Amidst a rare spectacle of Hindu, Christian and Muslim priests chanting prayers one after another, Jaganmohan Reddy, a devout Christian, took oath as the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh last Thursday. Right after the swearing-in, held in full public glare and telecast live, the leader of the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) signed his first order with great flourish to make good an election promise on hiking old age pension.
Jagan, as he is better known, then reeled off all the good things he would do, ranging from creation of jobs to eradication of corruption. Seated on the dais, Chief Minister of Telangana K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR), Jagan's friend and mentor, and DMK president MK Stalin, another special guest, gaped in awe.
So Jagan is firmly in saddle, after a landslide victory in both the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh. And Chandrababu Naidu, three-term chief minister, president of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the tech-savvy darling of corporates, who unsuccessfully tried to unify the Opposition to fight Narendra Modi, was utterly defeated.
So where does this leave Naidu?
It leaves Naidu exactly where it leaves his new friend Rahul Gandhi — at a political wasteland. But the question that foxes both those who love and hate Naidu is whether he has reached the end of a political cul-de-sac.
The answer to that question depends on what Jagan does as chief minister and what Naidu does to tidy up the mess he is in. Those who say Naidu has reached the end of the road are probably making a premature statement and making it for a wrong reason. They claim age is not on Naidu's side. Naidu, 69 now, will be 74 when elections come again in 2024. Jagan is 46. What they forget is that age doesn't decide election outcomes. Perseverance can. And Naidu knows that.
Jagan himself is a fine example of tenacity. He waited for 10 years after the death of his father YS Rajasekhara Reddy in a helicopter crash in 2009, when he was the chief minister and a Congress leader. Jagan floated a new party, fought the Congress and TDP and finally won.
If anything, Naidu's age only makes it doubly imperative for his 36-year-old son and heir apparent Nara Lokesh to make himself more useful to the party. So far, he hasn't shown any signs of political brilliance but can't be written off as yet. The Stanford business graduate has been taking active part in the TDP's affairs since 2009 and was made the IT minister in his father's cabinet in 2017, but he lost the latest Assembly election to a YSRCP candidate.
More than anything, Naidu needs an honest appraisal of what went so hopelessly kaput with his party. He can be excused for taking comfort from the fact that even if he lost, he can't be accused of not trying. In fact, he was one of India's most hardworking chief ministers, though he gets his economics only half-right and politics fully wrong.
Naidu must admit to blunders
The TDP chief lost the 2004 elections after being the chief minister for nine years because his obsession with developing Hyderabad (capital of the then united Andhra Pradesh) into an IT hub was accompanied by gross neglect of the rural poor. So when he returned to power in 2014, he corrected this imbalance — or thought he did. What really began after the state's bifurcation was a brand new obsession of building a new capital at Amaravati. Although Naidu launched a rash of populist schemes, these may not have reached all the intended beneficiaries.
Parakala Prabhakar, former media advisor to Naidu and newly-inducted Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's husband, said: "There was large-scale non-delivery of schemes by Naidu's government, which remained on paper."
As he looks back now, Naidu must admit the huge blunders he made. Take, for instance, the village-level janmabhumi committees, comprising political workers and officials, which he set up to execute welfare schemes. He thought this would be a revolutionary way to decentralise how certain benefits reached people. Instead, these committees became cesspools of nepotism and corruption. His party workers diverted the benefits of a few schemes to whoever they liked or took a neat cut for themselves. When the man on the street in Andhra Pradesh speaks of corruption in TDP, a good chance is that he is referring to the janmbhumi racket, not any scam involving Naidu.
Naidu must correct the public perception that he was favouring his own Kamma caste, something he never convincingly refuted during the campaign. His shifting stands on the issue of Special Category Status for Andhra Pradesh, his departure from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and the decision to back the Congress — TDP had been founded to fight the Grand Old Party — led to doubts about his sincerity.
In the end, the voters decided to give Jagan a chance, even though his only strengths are his father's work as the chief minister and an effective campaign designed by election maverick Prashant Kishor. Naidu's next moves will depend on what mistakes Jagan himself will make — if he does — in his administration.
Naidu knows that if he doesn't wake up fast enough to repair his image and revamp his party, the BJP is waiting to usurp the space occupied by the TDP and Congress in Andhra Pradesh, the same way it replaced the CPM and Congress in West Bengal.
The author tweets @sprasadindia
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Updated Date: Jun 02, 2019 14:41:48 IST