CMs of Telugu states jostling for kingmaker role post-elections

Updated 7:15 AM, 10 May, 2019
With both KCR and Chandrababu Naidu aspiring to play kingmaker in the formation of the next government at the Centre, it is anybody's guess as to who would have the final laugh.

After Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s renewed mission to build support for the Federal Front, it is now the turn of his bete noire and Andhra Pradesh counterpart N Chandrababu Naidu to position himself as a potential king maker in the formation of the next government at the Centre.

Naidu’s back-to-back meetings with Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday and his subsequent participation in election rallies in West Bengal in support of Trinamool candidates reflect the urgency of his mission to bring together all non-BJP parties on a single platform.

During his 30-minute long meeting with Rahul Gandhi in Delhi, Naidu stressed the need for the opposition parties to present a cohesive picture. “It is because of Naidu’s initiative that there is a broad agreement to hold a meeting of opposition parties on May 21 (two days before the declaration of LS poll results) to demonstrate solidarity,” the TDP sources said.

In a bid to take the wind out of KCR’s sails, Naidu has stepped up efforts to build a broad anti-BJP coalition as an effective alternative to the NDA. The TDP chief’s supporters foresee a key role for him at the Centre post-elections, similar to the one he had played in the formation of the United Front government in 1996 with Congress’ support from outside and then in the NDA-I.

Contrasting options

The two regional satraps have contrasting options on their hands as they seek to play a larger role in national politics. Since the Congress is the main adversary for him in Telangana, KCR is averse to any formation that has the grand old party in it. As a result, he has been pushing for Federal Front, a grouping of like-minded regional parties as an alternative to both BJP and Congress. His calculation is that neither the NDA nor UPA would get the required majority to form the government and that they will have to extend support to a Federal Front government.

However, there is a growing perception in political circles that the Federal Front, a proposal mooted by the TRS supremo in March last year, is a well-crafted move to benefit the BJP by luring the potential allies away from the UPA.

On the other hand, Naidu has abandoned his baggage of anti-Congressism and is willing to embrace his old adversary to meet the larger goal of defeating the BJP. Moreover, the Congress has promised to grant Special Category Status to Andhra Pradesh, an emotive issue over which he had walked out of the NDA in March last year.

For Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP), founded on anti-Congress plank over three-and-half decades ago, it has been a major leap of faith to join hands with the Congress. Both the Congress and BJP are at best fringe players in AP where the YSR Congress Party, headed by Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy, has emerged as a major challenger to Naidu.

The TDP believes that any anti-BJP formation at national level must include the Congress, either as a fulcrum around which all other parties can rally around or as an equal partner in the alliance.

While Naidu has openly embraced the Congress at the national level, KCR has been on a mission to decimate the Congress in Telangana with 11 out of the 19 opposition legislators already switching over to the TRS.

Mamata for PM

While addressing election rallies in West Bengal on Wednesday (May 8), Naidu hinted at projecting Mamata as the prime ministerial candidate of the opposition alliance. “You have known Didi as Bengal Tiger so far. You will see her as India’s tiger in the next non-BJP government,” he told the gatherings at Jalgram and Haldia.

“We are all fighting against the dictatorial policies of the Modi-Shah combine. With 42 Lok Sabha seats, West Bengal has a crucial role to play in deciding the future. Time has come for you to choose between a dictator like Modi and a true public servant like Mamata,” the AP CM said.

Though Naidu has ruled himself out of the race for Prime Minister’s post and made it clear that the opposition alliance would chose the PM through consensus after the elections, his supporters foresee the possibility of the TDP chief emerging as a consensus candidate for the top post.

“Naidu was offered the PM’s post in 1996 but he had declined it and instead proposed Deve Gowda’s name,” a senior TDP leader said.

Defining political moment

On November 1, 2018, the television images of the beaming chiefs of TDP and Congress – Chandrababu Naidu and Rahul Gandhi — addressing a joint press conference in Delhi and pledging to forge an alliance ahead of the general elections reflected a major turning point in Telugu politics.

Not so long ago, a warm hug, a handshake and, to top it, the talk of an alliance with the president of Congress party was considered nothing short of blasphemy for the TDP, nurtured on the staple diet of anti-Congressism since its inception.

For Naidu, the famed backroom strategist of the regional party under the watchful eyes of its founder late NTR when he waged one battle after the other against the Congress in the past, it was a big leap of faith.

“It’s a democratic compulsion,” was how Naidu described his meeting with Rahul and their commitment to build an anti-BJP alliance at the national level. On his part, Rahul termed the development as “momentous”.

The significance of the meeting between the two leaders goes much beyond mere symbolism; it may well have been an inflection point for politics in a region that long witnessed a battle between Telugu pride championed by TDP and the ‘hegemony of Delhi’ represented by the Congress.

The TDP fought against the Congress in every election since it was founded by late NTR over three-and-half decades ago. However, the changed political dynamics post-bifurcation, following the NDA’s denial of special status to AP, has prompted Naidu to join hands with Congress to take on the common enemy-Narendra Modi.

Advantage KCR

The sub-plot in the ongoing jostling revolves around the moves by KCR and Naidu to keep each other out of the power games at the Centre. Each wants to outwit the other in positioning as a potential kingmaker.

Having won a second term in office with a landslide mandate in the December 2018 Assembly polls and set his eyes on bagging a lion’s share of the 17 Lok Sabha seats in Telangana, KCR appears to be better positioned in the game.

On the other hand, Naidu has an uphill task on hand with a string of opinion polls putting his bete noire Jagan Mohan Reddy ahead in the race to capture power in the state.