Nearly 24 years after leading a revolt against his father-in-law N T Rama Rao and taking over the reins of the party in a midnight political coup, the Telugu Desam Party president N Chandrababu Naidu is now at the receiving end, facing a similar rebellion from his close confidants.
The exit of four Rajya Sabha MPs has pushed the TDP into a deep existential crisis. It has come as a double whammy for Naidu who lost power in the April 11 Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh. His party is already smarting under humiliating drubbing at the hustings, having managed to win just 3 Lok Sabha seats out of 25 from the state and 23 Assembly seats in the 175-member House.
The four MPs — Sujana Choudary, C M Ramesh, T G Venkatesh and G Mohan Rao — switched over to the BJP on Thursday (June 20), saying they were “inspired and encouraged by the impeccable leadership of Narendra Modiji and the development policies being pursued by him in the overall interest of the nation.”
Ironically, two of them — Sujana Choudary and Ramesh — have been close confidants of Naidu, providing financial muscle to the regional party. In fact, there has been a growing resentment within the party for encouraging businessmen-politicians while ignoring the grassroots workers. Choudary, in particular, was widely seen as Naidu’s “eyes and ears” in Delhi.
Both the MPs had a major say in choosing the party candidates in the recent elections. And, both of them are under the scanner of the central investigating agencies including the Enforcement Directorate, Income Tax and CBI. Their firms were raided by the ED and CBI in the recent months.
Another MP T G Venkatesh heads a leading infrastructure firm in the Rayalaseema region handling contracts worth several crores. His firm is also under the radar of the ED and Income Tax Department.
The defection of these MPs is widely seen as a desperate attempt on their part to guard their business turfs.
After a meeting with the BJP president Amit Shah, the four MPs submitted a joint letter to the Rajya Sabha chairman M Venkaiah Naidu, seeking to merge their group with the BJP.
“We have decided to merge the Legislature Party of the TDP with the BJP with immediate effect under Paragraph 4 of the Tenth Schedule to the Constitution of India,” the letter said. They also requested the RS Chairman to allow the merger and treat them as members of the BJP Legislature Party.
With four out of the six members breaking away, the rebels will meet the legal requirement of anti-defection law, which mandates the support of at least two-third members for a split to be recognised in the Parliament.
The shocker comes at a time when Naidu is on a vacation to Europe with his family.
Writing on wall
Ever since the May 23 verdict, the writing on the wall was clear for TDP. The reports of senior party leaders being on speed dial with the BJP negotiators were doing the rounds. The ‘industrialist-politicians’ were seen as the most vulnerable for poaching by the saffron party.
Despite the worst ever electoral drubbing, the TDP leadership failed to undertake any overhaul exercise. The party general secretary and Chief Minister’s son Nara Lokesh, who himself lost the election in Mangalagiri, did not own up responsibility for the party’s poor performance. The senior party leaders, including the defected MPs, were said to be unhappy with Lokesh’s style of functioning.
Resentment has been brewing against Lokesh, the preferred choice of his doting father to take over the mantle of the party.
Lokesh is largely seen as an organisational man with limited public speaking skills. He was elevated as the party’s general secretary and ex-officio politburo member in September, 2015 in a first firm indication of the succession plan in the regional party. He was inducted into the cabinet in 2017.
However, a majority of the party leaders feel that Lokesh, though educated abroad and gifted with managerial skills, lacks mass appeal. His corporate style of functioning may not be suited to run a political party, they argue.
Like most regional parties in the country, Naidu runs the TDP with an iron grip, leaving no scope for nurturing second-rung leadership or rewarding merit. The power structure and decision-making is centralised as Naidu has a highly personalised and self-absorbed style of functioning. All policy decisions, big and small, are announced by him, reducing other leaders to mere dummies.
There are reports that several party MLAs and other senior leaders are planning to quit the party. However, the YSR Congress Party president and Chief Minister Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy has shut the doors on them, saying he would not admit any of the Opposition MLAs unless they first quit their Assembly seats.
No moral high ground
The TDP chief cannot afford to take high moral ground now because he had lured the Opposition YSRCP MLAs while in power and even inducted some of them into his cabinet. A total of 23 MLAs and 3 MPs from YSRCP had crossed over to the TDP after the 2014 elections.
“It is a poetic justice that TDP has now been reduced to 23 Assembly seats and 3 Lok Sabha seats, the same number that it had poached from the Opposition camp. Nemesis is now catching up Naidu,” Jagan said.
‘Look South’ mission
The latest set of defections is part of the BJP’s ‘Look South’ mission to make inroads into the southern states including Andhra Pradesh.
The saffron party’s broad plan in Andhra Pradesh, where it drew blank in both the Lok Sabha and Assembly, is to use Jagan’s shoulders to fire at his rival TDP and then occupy the Opposition space before the 2024 poll battle.
Many more desertions are likely to rock the TDP camp in the months ahead. The names of senior TDP leaders like J C Diwakar Reddy, Paritala Sunitha and Kesineni Nani are doing the rounds. And, BJP is their destination.
Putting up a brave front in the face of defections, Naidu said his party would overcome the present crisis as it had done in the past and asked the party cadre not to get ‘nervous about it.’
“The crisis is not new to the party. We fought with BJP only for special category status and state’s interests. We sacrificed central ministers for special status. We condemn the attempts of BJP to weaken TDP,” he said in a statement.