Naidu-Rahul meet: Is 'Mahagathbandhan' A Work in Progress?

Having fallen out with the BJP over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘step-motherly’ treatment of his state, N. Chandrababu Naidu seems just the right candidate to play his part in knitting together an anti-Modi coalition.

Politics makes strange bedfellows. Constant churning and rumblings in the Indian political climate can best be described through clichés. That makes the task of understanding the game of political see-saw a little less taxing to the mind. Otherwise, who would think a party like the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which was founded on the principles of anti-Congressism, shall even think of exploring opposition unity with Congress in mind for the forthcoming elections to the Lok Sabha.

Yet when Andhra Pradesh chief Minister and TDP president N. Chandrababu Naidu called on Congress president Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi, it only pointed to one undeniable fact that a ‘mahagatbandhan’ (grand alliance) is very much a work-in-progress.

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It will be premature to predict the shape and outcome of this meeting, but given the timing and the warmth the two leaders exuded indicates it was not just a courtesy call. In a first, the TDP and Congress have formed an alliance for the Telangana assembly elections due on December 7. Both parties have found a common enemy in the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi (TRS) led by K. Chandrashekar Rao.

In fact, as the country gears up for assembly elections in five states, in at least three states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh – there is a direct contest between the BJP and the Congress. In Telangana, though TRS is going it all alone, a post-poll alliance with the BJP is not ruled out. These elections are touted as the semi-final before next year’s Lok Sabha poll grand finale. This only adds significance to the timing of Naidu-Rahul meeting.

Mayawati with Sonia Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Tejashwi Yada, Rahul Gandhi among others. Credit: PTI

Regional leaders on a single stage

Other than Rahul Gandhi, Naidu also called on NCP leader Sharad Pawar and National Conference patriarch Farooq Abdullah. Over the last few weeks, Naidu has reached out to other regional satraps including Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, BSP supremo Mayawati, Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, Karnataka CM H.D. Kumaraswamy and other southern parties. In fact, Naidu is said to be keen on forming a southern federation along with the Dravidian parties.

Both Rahul and Naidu seemed to have buried their hatchet to forge a bond of friendship for a cause dear to both: defeat BJP and deny Narendra Modi a second term. On his part, Naidu is willing to forgive the Congress led UPA-II for bifurcating Andhra Pradesh. A small yet an interesting aside here: Naidu’s political career started with the Congress. He was part of Sanjay Gandhi’s youth brigade and entered the state assembly for the first time in 1978 on a Congress ticket.

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A seasoned politician, Naidu was twice the chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh. Naidu rose within the TDP after overthrowing his popular father-in-law N.T. Rama Rao, who was into his third term as the state’s chief minister and the numero uno TDP leader. The coup led to his takeover of the TDP in 1995 and Naidu went on to be the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh for two successive terms. He played a pivotal role in the formation of the United Front government in 1996, led first by Kumaraswamy’s father H.D. Deve Gowda and later by I.K. Gujral. He drifted towards the NDA and was an important ally and partner in the A.B. Vajpayee government.

All this hectic parleys with national and regional leaders perhaps also point to Naidu’s growing personal ambitions. Is he counting himself as a PM proabable? On the face of it, Naidu appears to be telling one and all his mission is to “save democracy” and bring like-minded and even disparate forces on a common platform with a “common agenda”, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

AP chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and PM Narendra Modi.

An itch to make a mark on the national political stage

Naidu is 68 years old and in his third term as CM following a ten-year stint as leader of the opposition. The itch to make a mark on the national political stage must be preying on his mind. Having fallen out with the BJP over PM Modi’s ‘step-motherly’ treatment of his state, he seems just the right candidate to play his part in knitting together an anti-Modi coalition.

Though his Andhra ship also sank when India refused to ‘shine’ any further for Vajpayee in 2004, Naidu’s urban-centric pro-development image in his last stint as chief minister was hyped in equal measure as that of Modi in Gujarat, minus the latter’s fetish for propaganda bordering on kitsch and his inability to see colours beyond saffron.

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This could be Naidu’s do or die moment. He does not seem content playing just the part of crusader for ‘democracy’ But the very fact that he is talking in this metaphor hints that he has identified his opponent, as also his would-be friends. The opposition, including Naidu, seems to be drawing comfort from a collective sense of schadenfreude following a few hard knocks Modi’s popularity has taken past few months as ghosts of demonetisation and GST return to haunt him in the penultimate leg of impending elections. The opposition’s dubbing of the Rafale fighter jets deal as a scam only seems to have added to Modi’s cup of woes.

The opposition seem to be putting all their prime minister probables in one basket. It may just prove to be a perfect recipe for disaster.

The Congress’s quandry

The Congress seems to be in a quandary whether to project Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate. If numbers do not play out favourably, the party might throw its weight behind a leader from outside the Congress camp to keep Modi away from power. That will open the game for regional satraps like Naidu to step in and stack things in their favour.

But given the conflict of interest and one-upmanship, the idea of yet another coalition may after all remain just what it is: wishful thinking. North versus south divide shall come into focus sharply once things get down to brass tacks and this may adversely impact Naidu’s acceptance quotient. Aspirations of strong Hindi-belt players like Mayawati, who shows her hand only in the last moment, cannot be discounted. A last-minute bid by Sharad Pawar or Mamata Banerjee for the coveted PM post cannot be ruled out. The opposition seem to be putting all their prime minister probables in one basket. It may just prove to be a perfect recipe for disaster.

Prabhat Shunglu is a journalist and author of Newsroom Live.