A sense of deja vu has gripped the Telugu Desam. Four years after its MPs Manda Jagannatham and Adikeshavulu Naidu broke ranks to vote for the Congress during the nuclear trust vote, three of its Rajya Sabha MPs abstained from voting against the government on Friday. The other two MPs — C M Ramesh and Harikrishna— voted in favour of the AIADMK motion.
Two of the three MPs gave health-related reasons for their absence giving rise to sniggers if the TDP indeed is a "sick unit''. Devender Goud said he had an appointment with a dentist while Y S Choudhary told a party colleague that he had developed a throat allergy. In private conversations, they added that even if they had voted in favour of the motion, it would not have made any difference to the end result. True but their explanations were unconvincing, leaving no one in doubt that there was match-fixing at some level between the Congress and the TDP.
What made matters worse was C M Ramesh's statement that he knew about the three abstentions and informed his party boss about it.
The question that then arises is whether a deal was struck at the level of the three MPs or directly with the top party leadership. While officially just about every TDP leader denies doing the Congress bidding over the vote, there is certainly more than what meets the eye.
First, for a politician of Chandrababu Naidu's meticulousness, it would seem strange that he let three MPs take the vote so casually. Naidu who wears his anti-Congressism on his sleeve, would not like to be seen on the same side as the Congress unless he stands to gain like during the United Front period between 1996-98. He tends to monitor every political development closely through trusted aides. And unless the MPs really want to break away from the party, they would not dare to cross the line set by Naidu.
Which begs the question whether Naidu allowed himself to be persuaded by the Congress managers. While there is no evidence to prove that, the fact remains that Naidu who is himself in the retail business through his Heritage Foods was displaying political hypocrisy by opposing the FDI move in Parliament. Most retail giants— be it Future group's Kishore Biyani or the Bhartis— have been at the forefront of welcoming FDI in retail because established retail chains would only stand to gain in the long run. So to suspect that pro-reforms Naidu behaved like a pragmatic businessman by letting some of his MPs abstain would not be illogical.
But let us for a moment give Naidu the benefit of doubt and assume that the decision to abstain was that of the MPs. Given the nature of Indian politics in the coalition era, where political freelancers are king, one cannot rule it out either. Devender Goud, who at one time was number two in the TDP, floated his own Telangana outfit in 2008, folded it up to join Chiranjeevi and got back to the TDP after coming a cropper in the elections. His Rajya Sabha term extends till 2018 and it is quite possible that he is preparing for life after 2014 given that the TDP is not really going to set Telangana, the region he comes from, on fire in the next elections. Ditto for Sudha Rani, the third MP, who hails from Warangal. Sujana Choudhary is an industrialist, for who FDI is not a four-letter word.
Irrespective of who struck the deal, the bigger worry for the TDP would be that yet again it has proved poacher-friendly at the time of crucial voting in Parliament. It also signals a comedown for the party that prides itself on having played a role in forming governments at the Centre in the late nineties and was a powerful player during the NDA regime. Between 1999 and 2004, if Naidu sneezed in Hyderabad, Vajpayee caught a cold in Delhi. From that position of strength, the TDP's tragedy is that it is no longer an important player in the political mindspace in India.
Even in the state, many of its leaders are looking for placement opportunities in other parties, casting doubts over Naidu's ability to bring the party back to power in 2014.
A senior TDP leader from Rayalaseema region when asked if Naidu's padyatra that began on October 2 has been good for the party, told me, "Let me put it this way. It has not been bad.'' He hastened to add that the gains have been very few and the expected results have not materialised.
The challenges for the TDP and Naidu personally are many. The former chief minister who is projecting himself as a non-corrupt leader and a clean administrator during his padyatra, simply cannot afford to be seen as heading a party that is striking backroom deals with the Congress. Because that would mean handing over the opposition space to Jaganmohan Reddy.