Chandrababu in revival mode, again

The 2024 mandate has thrown Chandrababu Naidu a dream opportunity to play kingmaker and revive his party in Andhra Pradesh

N. Chandrababu Naidu (file photo)
N. Chandrababu Naidu (file photo)

Suresh Dharur

Hailed as kingmaker of the United Front coalition government in 1996, N. Chandrababu Naidu, then chief minister of an undivided Andhra Pradesh, famously said he had been offered the prime minister’s post but had declined it. Serving his home state remained his top priority, he’d said. Nearly three decades later, in a political career that saw him flirting with both the BJP and Congress, Naidu has again emerged as kingmaker to decide the destiny of NDA 3.0.

All eyes are on Naidu as his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) has emerged the largest ally of the NDA with 16 Lok Sabha seats. It is believed that Naidu, an astute strategist, might give Modi a lesson or two in politics by consensus. Will Naidu (74), three-time chief minister, move to the Centre if the post of deputy PM comes his way? Will he find himself playing a transformative role in shaping the policies of the Central government while downsizing the Modi–Shah combine?

A source close to Naidu ruled out such a possibility: “Remember, his party has got a massive mandate from the people of Andhra (the TDP has won 135 of 175 seats in the assembly). His priority will be to revive the state’s economy and complete his dream project of building the capital city of Amaravati.”

Naidu is likely to be made the NDA convenor, a post that involves rebranding and scouting for new allies. The skills that he displayed in bringing together 13 parties to form the United Front in 1996 could come in handy.

The TDP is reportedly seeking the post of Lok Sabha Speaker, a bargain reminiscent of 1998, when Naidu’s party extended much-needed support to the Vajpayee government in return for its nominee G.M.C. Balayogi being made Speaker. With 29 seats, his TDP was the BJP’s biggest ally from 1999-2004 as well. The regional party’s wish list this time includes 10 cabinet berths and liberal financial assistance to the state.

“From my experience of working with Naidu’s government in the past, I can say he is clear about what he wants from the Centre. When he walked out of the NDA in 2018, special category status was the key issue. He’ll certainly revive that demand. He will also ask for quick completion of the Polavaram irrigation project and substantial financial help for Amaravati,” said Dr Parakala Prabhakar, economist, author and political commentator.

Poster boy of reforms

Naidu was the toast of national media during his tenure as Andhra Pradesh chief minister (1995–2004), which saw sweeping economic and administrative reforms and a tech-driven vision, earning him the moniker ‘CEO of Andhra Pradesh’. His initiatives helped transform Hyderabad into an IT destination to rival Bengaluru.

He earned several accolades, including being named ‘South Asian of the Year’ by Time magazine in 1999. But his pro-industry, urban-centric image proved to be his undoing in the 2004 elections; the charismatic Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy steered the Congress to successive victories in 2004 and 2009.

Naidu did attempt an image makeover. He embraced populism, and got into an electoral alliance with the Left in the hope of regaining the support of rural voters. But he couldn’t arrest the TDP’s slide. After spending a decade in the Opposition, he made an impressive comeback in 2014 in the bifurcated Andhra Pradesh. His alliance with the BJP was short-lived and the TDP suffered a drubbing in 2019 at the hands of Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress.

After his 52-day incarceration last year, in an alleged skill development scam, it seemed Naidu’s political career was over. But he bided his time and saw the opportunity to bounce back when it looked like Jagan was facing an anti-incumbency wave. Naidu promised a blend of welfare and development to pull off an incredible landslide, the kind of victory that makes him, once again, the most sought-after man in town.

Swinging political pendulum

“The era of isms has ended. The only ism that is relevant is tourism.” This used to be Naidu’s favourite quip at seminars and meetings with industrialists during his tenure as chief minister of Andhra. It is still used to evoke appreciative nods at gatherings.

The TDP has traditionally chosen pragmatism over ideology while picking its partners. The party’s political pendulum has swung wildly ever since Naidu took over the reins, dethroning his father-in-law in a midnight political coup in August 1995. At three different points in the last three decades, he aligned with the Left and the Right.

As convener of the United Front, he played a key role in policymaking and deciding prime ministerial candidates. During the NDA regime, his party’s support became crucial for the survival of the BJP-led coalition. He had a six-year association with the NDA and fought the elections in 1999 and 2004 in alliance with the BJP.

After losing power in combined Andhra in 2004, Naidu severed links with the BJP and moved closer to the Left, only to return to the saffron fold ahead of the 2014 election. Soon after, his party joined the Modi government, but left the alliance in 2018 ahead of Assembly polls in Andhra over the denial of special category status to the state.

In November that year, Naidu joined hands with the Congress to build an anti-BJP alliance at the national level. His political flip-flops did not go down well with voters, who handed the TDP a crushing defeat in 2019. Casteism, corruption, skewed development priorities, unfulfilled promises, rising unemployment and lack of progress on the construction of the promised capital city turned out to be his party’s undoing. Jagan Mohan Reddy, a brash and unconventional politician with no administrative experience, stormed to power.

The 2024 Lok Sabha mandate has thrown Naidu a dream opportunity: to not just play kingmaker once again in Delhi but also shepherd the resurgence of his party in Andhra Pradesh.

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