Chandrababu Naidu, a quintessential political ally who needs deferential handling | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Chandrababu Naidu, a quintessential political ally who needs deferential handling

By Vinod Sharma
Jun 12, 2024 08:36 AM IST

Having styled himself as a development icon in Andhra, the TDP leader has had a hand thus far in the making of three PMs: HD Deve Gowda, Inder Kumar Gujral and Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Chandrababu Naidu is a maker, not a disruptor. As a serious political ally, he has helped build and save, not rock, coalitions in power. Those who disagree must look at his track record and compare it with his contemporaries, dead or alive, who failed to pass muster in identical roles.

Naidu can, in fact, gain from his experience in managing difficult coalitions. (PTI photo)
Naidu can, in fact, gain from his experience in managing difficult coalitions. (PTI photo)

Having styled himself as a development icon in Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader has had a hand thus far in the making of three prime ministers: HD Deve Gowda, Inder Kumar Gujral and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. When he takes oath, Narendra Modi will be the fourth in that order.

Naidu played the unflappable Mr Sagacious in difficult political situations in the first three instances. His managerial skills and ability to balance his own priorities with those of coalitions in which he had stakes, shone while he dealt with powerful peers with difficult temperaments. He stayed the course as he was well-regarded by others who competed with one another. That was also because he never laid claim to the PM’s office.

Also Read: Also Read: Naidu to take oath as Andhra CM on June 12 at Amaravati

This lesson from the past should be instructive for the BJP leadership on how to deal with Naidu. He shouldn’t be given the short shrift that made him walk out of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 2018. They can, in fact, gain from his experience in managing difficult coalitions. He responds to reason and isn’t given to throwing tantrums the way Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee did with Vajpayee.

United Front experience

During the 1996-98 United Front coalition, a permanent thorn by Naidu’s side was Sitaram Kesri, the mercurial Congress president who had an axe to grind with Deve Gowda. Others with vaulting ambitions and pathological interpersonal rivalries were Mulayam Singh Yadav (Samajwadi Party), Lalu Prasad (Rashtriya Janata Dal) and to some extent Harkishen Singh Surjeet, the Marxist veteran who, in sum, was an enabler with preferences of his own.

For instance, on Deve Gowda’s fall, the CPI-M general secretary lobbied hard for Mulayam whom Lalu did not want. But for Naidu’s political savvy and former premier VP Singh’s tacit advice, Gujral couldn’t have become PM. As a technocrat who wasn’t a challenge to anyone in popular politics, he became the consensus pick through a process of elimination, not as much selection.

The UF-2 government fell eventually to the internal Congress shenanigans with Arjun Singh making a big issue of the Jain Commission report (on the conspiracy aspect of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination) that pointed a “needle of suspicion” at the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Using the Gandhi name, Singh could predicate the Congress support on DMK’s ouster. Gujral refused.

Losing patience with the UF, which in any case was headed to extinction, Naidu quit as its convener to tie up with Vajpayee for the 1999 polls. His explanation to this writer for what ostensibly was an ideological paradigm shift was: “The Andhra people want to see Vajpayee as PM. I have to partake of the sentiment to stay relevant in the state -- without which I can’t be relevant at the Centre.” He promised in the same breath to be a ‘restraining’ influence on the BJP which he indeed was as the Vajpayee dispensation’s key outside supporter.

Falling out with Modi 1.0

In 2014, Naidu became the first big regional player outside the NDA ambit to articulate support for Modi. They even shared power before falling out on the TDP’s demand for the “special status” promised to Andhra at time of its bifurcation from Telangana.

Naidu had made a strong case for it in the PM’s presence at the 2015 foundation-laying ceremony of the new capital at Amaravati. Among all southern states, Andhra alone did not have a “revenue generating” centre after losing Hyderabad to Telengana.

There was no forward movement on the issue for a good three years when the proverbial straw broke the camel’s back in 2018. As the Centre prevaricated, Naidu quit the NDA to join forces with the Opposition United Progressive Alliance (UPA). What followed was a bitter verbal spat in the run up to the 2019 elections which the UPA lost nationally and the TDP regionally.

Historical irony

The wheel now has turned full circle. In a repeat of 1999, Naidu is backing from a position of strength a weakened Modi, a la Vajpayee. After his first interactions in Delhi, he indicated that the terms of engagement were in the works. “The (power-sharing) issue didn’t come up from their side neither did I raise it,” he told this writer. The only point of certainty is the TDP will stay put in the NDA: “We contested elections together. My credibility with the people is non-negotiable.”

Be that as it may, there’s a historical irony about this equation. A votary that he is, like Vajpayee, of “coalition and raj dharma”, Naidu took a very difficult call after the 2002 Gujarat riots to continue backing the government at the Centre. Instead of taking back his outside support, which would’ve brought down the NDA edifice, he allowed himself to be persuaded by Farooq Abdullah who privately argued that with what face would his National Conference stay in the government if Naidu decided to quit.

he middle course Naidu then took was to symbolically distance himself from the BJP. He did not take the Lok Sabha speakership after the death of the incumbent, GMC Balayogi, his party nominee who was killed in a chopper crash. That set the stage for the Shiv Sena’s Manohar Joshi getting the prized job. In another rearguard action to assuage his minority support base, Naidu played a key role in tandem with the SP’s Amar Singh, in the 2002 elections of APJ Abdul Kalam as the Republic’s 11th president.

But the attempted damage-control did not work. The political price Naidu paid for being a reliable, credible ally to the BJP was evident in his 2004 washout and the emergence of the Congress’s YS Rajasekhara Reddy in Andhra.

He later cited his failure to withdraw support to the NDA as one of the major reasons for his defeat besides the disproportionate focus he put on developing Hyderabad as a cyber hub rivalling Bengaluru. He told this writer later: “It was a mistake not to plough to the countryside some of the extra revenue we earned on account of first-generation reforms.”

In this backdrop, the TDP chief has a legitimate case to revive his demand of special status for Andhra. Very much linked to it could be his choice of ministerial portfolios in the event of the TDP’s direct participation in governance. The bridge will be crossed when the alliance gets to it.

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