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Chandrababu Naidu 2.0: Can he recreate 1996 in 2019 in the Capital?

Chandrababu Naidu cut his teeth in political match-making during the 1996-98 United Front government.

editorials Updated: Nov 10, 2018 08:27 IST
Chandrababu Naidu,United Front,TDP
Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu addresses the media with DMK president MK Stalin at the latter's residence in Chennai on Friday.(PTI)

Nara Chandrababu Naidu, 68, is a serious politician. He is not given to political arm-twisting, knee-jerk reactions or fits of rage associated with most regional satraps. Proof of his maturity lies in the fact that rather than pulling the plug and forcing polls, he distanced himself from the AB Vajpayee government after the 2002 Gujarat riots. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader cut his teeth in political match-making during the 1996-98 United Front (UF) government.

In those years that saw three short-lived regimes, he worked with VP Singh, HS Surjeet, Jyoti Basu, M Karunanidhi, SR Bommai and Lalu Prasad in the making of two Prime Ministers: HD Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral. That was after the end of Vajpayee’s 13-day stint for want of a majority.

In his second avatar as a coalition builder, Naidu ploughs a lonely furrow.

The stalwarts with whom he teamed up over two decades ago are either no more or are in semi-retirement. Prasad is in jail; Mulayam Singh has made way for his son Akhilesh in the Samajwadi Party. Even the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has had a generational change with MK Stalin succeeding the late Karunanidhi.

The wheel, in fact, has turned full circle. Deve Gowda was PM with the outside support of the Congress, which now shares power with his son and chief minister HD Kumaraswamy in Karnataka. The national alliance Naidu seeks to build is an extension of sort of his Telangana experiment where he has a deal with the party headed by Rahul Gandhi.

Regardless of the poll outcome, the Congress-TDP covenant is significant in that it marks a shift away from the party and the man’s anti-Congressism of yore. Naidu’s test is in making the paradigm acceptable to players on the anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spectrum.

The Congress, with which the Andhra chief minister dealt in the late 1990s, was falling apart under Sitaram Kesri, who had an unceremonious ouster when Sonia Gandhi entered active politics. That was shortly after the UF disintegrated and Vajpayee got his second shot at power in the February 1998 polls.

Naidu didn’t just exit as convener of the UF that was formed to keep out the saffron party. He swung far right by his standards, joining forces with the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). He gave it the lifeline till the 2004 polls which unexpectedly brought the Congress-headed United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to power.

If his outside support kept the NDA-I alive, Naidu’s shoulder to Narendra Modi’s wheel in 2013 lent the latter’s campaign the credibility it needed to capture power in Delhi. Their partnership didn’t last because the Modi dispensation had little use for the consensual approach Naidu shared with Vajpayee and wanted to with the current administration.

On meeting Modi and becoming the first Opposition leader to express support for him, Naidu told this writer that his was but a fleeting acquaintance with the new BJP mascot. The lack of familiarity didn’t matter as what guided him was the political necessity of a TDP-BJP pact. The tie-up cracked eventually for want of conviviality.

What broke the camel’s back was the denial of special status to bifurcated Andhra. In another throwback to history, Naidu turned it into a fight for “Telugu pride” in the manner his late father-in-law, NT Ramarao, had against the Congress-controlled Centre in the 1980s.

The political terrain today is vastly different and way more polarised. The threat to democratic institutions then perceived from the Congress under Indira Gandhi are exactly the same threats many opposition leaders believe these institutions face from the BJP under Modi.

The big question is whether Naidu can replicate 1996 in 2019 by flaunting the green shoots in Karnataka and Telangana? Or will the void left by departed stalwarts who had the heft to join political fractures be too wide to fill?

What’s required is not a replication of the jerry-rigged UF. The new political front won’t be credible without a strong core that assures its longevity. The onus to realize that is on the Congress and the inheritors and successors of regional players, including Mulayam Singh and Prasad. The Bahujan Samaj Party wasn’t part of the UF but will be a natural — rather necessary — component of a fresh non-BJP coalition.

It was at Mulayam’s behest that Mayawati was left out in the cold. Two decades on, his son is in talks with her for an alliance that could be a game-changer in Uttar Pradesh. Friends or enemies, as they say, aren’t permanent in politics. Proof of that are the bedfellows in Telangana, Karnataka and possibly UP.

First Published: Nov 10, 2018 08:27 IST