Political parties in power are loathe to admit to being outmanoeuvred and being caught between a rock and a hard place. But the Telugu Desam in Andhra Pradesh in private is in candid mode. Its supremo, Chandrababu Naidu, caught between an aggressive opposition in Andhra and an unhelpful BJP in New Delhi, simply does not know what to do.
August 2 will see a bandh in Andhra Pradesh. The bandh call has been given by the YSR Congress of Jaganmohan Reddy, and supported by the Congress. The protest is over Naidu’s inability to convince Narendra Modi to give Andhra Pradesh Special Category Status (SCS).
“We are in a tight spot,” said a senior TDP leader, who was also part of the meeting of MPs and senior leaders that Naidu summoned in Vijayawada on Sunday. The Andhra chief minister’s predicament is that he can neither disagree with the opposition which is demanding SCS for Andhra nor put a gun to Modi’s head, because after all, the TDP is a part of the same NDA government with two ministers.
The fact of the matter is that with a clear majority for the BJP in the Lok Sabha, there is no compulsion for Modi to agree to Naidu’s wishlist. Modi also knows that when it comes to the Rajya Sabha, Naidu cannot be part of a political arrangement in which the Congress is a player. On the Parliament chessboard, Naidu is therefore in a checkmate situation.
What Naidu is doing is to somehow control how the public perceives the TDP effort to get SCS. He has not stopped some of his motormouth MPs like JC Diwakar Reddy from attacking Modi. Reddy, a firebrand Congressman-turned-TDP leader from Rayalaseema, has predicted the end of the TDP-BJP alliance by March, arguing that Modi is not helping out Andhra because he is scared of Naidu. Reddy, who is dismissed as a non-serious politician by some other TDP leaders, puts forth the fanciful theory that if there are two leaders in India who can dislocate Modi from the post of PM, they are Nitish Kumar and Naidu. And therefore SCS is the casualty.
MLC Buddha Venkanna, a fierce Naidu loyalist, claimed that the PM was taking revenge on the Andhra CM for his criticism after the post-Godhra riots. Such loose talk is hardly going to endear the TDP leadership to Modi.
This criticism is also intended to blunt Jaganmohan Reddy’s barb that Naidu fears Modi. Jagan’s contention is that Naidu cannot mount pressure because the cash-for-vote scam in which Naidu’s voice was allegedly caught on tape could be reopened in by a Naidu-unfriendly Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, with a nudge from the BJP. The case related to the alleged attempt in 2015 by a senior TDP leader to buy an independent MLA’s vote in an election and the entire transaction was caught on camera.
Jagan has everything to gain and nothing to lose. His attempt is to show Naidu as a failure and in that lies his best bet to make an electoral comeback in 2019. He has sat on dharna before to highlight the same issue but did not get any traction.
The Congress has played a smart game. Even though it paid the political price for dividing Andhra Pradesh by not managing to win even a single MP or MLA seat in a state it ruled for a decade from 2004, it tried to exploit the promise made by former PM Dr Manmohan Singh. The former PM had said the Congress will ensure the residuary state of Andhra gets special category status for five years, as part of the Centre handholding a state badly hit by the bifurcation.
So it brought in a private member bill by MP KVP Ramachandra Rao, forcing the BJP and TDP to take specific positions and thereby exposing the faultlines in their relationship. In the Rajya Sabha, one saw the strange sight of Union minister of State YS Choudhary of the TDP differing with Finance minister Arun Jaitley.
The Congress and the YSR Congress also are cosying up to each other and the TDP fears, the two could even have an alliance to prevent the division of the anti-TDP vote. Of course, much of this depends on Sonia Gandhi and Jagan, given the harsh words that have been spoken by YSR’s son against Sonia in the past.
The BJP, which has two ministers in Naidu’s cabinet in Andhra Pradesh, is in silent mode. It knows an attempt is being made by the Congress, TDP and the YSRC to whip up an anti-BJP mood in the state. And despite all its attempts to talk about the funds given under the Act, the people will only be interested in the semantics. SCS or no SCS.
But then the BJP is not a serious player in Andhra and has far less presence in terms of cadre than the three principal political outfits – the TDP, YSR Congress and Congress. It is not a state where it can even hope to make major gains in 2019, should it contest on its own. The diktat given therefore is to keep mum and not react to any of the TDP’s provocative statements, allowing them to let off steam.
Naidu’s problem is that he is racing against time. He has less than three years to finish phase one of his capital project in Amaravati. He has to show progress on Polavaram irrigation project. He has to show that the institutions sanctioned under the Bifurcation Act are functioning. He has to ensure the Rayalaseema and north coastal regions do not feel neglected as a result of his overfocus on coastal Andhra.
Therefore bidding goodbye to the BJP is out of the question for now. The option to pull out his ministers also will be his last gambit, something he would not want to do. Naidu knows that he needs Modi more than Modi needs Naidu.
Politically Naidu also would not want to leave the BJP looking out for political suitors in Andhra, knowing that Jagan could shift gears from Congress to BJP in no time.
The Naidu strategy therefore is to impress upon Modi to announce something that has the word `Special’ in it. “The nomenclature is important. The word `special’ is necesary,” said a TDP leader sheepishly. Since Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have raised objections to any tax incentives that may be given to Andhra under SCS to woo industry, Naidu also plans to appeal to the two states to support him “like brothers”.
Naidu also realises that unlike the late 90s, when he was at the forefront of a Third Front, the possibility of such a formation now is difficult. He still believes the TDP and the BJP are a natural alliance but their ability to do a repeat in 2019 will depend largely on how many of the promises made to Andhra are kept.