One evening in early 1981, Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, then at the peak of his celluloid glory, happened to attend a party thrown by a Hyderabad bigwig. As usual, the host — and a good number of the guests — kept fawning over him from the moment he arrived. But a little later, the then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, T. Anjaiah, turned up too. To NTR’s shock, the host and most of the guests immediately abandoned him to cluster around the chief minister instead. The lesson NTR imbibed: real power and glory resided in politics, not films.
At first his political ambition was limited. All he wanted was a Rajya Sabha seat. But the Andhra Congress, in its shortsighted arrogance, turned him down. Miffed, NTR decided he would set up his own party and challenge the Congress.
What followed was the stuff of fantasy, more akin to the script of some of the 300-odd films he’d acted in than real life.
Here was a man who had had nothing to do with politics until then. He launched his Telegu Desam Party (TDP) in March 1982.
Following assembly elections at the end of the year, which the TDP swept, by January 1983, he was Andhra’s chief minister.
Of course circumstances helped. In his film career, NTR had portrayed a host of gods from the Hindu pantheon, and many of the simpler folk in his state, identified him with them. More importantly, the Opposition space in Andhra politics was then almost empty. The main Opposition party in Andhra after Independence had been the undivided Communist Party, but hit badly by the split into CPI and CPI(M) in 1964, it never recovered.
To help NTR further, then Congress general secretary — a certain Rajiv Gandhi — ticked off CM Anjaiah at Hyderabad airport in full public view around the same time. Defeating the Congress suddenly became a matter of Telugu atma gauravam (Telugu self respect).
Andhra’s reverence for NTR and antipathy to the Congress was so strong then that even in the Lok Sabha elections of December 1984, when, following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the country was awash in a sympathy wave for Rajiv, the Congress won over 400 of the 543 seats — but the TDP still got 30 of Andhra’s 42 seats and became the largest Opposition party in Parliament.
NTR’s rule, however, proved a mixed bag. On the one hand, he conceived and implemented the first ‘cheap rice for the poor’ scheme, which has been copied endlessly since then by numerous other states. He was also the granddaddy of ‘Front politics’ — organising conclaves of Opposition CMs to take on the Congress together.
He was also tremendously charismatic. “People believed him when he said he had made enough money in films, and had not come into politics for personal gain,” said Shravan Kumar, social activist.
But on the other, there were his eccentricities which he gladly publicised — wearing a sari to bed, holding official meetings at 3 am, dressing himself a la Swami Vivekananda and neglecting day to day administration. He returned with a resounding majority — 215 seats out of 294 — when Indira Gandhi tried to unseat him in 1984, but five years later, having ruled a full term, he found his people ready to bring back the once-hated Congress to power, rather than put up with his rule anymore.
One man, who initially seemed to be on the wrong side of history, was his son in law, Nara Chandrababu Naidu, married to his daughter Bhuvaneshwari.
Joining the Congress, Chandrababu was a minister in the T. Anjaiah government, when the NTR phenomenon shook the state. Not surprisingly, contesting on a Congress ticket, he lost the next election. Teaming up with his father -in-law, he was elected in 1989, but this time TDP lost the poll.
When NTR returned to power again in 1994, Naidu hoped to finally find his place in the sun. Instead, he saw his prospects of inheriting NTR’s mantle diminishing rapidly.
NTR by then had acquired a young second wife, Lakshmi Parvati, and seemed determined to make her his successor.
Naidu organised a revolt in August 1995. He found most TDP MLAs as aghast as himself at the prospect of being led by Parvati and all too willing to join him in splitting the party.
NTR died in 1996 a disappointed and marginalised old man.
And yet, such is the NTR charisma, that even during his present poll campaign, Chandrababu has been seeking votes in the name of the very man he betrayed.
The NTR mystique endures. It explains why the Congress values D. Purandeswari, his second daughter, enough to offer her the Visakhapatnam seat when her earlier seat, Bapatla, became a reserved one after delimitation.
It explains too why Chandrababu has been flaunting ‘Junior NTR’ — NTR’s grandson, who bears the same name, and at 25, is a rising Telegu film star — as his star campaigner in these elections.
It shows in the way the crowd goes into raptures every time Junior NTR repeats snatches of dialogue from his grandfather’s films at the TDP rallies.