Vijayawada: After suffering an embarrassing defeat in the 2019 state and general elections, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief N. Chandrababu Naidu seems to have changed the tone and nature of his arracks on incumbent Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy. The discourse that the party has spun around the chief minister’s faith seems to have drawn inspiration from the BJP’s language, experts say.
After Reddy presented silk robes to the Hindu deity at Tirumala during the Bramhotsavam ceremony, he was accused by the TDP of not stating that he is a Christian in the temple’s register, in line with past precedents.
Not long ago, Naidu sent a message to his one-time ally – the BJP – that he is no longer sailing with the Congress by fielding a candidate in the by-election to Telangana’s Huzurnagar assembly segment. The “grand alliance” formed with the Congress to defeat the Telangana Rastra Samithi during the Telangana state elections became defunct after its poll fiasco.
Naidu played an important role in the efforts to form a nation-wide anti-BJP front during the general election. Though the party did not formally ally with the Congress, it gravitated towards the grand old party as a result of its efforts to unseat Narendra Modi.
However, after the TDP’s rout in the 2019 elections, Naidu now appears to have declared a ceasefire with the NDA government. His party has not only remained silent on some important decision’s taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi but has also backed the NDA’s revocation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir.
While TDP’s founder, actor-politician N.T. Rama Rao, built the party on the rhetoric of self-pride of Telugu people, Naidu did not counter Union home minister Amit Shah’s comments on Hindi. The BJP president said Hindi was necessary to “unite” the country before backing down under pressure from other South Indian political parties, but the TDP chose to remain silent.
Does it signal that Naidu could do a U-turn and join hands with the BJP? TDP insiders who The Wire spoke to confirmed that the former chief minister is mulling over the possibility of extending an olive branch to his former ally. This, party insiders say, may give the TDP enough strength to take on Jagan and save his party, which is currently facing its worst-ever existential crisis.
Naidu under pressure
Naidu has often said that he sees an opportunity in every threat and that his party has faced many hiccups since its inception in 1982. Of course, this is true. The government headed by NTR was toppled by then-governor Ram Lal at the behest of Indira Gandhi. Under NTR’s leadership, the party faced a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Congress in 1989 after surviving a coup.
In 1995, the TDP faced another coup, this time engineered by Naidu himself, who unseated his father-in-law. It remained in power until 2004, before going into hibernation for a decade after Congress leader Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, Jagan’s father, rode to victory. After the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, the TDP was able to emerge comfortably victorious in 2014, with Narendra Modi’s help.
For Naidu, the 2019 election was different: Modi was not his ally; Jagan had the backing of Telangana chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao; Naidu was forced to wage a three-cornered poll battle involving the BJP, YSR Congress and Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party.
The result was a resounding victory for Jagan’s party, which secured 151 of the 175 assembly seats and 22 of the state’s 25 Lok Sabha seats. Since coming to power, the YSR Congress has aggressively attacked the TDP and Naidu, leading many to label the government’s actions as “revenge politics“. A structure adjacent to Naidu’s riverside residence near Amaravati, which was used as a conference hall during his period as CM, was pulled down within days after Jagan came to power. The government has serviced notices to demolish Naidu’s rented building, which allegedly violates environmental norms.
Around this time, the TDP’s firebrand leader in the Palnadu region of Guntur district and former Andhra Pradesh assembly speaker Kodela Sivaprasada Rao killed himself at his Hyderabad residence. Naidu blamed his suicide on Reddy’s “vindictive politics”. The TDP’s former assembly whip, facing several non-bailable criminal cases, landed in jail soon after the YSR Congress government was formed.
The disastrous poll performance also saw several leaders – including four Rajya Sabha members – deserting the TDP and joining the BJP.
The collective impact of these developments was to make keeping the party flock together a daunting task, apart from the party ranks losing confidence.
A former TDP minister, wishing to remain anonymous, said Naidu’s decision to break away from the BJP and align with the Congress, his party’s traditional rival, was a ‘historic blunder’. “We paid a heavy price for this blunder. What we urgently need is a course correction and join hands with our former ally,” he commented. This view is echoed by the party’s old-timers, who form the core. However, other leaders who joined the TDP from the Congress – including Naidu – are flexible with regard to alliances.
The BJP has been a natural and long-time ally of the TDP, even at difficult times for NTR, such came as the 1985 coup. The BJP even helped NTR get back to power with massive public support in the fight against the Congress.
That is the reason why the Kamma caste, to which both NTR and Naidu belong, failed to digest the party’s pro-Congress line. Kammas, who constitute a major funding source for the party, were disheartened by the TDP’s closeness with the Congress and the subsequent poll debacle. According to reports, they have started looking at the BJP in pursuit of greener pastures.
Analysts view the Naidu’s subtle signals to support the saffron party as part of his attempts to check the migration of the Kamma elite. It also has the benefit of seeking support from the ruling party at the Centre in his fight against Jagan.
Kota Sai Krishna, a BJP spokesperson, however, said his party will stick to Amit Shah’s statement that its doors are permanently shut for Naidu. The party’s national president had made the statement after the TDP broke away from the NDA.
Gali Nagaraja is a freelance journalist who writes on the two Telugu states.