Galaxies make up the universe, just as political stars illuminate the public firmament. On a humid late evening in April 1997, non-BJP big cheese like Comrade Harkishan Singh Surjeet and southern Congress commissar G K Moopanar had assembled at the spacious Chief Minister’s Suite in Andhra Bhawan, New Delhi. Their agenda: elect a new prime minister in place of Deve Gowda, after the Congress pulled the rug from under his precarious throne. Surprisingly, none of the national players could devise a decisive outcome. Instead, the dapper Andhra Pradesh chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu, with the trademark goatee and well-cut safari suit, stole the stage.
He wooed, cajoled and bullied his fellow travellers to endorse his puppet-candidate I K Gujral as the 13th Prime Minister on April 21, 1997; all the two had in common was a goatee and a gift of the gab. Since then Naidu has been a power player, conquering the peaks, negotiating valleys and fighting in the trenches as he braved political storms—national and state. Now, 18 years later, his national moxie is back. Post a bitter political divorce from the BJP and Narendra Modi, Naidu was back in town last week to test his skills again at making and unmaking mergers and acquisitions.
This is not his first rodeo. Aglow with the 1994 victory, when the Telugu Desam Party secured the majority in the Assembly, later winning 16 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats from the state in 1996, Naidu became the power behind the throne. He had staged his debut coup in 1995 by dislodging his father-in-law, N T Rama Rao, from the chief stewardship of Andhra. Within two years, the dapper dilettante became a power pasha by consolidating clout in his state and dictating the national discourse. Like in 1997, when Naidu and friends could hoist a non-BJP Prime Minister with outside Congress support, he now aims to replace the all-powerful Narendra Modi with a BJP-baiter in 2019. Make no mistake; the Andhra leader is not playing national politics only in the national interest. He is bent on taking revenge on Modi for not honouring the promises which he claims the PM made to him in 2014.
Moreover, like many regional satraps, Naidu is threatened by the BJP’s meteoric growth and the national omnipresence of the Modi cult. The Opposition is about ‘Too many Chiefs, too few Injuns.’ Naidu has grabbed centre stage because its other leaders failed to take the right lead in forging a national ‘Mahagathbandhan. With no acceptable pan-India superstar to lead the Opposition tribes, many regional party chiefs are smoking local peace pipes. The formidable NCP chief, Sharad Pawar, tried to engage a few north Indian colleagues in vain. Rahul Gandhi seems disinterested in bringing Opposition leaders together to fight the BJP, unsure of their response; his ability to steer a national bandwagon has been questioned too often. Perhaps the Congress strategy is to avoid striking political deals until the outcome of the state elections is announced. Then, if the party wins two of the three northern states, Rahul would negotiate from a position of strength.
At the swearing-in ceremony of Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy, most Opposition stalwarts, from Sonia Gandhi to Mayawati, were present, but the unity gig was not repeated. Mayawati threw tantrums and refused to partner the Congress in all three poll-bound states—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik and Telangana’s K Chandrashekar. Rao are flying solo at the national level. It leaves Naidu, who is meeting and greeting Opposition leaders individually and apposing them for a consensus on drafting a blueprint to depose the BJP next year. He is the first leader to meet them all—Rahul, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati, Sharad Pawar, Sitaram Yachuri, Arvind Kejriwal and Farooq Abdullah—and put forth this agenda. Outwardly there is nothing in common in terms of ideology and style of governance between Naidu and Mayawati. Or Pawar and Akhilesh. Or Kejriwal and Farooq Abdullah. But they are united in their zeal to oust Modi at any cost. ‘Modi Hatao, Democracy Bachao’ is the only mantra binding them together. Currently, the battle is not between the BJP and the Opposition. A war has been launched by the entire Opposition against Narendra Modi. Having realized they cannot defeat him nationally, they plan to cripple his party at the local level through regional social engineering. Naidu’s game plan is to ensure one-to-one fights against the BJP in all the states, avoiding the division of anti-Modi votes. Not a general in name, he is an alternative in the game.
From 1971 onwards, elections have been fought mostly to oust an individual from power or vote in a more or equally credible alternative leader. Indira Gandhi was the first target of this wave in 1977. Like Modi, her popularity was nationwide until then, after taking on the Syndicate in 1969, pushing through bank nationalisation and abolishing the Privy Purse of princes. No other Congress leader or chief minister influenced political decisions like her. Then she made unpopular economic decisions and imposed the Emergency. Her opponents sought the mandate on the slogan ‘Indira Hatao, Desh Bachao’, and the first coalition came to power in India. In 1989, the pattern was repeated when the election was fought against Rajiv Gandhi and not the Congress. However, in the Lok Sabha elections of 1996 and 1998, parties were the targets, not individuals.
The Congress lost in both. The BJP won in 1999 riding the euphoria of the Kargil victory and the personal popularity of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The vote in 2004 was neither against Vajpayee nor for Sonia Gandhi. It was the BJP’s defeat, which was repeated in 2009 because it had nothing credible to offer voters. However, 2014 signalled the advent of a political Tarzan whose war cry and fighting techniques paralysed his opponents. Over the past 54 months, Modi has conquered almost all electoral territories and vanquished every possible threat to his dominance. In 2014, he was the challenger. In 2019, Naidu& Co. are converging to challenge the Idea of Modi, not the ideology of the BJP: it is now Saffron vs. Rainbow Politics. The poll pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is Naidu’s bounty if he manages to block the return of Modi, an Indira 2.0 who would make Opposition leaders irrelevant for decades to come if he wins.
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