Opinion

2019: A tale of two chief ministers trying to put together a southern front

It’s a potboiler, a suspense thriller from the South, where the two chief ministers are trying to cobble up a Southern Front to have their say in New Delhi

Kingshuk Nag

Political observers in Hyderabad say that a few months ago, Chandrababu Naidu was finally convinced that it was time for him to put his hat into the ring for the Prime Minister’s office.

A decade back he was chief minister of an undivided Andhra Pradesh with 42 MPs. Although he is Chief Minister even now of Andhra Pradesh – this is a bifurcated state and now Andhra Pradesh sends just 25 MPs to the Lok Sabha.

Following the division of the state, Naidu believed that his national ambition could never be fulfilled. But Naidu was told by his well -wishers that only he had the stature of being a candidate who could oppose Modi. Naidu apparently enquired about Rahul Gandhi and received the reply that the Congress president had other priorities and was not hankering after the PM’s office.

Convinced, Naidu started making his moves. As a first step Naidu got his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) to withdraw from the National Democratic Alliance and then began meeting chief ministers of southern states proposing a Southern Federal Front (SDF) that would oppose the BJP.

Both H D Kumaraswamy of Karnataka and M K Stalin of Tamil Nadu were game. Naidu’s plan was to first sew up a southern federal front and then move nationally.

While only a few knew of his plans, Narendra Modi got wind of what was happening. The BJP was dependent on TDP for Andhra Pradesh, what with the saffron party having next to no presence in the state. Now with TDP leaving the alliance, things could turn messy for the BJP, he realised, even at the national level with the BJP expected to win fewer seats in north India. This they had hoped to make up from the south. That is why the exit of Naidu – who had been with BJP since 1999 – came as a mighty blow to the BJP.

A miffed Narendra Modi now began conjuring his counterplans. It is believed that he approached Telangana supremo K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) and Andhra Pradesh opposition chief Jagan Reddy of the YSR Congress Party for help in hemming down Naidu. Both were game for their own reasons.

Jagan’s chief opponent in Andhra Pradesh (which is also in the midst of Assembly elections other than the national polls) is the Naidu-led TDP. KCR too has no love lost for Naidu with whom he had worked in the Telugu Desam Party in the 1990s. Miffed by his marginalisation in TDP, KCR split and formed the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS).

Ever since they have been at daggers drawn and after the state of Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated, KCR went out of his way to push out Naidu from Hyderabad although the city was supposed to be the capital for both the states for 10 years.

The intervention of Jagan and KCR has been so effective in the elections in Andhra Pradesh that Naidu and TDP are not perceived to have done so well, though one has to wait for the results on May 23 to confirm this widely held perception.

Meanwhile, realising that nationally the results might spring surprises, K Chandrasekhar Rao started moving. Following on the footsteps of his bête noire Naidu, KCR is also moving to cobble up a southern front. He has met Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Tamil Nadu chief minister Stalin and is in touch with Karnataka Chief Minister Kumaraswamy with a proposal to form a third front which can take the lead in forming a government.

The understanding is that neither BJP-led NDA nor the Congress-led UPA would get a clear majority on May 23. Thus, to form a stable government they would need additional numbers which can then be provided by the southern front being cobbled together by KCR.

The Telangana Chief Minister is arguing that the southern states have been at the receiving end because the levers of power are in the north. This makes it easier to give a short shrift to the southern states. With a southern front supporting the government, this would become difficult, if not impossible, he has argued.

Not everybody is however convinced. This is primarily because the Telangana leader is seen acting on behalf of the BJP which is expected to fall short of numbers. It is suspected that KCR would manage the front in such a way that it will deliver the required numbers to the BJP.

It’s for this reason that Stalin took his time before meeting KCR and at the meeting, the DMK chief gave a riposte: why an independent front, why not a front to support the Congress? Aligning with the BJP, he might have argued, would be akin to a kiss of death.

Realising that options were still wide open, KCR told his party spokespersons to cease attacking the Congress. And now, he is also dropping hints that he is not averse to supporting the Congress-led UPA front to form the next government. The move comes even as – to explore all options- the Congress is also believed to have approached KCR (among others) to examine the possibility of a tie-up.

In the meanwhile, Chandrababu Naidu, not to be left behind, has got busy expanding the scope of the southern front that he had earlier envisaged. In this way he is following the footsteps of his father in law N T Rama Rao who had cobbled up an anti –Congress front in the 1989 elections but had to be content being the chairman because his party managed to win only three seats in the election.

Lately Naidu has been in touch with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and is now propping up her name for the position of Prime Minister. Mamata Banerjee is seen as an acerbic opposer of both the BJP and Narendra Modi – probably the most strident critic of Modi among all opposition parties.

What will happen ultimately remains to be seen. But there have been enough twists and turns in the Deccan these past few months to make this general election more suspenseful than ever before.

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