Midway through the election campaign in Telangana, Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) changed his narrative. KCR made it seem to the electorate that it needed to choose between him -a son of the soil - and Chandrababu Naidu, who would end up ruling Telangana by remote control from Amaravati. The ploy worked. On December 11, when the results came in, KCR's party had an overwhelming majority in the Telangana assembly with 88 MLAs and Naidu's Telugu Desam Party was reduced to just two.
Naidu seems to have decided to borrow this weapon from KCR's armoury. Nothing else explains his decision to go for the jugular by pitching the 2019 battle in Andhra Pradesh as one between him and Narendra Modi. His first move was to ask the people of Andhra Pradesh to boycott the Prime Minister on January 6, when he was scheduled to visit the state to address a BJP public meeting, most likely in Guntur.
"The best way to express our resentment and teach Modi a befitting lesson is to boycott his visit,'' says Naidu. The prime minister has now postponed his visit reportedly to the end of the month.
It is easy to understand Naidu's plan. Just like KCR made Naidu the villain of the piece by pointing to letters written reportedly to the Centre to stall Telangana's irrigation projects, the TDP chief wants all the blame for Andhra's problems since its bifurcation in 2014 to be laid at PM Modi's door. The argument is that but for PM Modi, Andhra would have prospered. Conversely, if Andhra has still managed well on several indices, it is all because of Naidu's quality of governance. Heads I win, tails you lose.
The question is whether the people of Andhra Pradesh will buy into Naidu's script. Four and a half years ago, Andhra Pradesh invested in Naidu because it felt an administrator of his experience would be needed to steer the residuary state. The fact that he had sewn an alliance with the ruling BJP, it was felt, would translate to generous funds from New Delhi. The marriage has gone sour and now Naidu is going to the people with the message that he trusted the wrong person and that the Congress - the original villain of the Andhra story, having divided the state - is a better partner.
It is a high-risk strategy. Naidu is aware that in the last one year, Jaganmohan Reddy has hit the ground running with his padyatra from Kadapa to Srikakulam. Being among the people in flesh and blood and walking the extra mile has traditionally worked in Indian politics and Naidu is not blind to this. His mission is to convince people that Jagan Mohan Reddy is the BJP's proxy in Andhra. This way, he hopes, voter resentment against the BJP will work against the YSR Congress on polling day. The calculation is that just like KCR successfully used the Telangana sentiment card against Naidu and the opposition alliance in the state elections, Naidu can use the Andhra self-respect card, implying only he can get justice for the state.
No surprise then that the tone of the anti-Modi diatribe is shrill.
"Is Modi visiting the state to see whether we are dead or alive? Or his visit is intended to rake up the bifurcation wounds,'' Naidu had asked at public meetings.
Naidu's intention is to push Jagan and the other factor in this mix, actor-politician Pawan Kalyan, into committing a stand on PM Modi and the BJP. Their reluctance to do so, the TDP chief hopes, will reinforce his conspiracy theory of a behind-the-scenes deal. Realising Naidu's gameplan, the YSR Congress has kept up its public protests for special status for Andhra by holding demonstrations in Delhi.
In April, PM Modi had to face the embarrassment of being greeted with black balloons and flags during a visit to Chennai. The hashtag #GoBackModi trended on social media that day. The protesters were upset over the delay by the Centre in setting up the Cauvery management board. But for Naidu, who shared power with Modi till March, both in New Delhi and Amaravati, to borrow the Chennai template openly is a pointer to the bitter fallout.
Naidu has perhaps overlooked the possibility that the people of Andhra will not forget he accepted a special package in lieu of special status in 2017, and only changed his tune after Jagan accused him of betraying Andhra's interests. Naidu also supported demonetization and even took credit for the idea within hours of the PM's surprise announcement in November 2016.
Naidu is playing on dual turf, linking Andhra's fortunes to what happens nationally. At the national level, he is hoping for an anti-BJP front taking power so that he can deliver on the promise of special category status to Andhra. He would then hope to sell that dream to the people of Andhra and tell them to give him a second chance, this time with a new team.
(Uma Sudhir is Executive Editor, NDTV)
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