Venkaiah Naidu’s rise through the ranks
As a young man in Andhra Pradesh’s Nellore, outgoing vice president Venkaiah Naidu was drawn to a shakha (branch) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, tempted by the games that he saw being played there.
Muppavaru Venkaiah Naidu, outgoing vice-president of India and chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, is a man of many parts — an organisational man steeped in his party’s ideology, crisis manager, stickler for time, quick-witted, raconteur, badminton player and a gourmet. It was his love for food, particularly non-vegetarian dishes, that played a key role in cementing his political affiliation and ideological affirmation.
As a young man in Andhra Pradesh’s Nellore, he was drawn to a shakha (branch) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, tempted by the games that he saw being played there. Over time, he began to spend more time with the Jana Sangh, the precursor to the Bharatiya Janata Party, but it was not till an off-the-cuff remark by a political acquaintance — that his party affiliation would demand an alteration of his food choices — that compelled him to think hard of his political preference.
An assurance from a Sangh leader that he would not have to give up his preferred non-vegetarian diet was all that he needed; and what began on a playful note ended as a political journey dotted with many highs and a few lows.
Nellore to New Delhi
His early political days saw him emerge as a leader of the Sangh’s student body, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, as president of the students’ union of colleges affiliated to the Andhra University, and in 1974, as the convener of the Jayaprakash Narayan Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti.
Born in 1949, his oratory, organisational abilities and leadership qualities were noticed during the Emergency, when he joined the legion of youth protesting against the then Congress government’s authoritarian decision of imposing Emergency in 1975. Time behind bars during the Emergency was preceded by furtive efforts to print and publish literature, ferrying messages in ingenious ways to evade the authorities and scouting for safe places for fellow campaigners in the fight against a mighty state.
This chapter was a turning point in his journey from Nellore to New Delhi.
Having taken the first steps in politics during the most turbulent times, Naidu was the face and the voice of the BJP in the state where the party did not even have a fledgling presence. As a prominent face of the BJP in the southern region, he overcame the challenges of linguistic barriers and carved a niche for himself in a party that was perceived predominantly an upper caste, Hindi speaking outfit.
He also did not allow other regional leaders such as Jana Krishnamurthy, also a former BJP president, Ananth Kumar and Jagannathrao Joshi, among others, to eclipse his growth in the party. This, a party colleague said, was because while he hails from Andhra Pradesh, now Telangana, Naidu was equally assertive when it came to demanding developmental projects for Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. In doing so, he did not limit himself to a state, but emerged as a representative of entire southern India.
Election to the Andhra Pradesh assembly in 1978 was followed by positions in the party, starting with the BJP‘s youth wing in the state in 1980 to becoming the state president of Andhra Pradesh from 1988 to 1993. At the national level, he became the national general secretary between 1993 and 2000 and held the post of BJP’s national president twice between July and December 2002 and then between January and October 2004.
He morphed from an anti-Hindi campaigner who was part of the Jai Andhra Movement of 1972 into a champion of promoting not just Hindi but all regional and local languages and dialects, insisting that these languages be given respect and recognition.
Naidu often recalls how he was painted black over a Hindi signboard at the peak of the anti-Hindi sentiment and how he looks back with remorse.
It was his push for speaking in languages other than Hindi and English that saw members in the Rajya Sabha hold forth in tongues that had seldom or never been used during House proceedings since 1952. Between 2018 and 2024, Dogri, Kashmiri, Konkani and Santali were used for the first time in the House. Assamese, Bodo, Gujarati, Manipuri and Nepali were also heard after a long gap.
His easy wit and affable nature coupled with his ability to think on his feet while fielding posers from opponents and the media alike saw Naidu secure himself the position of a troubleshooter in the party. With friends across the political spectrum, his position and relevance in the BJP gained more heft. A one-time close confidant of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he rose to become BJP general secretary, and eventually, party president.
Naidu was also among the leaders who survived the generational shift in the BJP that started in 2014 after the party came to power at the Centre under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. By then, the party had imposed a rule that those above 75 were to be elevated to a margdarshak mandal (advisory board) and not given tickets to contest. Naidu, who was still 10 years away from the new cut-off, was given a cabinet berth.
The party also drew from his experiences and though he no longer held a party post, his involvement, particularly in the party’s southern expansion, was evident.
It was often the duo of Naidu and Pramod Mahajan who could be relied upon to solve knotty affairs in the party and break ice with the opposition during stalemates during the Vajpayee days, a second party colleague recalled.
“He is a leader who gained prominence even after the Atal-Advani era. As general secretary of the party, his legacy was grooming a generation of leaders who eventually rose to great heights. His attitude was always encouraging, particularly towards the younger leaders. He is quick with appreciation and equally quick with checking aberrations,” the colleague said.
After the defeat of the BJP in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, he resigned from the party president’s post and was succeeded by LK Advani. His new designation as the party‘s senior vice-president was seen as a step down for a leader of his stature.
But in 2014, he was given charge of the urban development ministry and the ministry of parliamentary affairs. True to his style, Naidu quipped that he was given a promotion. He was referring to his portfolio of rural development minister during the Vajpayee era.
Bouquets and brickbats
Naidu’s presidency was marked by several measures aimed at the party’s expansion. In 2003, he courted controversy when ahead of next general election he urged the cadre to prepare for polls under the joint leadership of “loh and vikas purush” (Advani and Vajpayee). His statement was met with a bristling jibe from Vajpayee, who retorted he was “na tired, na retired” (not tired, nor retired). And the storm quickly passed over.
As president, he was known to epitomize the Sangh’s instruction of charivati charivati, or keep moving, keep moving. He spent 20 days a month travelling. And party colleagues hoping to catch him for a meeting had to be prepared for rushing to his place at 4am, because he preferred to head out and catch the earliest plane or train.
He was also known for his resolve and decision making.
A leader, who has worked closely with the Naidu, recalled how he was given the task of organising a public meeting in Kashmir at the peak of terrorism, and no amount of cajoling or excuses made him budge. The meeting was eventually held, albeit with fewer people in attendance.
A third colleague remembers how as party chief he had no qualms in offering to translate a minister’s speech from Hindi to Telegu.
The critics, however, lament that while his stature in Andhra Pradesh grew over the years, the same could not be said of the party and other leaders. There were rumblings that he did not push hard enough to dislodge the Telugu Desam Party from its dominant position in the state.
A generation of young leaders who were groomed in the Vajpayee-Adavani era looked up to Naidu as an older brother even though there was competition and division of political camps. Arun Jaitley had given him the sobriquet of big brother as he would ensure that the younger crop of leaders was looked after. “After our meetings, he would have us all over to a hotel room or his home, serve us the best food. Who zaati rishte nibhane mein maahir hai (he’s an expert in maintaining close ties),” said the third leader.
Naidu has also been known as a leader who does not shy away from expressing his emotions in public. While talking to a group of reporters, he spoke through tears about his mother’s passing during his infancy and how not having a single photograph of her was a lasting regret.
Acrimonious scenes in the Rajya Sabha also brought tears to his eyes, and on more than one occasion, he broke down while addressing the House of Elders. Unlike politicians who prefer dark glasses to mask their tears, Naidu‘s presence at the last rites of two of his closest party colleagues and friends, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, shedding copious tears at the loss was a profound image.
Naidu‘s ability to step in as a crisis manager and his parliamentary acumen were a key reason the party found in him the perfect fit for the chairperson’s position in the Rajya Sabha where it did not have numbers on its side. It was his deft handling of parliamentary affairs that the party relied on when some of the most acrimonious scenes played out during his tenure when members tore papers, climbed atop tables, smashed microphones during the protest against farm laws in 2020, and later saw the highest number of suspensions during a single session recently.
Appreciation and admonishment were hallmarks of his tenure as the chairperson of the Rajya Sabha. On any given day, when presiding over the House, he handed out compliments and counsel and sometimes rebuke. Sometimes, it was a chiding remark to a member, reminding them of rules, and on other occasions, an amusing acronym that had the House cackling.
While his love for acronyms and alliteration was often at display during his speeches, as chairman of the standing committees, he meant business. He would show up for meetings much before the members would arrive. A lawmaker who once took it up as a challenge to arrive before Naidu, said he was shocked that no matter how hard he tried, he’d arrive to find Naidu already sitting there.
For the man who made friends with the political opponents, a befitting farewell remark came from a fellow MP and a leader he often sparred with. Congress parliamentarian Jairam Ramesh, borrowing from Naidu’s love for alliteration and Vajpayee’s famed words, said: “He may have retired, but I know he will not be tired.”