“NCBN’s vehicle,” an aide said as a Tata Safari drove closer to the helipad in Yellareddy, a small town in Telengana near the Andhra Pradesh-Maharashtra border.
Nara Chandra Babu Naidu, ie NCBN, uses only vehicles with the number 393.
“That was the number of my first car,” Naidu explained later, making light of his fad.
The harsh afternoon sun had heated up the air that had cooled after a morning drizzle. It was 1 pm when his convoy rolled out for the road show in Nizamabad district, a paddy bowl.
But Naidu’s day had begun at 6 am, after a four-hour sleep — his usual routine.
Out of power for five years, it’s a matter of survival for the chief of Telugu Desam Party (TDP), a regional outfit formed by his father-in-law N.T. Rama Rao in 1982. Naidu had ousted NTR from party and chief ministership in 1995 and taken over.
Leading a pitched battle for a state government and 42 seats in the Lok Sabha, Naidu is one person who can seriously influence the formation of government at the Centre — if he dents the Congress in Andhra. That’s a big IF, though.
He is pulling all stops. From being a reformer, he has turned into a populist — and he has U-turned into a supporter of carving out a Telengan state.
“Do you want a colour TV?” he asked the thousands-strong crowd, dressed mostly in loud yellow and pink — the colours of TDP and Telengana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), his partner, respectively — from the roof of his mobile platform. “Do you want Rs 500 to Rs 2,000 transferred to you every month?”
”Yes,” the crowd chanted.
Naidu is ready with his punch line: “Vote for cycle and car.”
“Congressmen have TVs in their bathrooms, kitchens and garages. But when I am offering you one, they are criticising me,” he thundered.
The crowd lapped it up. Some of the younger men whistled in approval and flashed the victory sign, Naidu’s signature greeting. “I don’t want to wave my hand, it’s the Congress symbol.”
A pioneer of liberalisation in the states, Naidu believes the time has come for redistribution of prosperity. “My father-in-law introduced the cheap rice scheme in 1984 for food security. Now, with the cash transfer scheme, we will ensure some financial security for the poor.”
In the Tata Safari, Naidu juggled with four mobile phones. “I will make you an MLC,” he told a disappointed ticket aspirant. Even before he finished one conversation, another phone begins to ring. “I have to do everything to reassure my workers,” he said, smiling wanly.
Besides the four phones, it takes two drivers, two cooks, two helps, dozens of tough NSG commandoes and Andhra Pradesh policemen to keep pace with a leader who survived an assassination attempt in 2003.
The convoy stopped at a small hamlet. Manikkam, his help of 25 years, brings Naidu a bowl of curd rice and papaya. “Fruits and curd rice are good while traveling,” said Naidu, a vegetarian, who doesn’t drink or smoke. Manikkam also keeps his master supplied with buttermilk every few hours.
Lunch over, the journey resumes. There’s less than a week to go before campaigning ends for the first phase. He cannot rest. He has promises to make.