Andhra Pradesh poll: Chandrababu Naidu joins hands with Congress to 'save India' but may find it hard to 'protect self'
With or without Congress on his side, Chandrababu Naidu's electoral fate would be probably hanging by a thin margin.
So Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu has finished telling us about the latest unflinching mission of his life — that of unifying the Opposition. And what must he do now? He must go ahead and unify the Opposition, of course.
But wait a minute. Naidu has remembered that, before embarking on the task of uniting parties in distant nooks of India, he owes a word or two of explanation to people nearer home in Andhra Pradesh. He finds it increasingly necessary to take time off to tell his own core voters why he is doing what he is doing. He is acknowledging that not only the workers of his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) but even the people at large who support him are finding it tough to overcome the shock of his sudden bungee-jump into the camp of arch enemy Congress.
What matters is not the fact that he has ditched BJP but that he has allied with Congress, a move that can qualify as one of the biggest political turnarounds in India’s post-Independence history. Naidu has a right to do what he has done, guided by a “democratic compulsion”, as he put it. But his critics have been quick to point out the bizarreness of his newfound love for Congress, and the social media is replete with some embarrassing screenshots of his past utterances tearing Sonia Gandhi and her party to pieces.
KT Rama Rao—KTR, as the son of Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhara Rao is better known—was one of the first off the mark with this:
— KTR (@KTRTRS) November 2, 2018
It’s true that regional leaders have made breathtaking U-turns before in their political affiliations. Jayalalithaa, Nitish Kumar, Deve Gowda are only some examples. But their parties were not born out of anti-Congressism the way TDP was. The very raison d'être for TDP was its pathological allergy to Congress. This writer was at the press conference that TDP founder NT Rama Rao called on 21 March 1982 in Hyderabad to announce his entry into politics and was witness to the unprecedented anger he whipped up across the state against Congress in the months that followed.
Telugu pride still the theme
NTR’s slogan of Telugu self-respect and his theme that Congress was an anathema to Andhra pride were so convincing that just eight months after he floated the party he swept to a historic victory. If there was ever an election wave against a party, there it was. His son-in-law Naidu staged a coup against NTR and succeeded him in 1995 but made good use of the self-respect slogan later. He used the same slogan with such compelling effect in the 2014 election against the Congress for dividing Andhra Pradesh into two states that the party didn’t win a single seat.
And now he has joined hands with Congress ostensibly to “save India” or, as his critics would say, to “save himself”.
Naidu is aware of the need to be on the defensive about his volte-face. It’s not surprising that he now attacks Narendra Modi as much as he defends his action in switching to Congress. The essence of what he waxes eloquent at meeting after meeting now is this:
This writer am still follows NTR’s path of confronting Delhi’s hegemony. BJP is now giving us the troubles which Congress gave us earlier from Delhi. We have already punished Congress for what it had done to the state. It has been reduced to zero. This is not our alliance with Congress. Congress will be part of an anti-BJP alliance along with us. We waged a struggle against BJP to protect the interests of five crore Telugus. BJP refused to grant the special status to Andhra after bifurcation. That party struck a blow to Telugu self-respect. Besides, Congress is promising to give us special status if it wins 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Naidu is telling TDP workers to go from “door to door” and spread this gospel to people. He knows that, in the run-up to the state Assembly elections, which will be held at the same time as the Lok Sabha polls a few months from now, his rivals will harp on his political opportunism and his government’s alleged failures with the same emphasis. What will also be part of the campaign against Naidu is the accusation that he is sacrificing the very Telugu pride he is supposedly protecting by hitching on to Congress with the sole intention of making space for himself in national politics and for his son Nara Lokesh to succeed him in Andhra Pradesh.
It’s difficult as yet to say whether Naidu’s traditional supporters will swallow his line of defence hook line and sinker and continue to back him or whether at least some of them will reject this argument, causing an erosion in his vote base. But what’s easier to understand is that, despite Naidu’s talk of political and democratic compulsions, it’s the local needs that drove him to abandon NDA and join forces with Congress. It’s the same principle of self-preservation that guides all regional parties that goaded Naidu to make his latest political move.
With or without Congress on his side, his electoral fate would be probably hanging by a thin margin. Even in the 2014 Assembly election, with the BJP and Jana Sena of actor-politician Pawan Kalyan backing it, TDP’s margin of victory was a mere two percent of the popular vote over the nearest rival, YSR Congress Party led by Jaganmohan Reddy. And this party continues to be Naidu’s biggest threat.
But in the next election in Andhra Pradesh, Naidu will have the backing of neither BJP nor Pawan Kalyan. All that he can bank on is whatever is left of the traditional Congress vote bank in the state. The Kapu caste vote of Pawan Kalyan that he may lose may be at least in part compensated by the Reddy vote of Congress. Naidu also knows that, at least with some voters, caste calculations will outweigh development considerations.
Besides, Naidu must necessarily contend with anti-incumbency in some degree, despite the fact that, as one of India’s most dynamic and hard-working chief ministers, he has been executing a wide range of schemes, aimed both at the real development and voter appeasement.
In the 7 December Telangana Assembly election, TDP is expected to make gains from the Mahakutami—the ‘grand alliance’ announced in September—of which it is a part along with Congress, CPI and Telangana Jana Samithi. But it is in Andhra where the stakes for Naidu are of a do-or-die kind. And that’s where he is taking a calculated gamble to retain power.
And that’s what makes it important how Naidu packages and sells to voters his latest somersault to Congress. He must tell voters that it’s a move to save the nation—which it isn’t. And he must tell them that it isn’t a move to save himself—which it is.
The author tweets @sprasadindia
This decision comes a day after the state witnessed its daily tally of COVID-19 cases crossing the 20,000-mark for the first time
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