra Pradesh will give him the moxie to be kingmaker again. Nothing is what it seems in politics and Naidu’s priority is to keep BJP out of Andhra. The canny Chief Minister has reached out to Jagan. “If at all he (Reddy) wins any seats, let him come and support us, nothing wrong in it,” he told a TV channel. Chandrababu Naidu knows too well that in the shifting sands of alliances, it is the kingmaker who is often the king.
Naidu shares a warm relationship with the Congress, with which he had aligned in the 2018 polls. The Congress president used Naidu’s protest venue in Delhi to launch a fierce attack on PM Modi. He said, “The PM doesn’t fulfill commitments to the people of Andhra Pradesh. Is Andhra Pradesh not a part of the country? I stand with the people of Andhra.”