Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi losing an old ally in Bihar and gaining a new one in Andhra Pradesh? That's how it appears, though appearances can often be as deceptive as election forecasts.
It's clear by now that JD(U) leader and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is slowly distancing himself from the BJP-led NDA of which his party is a member. This was expected for some time.
It's equally clear that newly-elected Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Jaganmohan Reddy — the leader of YSR Congress Party (YSRCP), which is not part of the NDA — is inching closer and closer to it. This was also expected for some time.
The convivial relationship between Jagan and Modi, evident even earlier, now seems to be metamorphosing into a guru-shishya kinship. On Sunday, when the prime minister visited the famed Lord Venkateswara temple in Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh. Jagan went far beyond the customary protocol in receiving him. After presenting a bouquet, he bent forward twice to touch Modi's feet but the prime minister stopped him, lifted him up and patted his shoulder.
It's debatable whether the feet-touching endeavour by a chief minister should be faulted for being a needlessly obsequious gesture if you consider that it isn't an uncommon way to show respect for an elder. Some wonder whether Jagan's action was loaded with politeness or politics. It must, however, be noted that, after Jagan won the elections, utter humility was what marked his meetings with people ranging from the Governor to party workers. And the extraordinary camaraderie for Modi that oozed from his recent actions is hard to miss.
From Modi's point of view, Jagan offers a redeeming aspect in the light of the cooling off of the alliance with JD(U). The 46-year-old YSRCP leader comes across as an exact anti-thesis of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who has set herself on a ruthless path of confrontation with the Modi regime.
Like Modi, Jagan won a landslide after a clinically methodical campaign. And like Modi, he is breaking time-worn traditions in running a government. What should also gladden Modi's heart is the fact that Jagan, even though a Christian, is punctilious in performing Hindu rituals at the drop of a handkerchief.
Will the cosiness last?
But the question remains: Can the sugar and spice in the relations between Jagan and Modi last? The answer to this question depends on the answer to another question. Can Jagan continue to be chummy with Modi in the absence of the "special category status" (SCS) for Andhra Pradesh that he is angling for from the Centre?
Andhra Pradesh has been demanding SCS to get special funds and incentives ever since it was bifurcated in 2014 and Telangana was taken away to be formed as a separate state. This was expected to compensate whatever remained of Andhra Pradesh for, among other things, the loss of Hyderabad to Telangana, which meant loss of huge revenue, and the need for creating new capital.
The Modi government had rejected the demand, fearing that, if it accepted it, it must accord it to other states like Bihar and Odisha which wanted it. Instead, Andhra Pradesh was offered a "special package" of benefits when Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) was the chief minister.
Naidu fist accepted the special package, then rejected it and then went back to his earlier demand for special status under pressure from Jagan's party. Naidu claimed this was the reason to snap his ties with NDA, before joining up with the Congress. And this was one of the reasons why he earned the sobriquet of 'U-turn Naidu'.
The most prominent of the election promises that Jagan made was that he would fight for SCS. His hopes of extracting it from a new government in Delhi in exchange for his support in case of a hung Lok Sabha were, however, dashed after NDA gained a clear majority. While there is no official word from Modi on this, the president of the Andhra Pradesh unit of BJP, Kanna Laxminarayana, made it clear that SCS continued to be a closed chapter and harped on the special package.
And this puts Jagan exactly where he doesn't want to be: between the devil and the deep blue Bay of Bengal. If he doesn't accept the special package which, in fact, may come with a better financial bonanza than a special status, the debt-ridden state will be starved of funds. If he accepts the special package instead of the special status, he would be going back on his vehement opposition to it.
The last thing that Jagan, who has begun his work as chief minister reasonably well, wants is to be called a 'U-turn Jagan'. And yet both Jagan and Modi would like to avoid treading on each other's toes. Modi doesn't need Jagan as an ally for survival but would like to have him on his side so that the BJP could ride piggyback on YSRCP for its own growth in Andhra Pradesh.
The choice for Modi isn't any easy either. He can't accept Jagan's demand without falling foul of other states demanding a similar concession. And yet he must mollify the people of Andhra Pradesh in some manner if the BJP wants to make some headway in the state in future elections.
Author tweets @sprasadindia
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Updated Date: Jun 11, 2019 20:04:22 IST