Chandrababu Naidu: Supping with his enemy, Congress

First Published 9, Nov 2018, 8:20 PM IST
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Chandrababu Naidu, Congress, TDP, Andhra Pradesh, BJP, Rahul Gandhi, K Chandrashekar Rao
Highlights

AP strongman turns on its head his political career of anti-Congressism in pursuit of a dream

"Will Virat Kohli suddenly give up his aggressive batting style that has been the cornerstone of his career so far and instead choose to bat like, say Geoffrey Boycott? If so, will it work for him?"

It is a rhetorical question that a young Kanakam Chandrasekhar, a software professional in Hyderabad, asks as he tries to find an analogy to make sense of Andhra Pradesh chief minister and Telugu Desam Party national president Chandrababu Naidu's decision to ally with the Congress, a party to fight which the TDP was essentially founded.

"I understand that the tie-up with the BJP has come unstuck for the TDP. But that doesn't mean he should bury over 30 years of history of his party. It is a mockery of what he had stood for so long."

The words of Chandrasekhar are just the opinion of an individual. But whether it is also reflective of the views of the larger public of Andhra Pradesh is something difficult to gauge at this moment. 

But what is clear is that Naidu has set out on a dangerous gambit.            

He started with a trip to New Delhi. Then he went to Bengaluru on Thursday. On Friday, he is in Chennai. Soon he is expected to go to Kolkata. And perhaps, a few other cities are part of the itinerary too.

Naidu is dotting the geography of this country in a hardy bid to dot its history too. 

The Andhra Pradesh strongman has taken upon himself the mantle of kingmaker at the national level, and is now a peripatetic politico trying to cobble up an ambitious alliance of opposition parties to take on the NDA (the BJP, for all practical purposes) in the general elections next year. And if you have been following the career of Naidu, you will also realise that Naidu's quest will not rest with being a kingmaker alone. He will want to be the king himself, as it were.

"Naidu has his sights fixed on national politics. He wants to be on the centre stage. After all, he has done all that is possible in his state (Naidu is the longest-serving chief minister of Andhra Pradesh with a combined 15 years under his belt.) He also understands that this is the time for regional satraps to make it big at the Centre. Modi himself is a good example of that," says Ramesh Raju of Sri Venkateswara University, the alma mater of Naidu. "Naidu looks like he will do whatever it takes to pull this off."

Also read: Chandrababu Naidu meets Deve Gowda; says, 'We are uniting to save democracy'

Even if that means going against the quintessence of his entire political career — anti-Congressism.         

Naidu has built his political CV with strong anti-Congress credentials. He is now out supping with the very same enemy against whom he had fought many a ferocious and memorable battle.

Of course, it can also be argued that Naidu has always changed his spots at many crucial junctures of his long career. The charitable label him flexible and pragmatic. The critics dub him turncoat and opportunistic.
 
The man, as it happens, ironically started as a Congressman and quickly worked his way through the Youth Congress ranks, slithered himself into the good books of Sanjay Gandhi, got a party ticket to contest the election in Chandragiri constituency (his hometown), won it and became the technical education cinematography minister in T Anjaiah's cabinet. All this before he was even 28. 

And as someone in charge of the ministry that dealt with the Telugu filmdom, Naidu got access to all the top film stars of the day. 

Also read: Chandrababu Naidu's 'opportunism' draws him close to Rahul Gandhi, says BJP

One of them was NT Rama Rao.

Naidu saw in NTR a trump card to further his political dreams. 

Naidu assiduously worked to gain the admiration of the Andhra matinee idol. He genuinely loved and idolised NTR. But there was also some cold strategy behind it, say his old acolytes. 

NTR, even as he was spearheading an anti-Congress movement that was to change the history of the state, did not bat an eyelid in giving the hand of his daughter, Nara Bhuvaneshwari, to Naidu who was still in the Congress. In fact, even after NTR floated the TDP in 1982, Naidu was very much in the Congress and even lost to the TDP candidate in the elections held in 1983.

But soon after, in a what was to be a constant leitmotif in his career, Naidu seamlessly changed tack. He switched over to the TDP and quickly asserted himself and proved his worth as a party organiser by helping NTR weather the storm kicked up by his then number two in the party Bhaskar Rao. NTR, in an emotional show of gratitude, made him the general secretary of the TDP in 1984.        

Naidu, with a sharp-cut beard, sporting the "lean and hungry look" that Julius Caesar saw in Yond Cassius ("such men are dangerous"), went about asserting himself both in the state and in the TDP. And by the turn of the decade, NTR came to regret his decision to trust his son-in-law to the hilt. Naidu outsmarted his mentor/father-in-law and became a bigger power than him. 

In a chilling culmination of politics and family drama that plays out regularly in Andhra (and Tamil Nadu), Naidu scripted a tumultuous coup in the state and the party and ousted NTR as the chief minister and the TDP president. In this behind-the-scenes machinations, Naidu was helped by his brothers-in-law Balakrishna and Harikrishna, and 'co-brother' Daggubati Venkateswara Rao. The last named was quickly given the short shrift, and Naidu quickly kept the coast clear for himself. It was a typical no-nonsense Naidu action. 

Charges of betrayal of trust came to haunt Naidu in the 2000s too. K Chandrashekar Rao (the incumbent CM of Telangana), who was then in the TDP, accused Naidu of being mealy-mouthed on the emotive Telangana movement. KCR eventually walked out of the TDP to form the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, which eventually spearheaded the birth of the new state in 2014. 

"But Naidu is a survivor. If there is a crisis, he is the man to have around. He would have escaped even from the Titanic," says Guntur Ramakrishna, who had shared ranks with Naidu in his formative years in the Congress. "Even then, he had skills for administration as well as real politik. He always played his cards smartly."

Another quality that Naidu had was that he was always quick to seize an opportunity that came his way. In 1996, he saw a chance for a step-up in his politics, and deftly worked his way to become the convenor of the ill-starred United Front government in its short run. But in 1998, when the BJP stormed to power at the Centre, the TDP had become its strong ally so much so that the TDP's GMC Balayogi was made the speaker of the Lok Sabha. Two years is what took Naidu to swing from one end of the spectrum to the other.

In the National Front/United Front governments, and even in the BJP regime of 1998, Naidu was an important cog in the wheel, but still his presence was overshadowed by leaders like Deve Gowda, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, M Karunanidhi and Bal Thackeray.

"It is only now that the field is pretty much open for him. Naidu knows it. And at the age of 68, Naidu perhaps sees this as his best chance to pull off a coup at the Centre," points out Ahmed Raza of Osmania University. "The meeting with Rahul Gandhi was a master move."            

By going and meeting Rahul, Naidu may have ceded space to the Congress as the bigger player. But by triggering all the follow-up moves, Naidu has seized the initiative and shown that as a leader he is one up on Rahul, who seems to wait for things to happen (not a trait that will inspire confidence.) 
 
"Naidu is also showing that he is his own man, and if and when the alliance is in place, the Congress will be just one of the cogs and may not be in the driver's seat," adds Raza.

But that position is a long way off. Because, right now itself, the inner contradictions among the parties are too rife to be wished away. The TDP itself has to go back to the people and explain its alliance with the Congress against whom it had fought for close to four long decades. The Andhra Pradesh elections, due along with the general elections, would be a tough battle. To be sure, the TDP is the front runner in the state. 

"But remember that the TDP has many leaders whose families have been diehard enemies of the Congress. The rivalry is almost cultural here. For them, to bury the hatchet and share the dais as allies would be a tough act," says Ramesh Raju. "The outcome of the polls in Telangana, where the TDP and Congress will have an understanding, will be a bellwether to what happens during the general elections next year," he adds.

Aside from the Congress-TDP rough edges, Naidu will also need to tackle the differences that Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress and the Left parties have with the Congress. There are states where they will be fighting against each other. Not that such things have not happened before. But this time around, when the skirmishes are expected to be sharp, even small differences are bound to be played up. Also, in states like Karnataka, where the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Congress are in an alliance (they have done impressively in the recent by-elections there), things still seem to be on the edge. "In a mega alliance, the opponents will try to drive a wedge precisely at those vulnerable points," says Raza.  
 
Naidu, to be sure, has his task cut out. 

If his efforts succeed, he may have scripted a new history. 

If his work doesn't click, don't be surprised if you find Naidu making himself an accomplice to whoever is writing the history.

Boycott or Kohli-mode, it doesn't matter. Naidu likes to occupy the political crease.

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