Chandrababu Naidu shows commendable gusto in keeping Opposition flock together despite exit poll disaster

Before the exit poll results were out on Sunday, there was some talk of Sonia Gandhi hosting a dinner for top Opposition leaders on 23 May. She was thought to be the perfect hostess to preside over government-formation confabulations on the evening of the counting day if the BJP fell short of numbers.

Diehard loyalists of the Nehru family sang paeans to Sonia's skills in stitching up an alliance faster than a cobbler on a Connaught Place footpath would repair a shoe. They cooed that her elegant charm, political acumen and heart-melting spirit of sacrifice would dazzle the dinner guests into signing up for an alliance even before they picked up their desserts.

But not many were bursting with enthusiasm to accept the invitation, because they said that everything — as we are tired of hearing by now — would depend on the results that would come on Thursday.

And after the exit poll results, the only dinner being talked about is the one that BJP president Amit Shah will host for NDA leaders on Tuesday. Yet there is one man who hasn’t forgotten Sonia's feast: Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader has taken it upon himself to round up as many leaders as possible for the meeting at 10, Janpath just like a teacher might drag reluctant kindergarten students into class.

In other words, Naidu is still dead serious about having a go at forming an alternative government, despite projections of a comfortable NDA victory. That's not surprising. Exit polls in the past had a habit of going awfully wrong. To anybody who asks him about it, Naidu gives the ready example of what happened in 2014 when exit polls predicted a victory for the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) led by Jaganmohan Reddy while, in the end, TDP won.

 Chandrababu Naidu shows commendable gusto in keeping Opposition flock together despite exit poll disaster

File image of Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu. PTI

Even before Sunday, Naidu told his party leaders not to trust exit polls. This sparked speculation on whether he had some advance information on what the polls would say. And while Prime Minister Narendra Modi disappeared into a Kedarnath cave along with a camera crew, Naidu had an idea of what the Opposition must do. While TV channels exploded with predictions of a historic second victory for Modi, Naidu didn't lose hope.

The polls that forecast a sure victory for Modi must have been heartrending for Naidu, but what raised his hope was the NewsX projection of 242 for NDA (including 202 for the BJP) and 164 for the UPA. If this comes true, with the error margin pushing the real figure even lower, the BJP could be in trouble.

In such a scenario, possible if not probable, Naidu's calculation is simple, of course. The Opposition must rustle up an alliance to stake claim to form government before Modi puts on a designer kurta and heads for Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Naidu had first attempted a pre-poll alliance and failed. Then he tried for a pre-exit-poll alliance and failed. Now he is trying for a pre-results alliance. He is still not succeeding, despite crisscrossing the country and meeting Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi in the last few days. Naidu first got Mayawati to agree to meet Sonia, but she later backed down.

Meeting on EVMs

Naidu had been suggesting a meeting of Opposition leaders in Delhi on 21 May to discuss a pre-results alliance. That meeting materialised on Tuesday but ended up only talking about the alleged manipulation of EVMs and a complaint on it to the Election Commission. It only served two purposes. First, it shifts the reason for Modi's victory from his undoubted popularity to the tampering of EVMs. Secondly, the meeting served the additional purpose of keeping the Opposition flock together for the time being, even if it meant no more than a photo-op.

The best the Congress is hoping for is a repeat of 1996 or 2004. In 1996, the party won 140 seats and BJP, 161. It then supported a United Front government first led by HD Deve Gowda and then by IK Gujral. And in 2004, the Congress won 145 seats and formed the UPA-I government with support from others.

But unlike in 1996 and 2004, the issue of leadership could be a stumbling block in 2009 if a similar situation arises. Who becomes the Opposition prime minister will surely depend on who gets how many seats, but the process of arriving at a consensus is much tougher than before, considering the ambitions of Mayawati, Mamata, Sharad Pawar among others.

And nobody knows what Rahul Gandhi wants. The party first said he wasn't a prime ministerial candidate and then said he was. There was a similar volte face last year, but in reverse order. First, he declared himself to be a prime ministerial candidate and then, not long after that, said something like, "Oops, really? Did I say that?" The second flip-flop this year — call it a flop-flip, if you will — has left nobody in doubt about Rahul's and his party's confusion about not only the prime minister's post, but even providing an alternative to Modi.

The irony of all this is that while Naidu has picked up the gauntlet on Rahul and Sonia's behalf, he must contend with confusion of his own, caused by the Congress.

Naidu versus KCR

Even as Naidu was confabulating with Opposition leaders, the Congress last week began its own talks with Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) and his friend in Andhra Pradesh, Jagan, among others.

KCR hopes to win all or most of Telangana's 17 Lok Sabha seats. He might. And Jagan appears confident of winning close to 20 of the 25 seats in Andhra Pradesh. The Congress is KCR's main rival in Telangana. And Naidu's chief enemy in his state is Jagan.

Even if KCR and Jagan or at least one of them is part of a non-BJP grouping, the question of how Naidu too can rub shoulders with them has no answers. The other big question is how many Lok Sabha seats Naidu himself will win in Andhra Pradesh, if Jagan walks away with most of them — according to exit polls.

The author tweets @sprasadindia

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Updated Date: May 21, 2019 17:52:28 IST