TDP chief N Chandrababu Naidu turned 69 on Saturday. Four decades in politics, he has fought many an election, pulled off a palace coup, and bounced back from the brink, helped along the way by lady luck. But the 2019 Assembly elections held on April 11 alongside the Lok Sabha polls in the state are different. They are unlike 2004 and 2009 when the Congress led by Y S Rajasekhara Reddy handed him shock defeats but left him in peace to pick up the pieces. 2019 is a battle of epic proportions where defeat is not an option. Not just for Naidu but also his opponent, 46-year-old Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy.
Why are the stakes so high? The reasons are many, and include personal rivalry and the long shadows of the BJP and the Congress—parties with little presence but determined to create space for themselves. To understand this House of Cards kind of politics, one needs to look at the larger picture from the perspectives of Naidu and Jagan. The latter began his journey a decade ago, impatient to step into his father’s shoes. Defying the then powerful Congress president Sonia Gandhi, he went on a yatra ostensibly to console families of those who had died of shock upon hearing of his father’s sudden demise, and floated his own party ringing the death knell for Congress in the then undivided Andhra Pradesh and paid the price for it.
The petitions filed against him in the High Court by Congress and TDP leaders put him under the CBI scanner and he had to endure a humiliating 16-month long jail time. Jagan later regrouped his followers and fought the 2014 elections tooth and nail—the division of Andhra giving him an opportunity to square off with Naidu. His inexperience coupled with Naidu’s reputation and strategy to ride on the Modi wave ably supported by actor Pawan Kalyan meant Jagan fell short. A resurgent Naidu did everything to deliver a mortal blow to his challenger’s party, luring 23 legislators and several leaders to the TDP.
Yet, Jagan persevered. He hired poll wizard Prashant Kishor and embarked on the longest padayatra (3,648 km) ever undertaken by a politician in independent India’s history. He was not just following in his father’s footsteps (YSR too had undertaken a padayatra ahead of the 2004 elections) but also owning his legacy and image—a feat that effectively gave him a new persona and appeal as a man of his word and a man of the masses. Kishor’s young turks brilliantly crafted his image with catchy slogans and songs and advised him on candidates’ selection —a multi-pronged effort that created a Jagan buzz. If Jagan cannot cross the rubicon now, he can never ever. A loss would mean desertions, with Naidu possibly engineering them while trying to expedite pending cases to ensure a conviction, ending Jagan’s challenge for good.
For Naidu, on the other hand, the nightmarish scenario is Jagan at the helm in AP, Narendra Modi at the Centre and K Chandrashekar Rao in Telangana. If that happens, Naidu will only have himself to blame. The heavy anti-incumbency is due in large measure to the free hand he gave his leaders, some of whom plumbed new depths to enrich themselves. The freebies he promised came too late in the day and his strategy of dividing the opposition votes with ample help from the Congress and Pawan Kalyan looks set to backfire.
A poll debacle would put him in the direct line of fire—Jagan has vowed to constitute a special investigation team to probe his alleged corrupt activities. Jagan’s supporters believe it would be poetic justice to do to Naidu what he did to their leader. In such a case, the TDP, in the absence of an able successor, to Naidu could be up for grabs—a prospect the saffron brigade is dreaming of. Naidu’s outbursts against the against the BJP and the Election Commission have been so acerbic that it makes one wonder if he will accept the verdict if it goes against him. Whether or not he does, the real war begins in Andhra on May 23.
Deputy Resident Editor, Andhra Pradesh