The only constant feature that defines Nara Chandrababu Naidu’s four decade long political career is change.
The Telugu Desam Party’s (TDP) political pendulum has been swinging wildly ever since Naidu took over the reins of the regional party after dethroning his father-in-law NT Rama Rao in a midnight political coup in August 1995. He had aligned with the Left and the Right at different points.
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A wily strategist that he is, Naidu, however, had mixed results in the past as his alliance with the saffron party paid electoral dividends on some occasions while proving to be a disaster on other occasions.
Now, it appears the time has come for his party to swing back to the Right again, after walking out of the BJP-led NDA in May last year over the issue of special category status for Andhra Pradesh.
Sources close to Naidu said that the TDP supremo is “regretting” his decision to leave the NDA and that he has “nothing personal” against the BJP central leadership. “Our decision to exit the NDA was guided purely by the interests of our state. Since the Centre had denied special status to AP, we had to take that call in the interests of the state. The leadership now feels that it may have been a strategic mistake,” a top TDP leader said.
Ever since the drubbing in the April elections, the TDP has been facing constant desertions from its camp. Several senior leaders have quit and joined either the BJP or the ruling YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) headed by YS Jagan Mohan Reddy.
The first blow was delivered in June this year, barely two months after the elections, when four of the party’s six Rajya Sabha members quit TDP and joined BJP. This included Naidu’s close aides CM Ramesh and Sujana Choudhury, sending shock waves in the party circles.
The latest setback came when the party’s youth wing president D Avinash and an influential MLA from Vijayawada Vallbhaneni Vamsi resigning from the TDP and crossing over to YSRCP. The fresh bout of desertions came on a day when Naidu sat on a day-long Deeksha in Vijayawada on Thursday (November 14) to protest against sand scarcity in the state.
Another senior MLA and former minister Ganta Srinivasa Rao met BJP leader Ram Madhav in Delhi recently, triggering speculation over his imminent exit along with other leaders of the influential “Kapu” community.
Meanwhile, the deputy chief minister Narayana Swamy recently hinted that almost 16 TDP MLAs out of the total 23, are planning to switch over to the ruling party. “The TDP camp will soon become empty, however hard Chandrababu Naidu may try to prevent it,” says BJP MLC Somu Veerraju.
Though the BJP has no representation from the state in the Lok Sabha or in the Assembly, it has been aggressively wooing the TDP leaders into its fold as part of its plan to make inroads in the two Telugu states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
For Naidu, who had weathered many a political storm in the past, this has been the toughest challenge as he struggles to keep his flock together. On other hand, a vindictive YSRCP government has been going after the opposition leaders with a streak of ruthlessness that was never seen in the past.
A senior TDP leader and former speaker Dr K Sivaprasada Rao committed suicide recently, allegedly due to harassment from government agencies and false cases being foisted on him and his family members. Several TDP leaders are facing the heat while industrialists considered close to the opposition party are also having a harrowing time. Several key projects being executed by companies, whose promoters are seen close to TDP leadership, have either been cancelled or being reviewed.
Pushed to the wall
The TDP is being increasingly pushed to the wall while Congress, which dominated the politics of undivided Andhra Pradesh for decades, is fast losing relevance, with its vote share being reduced to less than 2%. “In such a scenario, there appears to be no option but to go back to BJP. It is a question of survival,” the TDP sources said.
During a meeting with his close confidants recently, Naidu was believed to have dropped enough hints about reviving alliance with BJP. However, it may not happen immediately since the elections are more than four years away.
Metamorphosis of strategist
“There is no ism now. Only tourism,” was how Naidu used to quip, during his stint as chief minister of combined AP, while talking about the irrelevance of dogmatic ideologies in the liberalised global economy. His detractors may call it political opportunism but Naidu has, over years, shifted alliances with masterly ease and swiftness.
Naidu was widely seen as a “King Maker” for his role in the formation of both the United Front and NDA-I governments at the Centre.
As convener of the United Front, he played a key role not only in the policy making but also in deciding the prime ministerial candidates. Later, during the NDA-I regime, his party’s outside support became crucial for the survival of the BJP-led coalition headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He had a six-year long association with the NDA and fought the elections in 1999 and 2004 in alliance with BJP.
However, after losing power in the combined AP in 2004, Naidu had severed links with the saffron party and moved closer to the left parties, only to return to the saffron fold ahead of the 2014 general elections.
During his ten-year stint in the opposition between 2004 and 2014, Naidu sought to offload the reforms baggage, aligned with the left parties and returned to populism with gusto. Ironically, as CM of combined AP between 1995 and 2004, he had strongly opposed populist schemes and was hailed as a frontrunner in implementing far-reaching economic and administrative reforms.
However, after losing power in the state in 2004, Naidu had severed his links with the saffron party and moved closer to the left parties in what was widely seen as an attempted image make-over. He even apologised to Muslims for his “past mistakes”.
The anti-farmer and pro-rich image was one of the main reasons attributed to the TDP’s rout in the 2004 elections. However, on the eve of the 2009 polls, he made some astonishing poll promises including direct cash transfer scheme for the poor. Despite being billed as the “Mother of all poll promises”, the cash transfer scheme failed to yield electoral benefits for his party as the Congress returned to power for a second term.
Naidu opted for an electoral alliance with left parties in the hope of regaining the support of rural voters. However, his political metamorphosis could not arrest the slide of TDP.