For a man who during his nine years as chief minister stressed a lot on connecting virtually, Chandrababu Naidu has now decided to embrace the real stuff. His trademark query "Where we are going?'' to convey a sense of extreme exasperation will find an answer in his padyatra that will see him walk 20 km everyday for 117 days starting 2 October through all the districts of Andhra Pradesh. Given his penchant to behave holier than thou on all matters, don't be surprised if Naidu likens himself to Mahatma Gandhi @2012. The name of the yatra already reflects that. `Vastunna - Mee kosam' translates to `I am coming for You'.
The padyatra which is likely to start from Hindupur in Rayalaseema region will end on 26 January, by which time Naidu would have clocked 2,320 km on his body's pedometer, and he will hope that the feat will be good enough to impress the Andhra Pradesh electorate to give him a fresh license to drive into the Secretariat in Hyderabad.
On the ground, things won't be so hunky dory. Naidu will be up against several challenges, and his response to them will determine if the padyatra will carve out a new political path for his Telugu Desam, or will it be the end of the road for the party.
The big challenge is his stand on Telangana. His two-eyed policy on bifurcation of the state, where he expressed equal love for Telangana and Seemandhra regions, has been lampooned by just about everyone and reduced TDP to an electoral disaster. Now as he plans to walk through Telangana region, he will be expected to walk the talk on the contentious issue. Neutral gear is no longer an option but it won't be easy to take a stand either way. Many of TDP's Seemandhra MLAs have threatened to quit if Naidu takes a pro-Telangana position. Naidu also is aware that the T-word could translate into political crucifiction of the TDP in the other two regions. But if he does not, the Telangana leg of his padyatra would be targetted by votaries of bifurcation. A heads you win, tails I lose kind of situation.
The Congress plan of calling for an all-party meeting on Telangana may however offer Naidu a lifeline. TDP leaders say he will say yes to Telangana if Congress decides to go ahead with it. But if the Congress decides against it, Naidu will blame the ruling party.
Mention YSR when Naidu is gloating over his padyatra, and you would invite a dirty cold stare. But whether Naidu likes it or not, to a citizen of Andhra Pradesh, the padyatra as an instrument of connecting with people is strongly associated with YSR, who walked 1,475 km in the summer of 2003 from Ranga Reddy district to Srikakulam. That padyatra was seen as the gamechanger in disconnecting Naidu's power connection the following year. Now Naidu is seen as borrowing YSR's patented formula, in the hope it works as well for him.
YSR embarked on his padyatra to exploit the deep sense of resentment among farmers and weaker sections against Naidu's perceived pro-urban style of governance. Exploiting the angst of the people, YSR filled the political vacuum that existed. Naidu's disadvantage is that he is likely to open up several fronts at the same time, given just about everyone is his political enemy. He will criticise the Congress government, he will rip apart Jaganmohan Reddy by calling him corrupt and will target K Chandrasekhar Rao for opportunistic politics. By doing so, he will only position himself as one of the many players in Andhra Pradesh's political theatre.
Which is perhaps why TDP leaders admit there is a great deal of churning taking place within the party about whether Naidu can redeem himself in 2014. The party will be over, they say, if it does not return to power. Though there is talk of a son-rise in the TDP in the form of Naidu's son Lokesh, the seniors in the party aren't bullish on the political greenhorn. At the moment, they seem to have put all their eggs in the Naidu's padyatra basket.
But remember, padyatras do not come with a guarantee card for instant success. If that was the case, former prime minister Chandrasekhar who walked from Kanyakumari to Delhi in 1983 would have become PM much before he actually did. More recently, Rahul Gandhi's 105 km padyatra from Bhatta-Parsaul in Greater Noida to Aligarh before the UP elections did nothing for the Congress. Naidu should be aware that at best, his padyatra will give him leg space in the crowded political market of Andhra Pradesh and for him to make it Advantage Naidu, he will have to remember a few things.
- Stop talking about "all the good things'' he did as CM between 1995-2004, and instead, showcase a new, improved version of Naidu. Articulate what he will do differently and better this time.
- This could be his big chance to do an NTR. His father-in-law perfected the art of mingling with the janta like no politician before him in Andhra Pradesh. He would bathe at the roadside tap, eat at dhabas and indulge in small talk. Of course, his superstar and godly status (thanks to all the Lord Rama and Krishna roles he played) helped. Naidu cannot do most of that, but he certainly needs to package himself differently.
- Stop being negative. Stop being the angry man of Andhra Pradesh politics. Stop being in critical mode 24x7.
- Allow the people to come closer, talk to you, argue with you, tell you what they expect you to do. Listen more, talk less. And do not talk, but chat. Switch off that speech mode in your system.
- Don't overuse the songs set to Tollywood potboiler music to give your padyatra a false sense of glitz and grandeur. Staying grounded would work better for you.
- And yes, don't do the padyatra with your Black Cats in step. As you know, superstitious Indians do not particularly like kaali billis crossing the road.