Is there a method to Chandrababu Naidu madness?

Updated 1:52 PM, 12 June, 2019
Chandrababu Naidu with Mamata Banerjee, at her residence. Photo: PTI

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu appears to be a man in a hurry. He has been shuttling between Amaravati, Delhi, Kolkata, Lucknow and Bengaluru at a breathless pace in the last few days, networking with the opposition leaders for building a non-BJP coalition to stake claim to form the next government at the Centre.

Even the most optimistic among the opposition leaders are surprised over the aggressive moves by the Telugu Desam Party supremo, particularly in the backdrop of a clutch of exit polls predicting the return of the NDA government with a bang.

Unfazed by the exit poll projections, Naidu, who had played the role of a king maker in the formation of the United Front and NDA-I governments in the past, has taken a lead in bringing together the opposition parties and even proposed a formula under which the opposition grouping should approach the President Ram Nath Kovind at the “earliest possible opportunity” to stake the claim.

Selfish interests

The unusually proactive approach of Naidu has raised the question whether he is jumping the gun too soon.

Two reasons are being cited by political observers in Andhra Pradesh for Naidu’s new-found aggression. First, he is desperate to insulate himself from the adverse political fallout of his bete noir and YSR Congress Party president Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy storming to power in the state. Barring a few local channels and agencies, the exit polls of all the national channels have given a clear edge to the YSRCP in the Assembly elections. Given Jagan’s propensity for politics of vengeance, he is expected to go after Naidu by ordering a string of inquiries into the TDP government’s omissions and commissions.

Positioning himself as a key player in national politics and in a possible coalition government at the Centre would insulate Naidu from any kind of harassment by the new regime in Andhra. The YSRCP leaders have already said they would press for a probe into the scams of the TDP government, particularly in awarding contracts for irrigation, infrastructure and capital city projects.

Second, a fractured mandate can open up avenues for Naidu to pursue his national ambitions. His supporters are hopeful that if a “1996-type situation arises”, he may well emerge as a consensus candidate for the Prime Minister’s post.

“Everybody knows that Naidu was offered PM’s post in 1996 but he declined it in order to serve the state. As convener of the United Front, he played a key role in convincing Deve Gowda to take over the mantle,” a senior TDP leader said.

Losing the sheen

Unlike the late 1990s when Naidu was the toast of the national media, he now appears to be a pale shadow of his former self. Back home in AP, he is fighting the electoral battle with his back to the wall. The growing anti-incumbency, public resentment over unfulfilled grandiose promises and rampant corruption and casteism have cast a shadow over his government.

Naidu was at the helm in the united Andhra Pradesh when he played the role of a king maker at the Centre during the UF and the NDA-I governments. As someone who aggressively pursued administrative reforms and put Hyderabad on the global IT map, Naidu had earned a business-friendly, tech-savvy image.

However, over years, the political flip flops and shifting loyalties have eroded his credibility to a large extent. The political pendulum of his TDP has swung wildly from the Right to the Left and now his new-found friendship with Congress, a long-time rival, has exposed him to the charge of political opportunism.

Hectic parleys

Naidu has been holding hectic parleys with Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati, Sharad Pawar and Deve Gowda, making a common cause with them on the alleged bias of the Election Commission of India (ECI) and flagging concerns over the vulnerability of the EVMs. More importantly, he has been making a strong case for approaching the President as a cohesive block to stake claim to form the government.

“Our leader’s assessment is that the NDA will not get the required numbers and there will be a narrow gap between the NDA and the opposition parties. We need to move in quickly and outsmart the BJP in government formation,” the TDP leader said.

However, Naidu’s idea evoked lukewarm response from Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati who told him that it would be better to await the counting of votes before finalising a joint opposition strategy. Clearly, Naidu is punching well above his weight. AP has 25 Lok Sabha seats and even in the best case scenario the TDP is not expected to cross 18. Such a number cannot give Naidu the required bargaining power even in the event of a deeply fractured mandate.

The TDP walked out of the NDA in March last year over the NDA government’s refusal to grant special category status to AP, an emotive issue that was being highlighted by the YSRCP in its rallies. Since his exit from NDA, Naidu has turned a bitter critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP and taken a lead in the efforts to keep the saffron party at bay.

“Instead of exaggerating his relevance, Naidu will be well advised to confine himself to playing a supporting role proportionate to the TDP’s strength in the Lok Sabha. The initiative for the post-poll alliance of opposition parties must come from Congress and all the partners must agree upon a common programme and present a credible alternative,” a senior political analyst S Ramakrishna said.

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