A Bus as War-Room, Office and Home for Chandrababu Naidu

Visakhapatnam: A large mint-green-and-white bus has become the centre of gravity for Visakhapatnam, which was whipped into chaos by Cyclone Hudhud six days ago.

It is this bus that has turned into the makeshift office of Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, who has shifted base from the capital of Hyderabad to the port town of Vizag as it's known to ensure his administration delivers.

Mr Naidu, 64, sleeps (sparingly, his aides say), eats and works out of this bus that has been parked since Monday outside the main government office or Collectorate in Visakhapatnam.

Today, a third Of Vizag is no longer without power. By Sunday evening, the entire city should have electricity, a press release from the government said. The local airport, whose roof was torn away by fierce winds, is back in action, with hand-written boarding passes and tarpaulin covering the passenger terminal. Fuel is available freely and there are no lines at petrol pumps. And everyday, food is being served and dry rations are being distributed to thousands of people.

That is not enough, he says, to the dozen or so officials and ministers he is able to meet within his bus, and also to the hundreds he addresses inside the collectorate every day, followed by a mandatory press briefing, as he receives updates and assigns an expansive to-do list to top bureaucrats and officers.

Mr Naidu has said that his first priority, once the alert for Hudhud was sounded, was to minimize casualties. About 20 people died in Andhra Pradesh. Nearly 1,50,000 people were evacuated. "People in Vizag are losing confidence, they are demoralised," the Chief Minister told NDTV, seated inside the bus, sparing a few minutes between meetings. "I need to be here until the last man feels he is up and until the last electrical pole is energized."

It is this commitment - action rather than the words of a politician - that has earned him much credit both within and outside Vizag since the cyclone hit with insidious force. His aides have told people he is available around the clock to meet with them at his bus; for those who work with and for him, his presence signals he is willing to be held to the same standard of accountability that he levies on them.  

The bus is comfortable but basic: a sofa, television, tele-conferencing screen. He has a small bedroom with a bed slightly larger than a railway berth.

Mr Naidu was re-elected to office in May after 10 years. He has the impatience of a man with an excess of ideas, and not enough officers or hours to implement them.

By 11 am, he is ready to go into the field. He will arrive unannounced, talk to people, get feedback. That will be useful information that he will tally with reports later in the evening from his officials. Right at the collectorate gate, agitated women say water tankers have not visited their neighbourhood in the last few days. He intervenes, issues instructions to officials, and finds the time to tick off a leftist NGO for "unnecessarily instigating people instead of helping find solutions." Mr Naidu also shares that in another area, tribal belt of Araku and Paderu, there is no road link and they are struggling without food or water.

He has not been afraid of losing his temper. In a meeting with top telecom executives, he accused them of "being driven only by profit" because phone lines in Vizag were taking too long to reconnect.

It is 7 pm by the time he returns to his bus. He is spartan in his eating, surviving on a handful of dry fruits on his journey.

"Last night, we had finished the meetings and dispersed at 12:30 am. While coming down from the meeting hall towards his bus, the Chief Minister says, 'let us go into the city to see how far road clearance works have progressed'. So by the time we were back it was nearly 2 am," says special advisor to the Andhra Pradesh government, Parakala Prabhakar. "His tough routine, Spartan ways, ability to put in so much hard work, puts a lot of people to shame," he says.

That could be dismissed as an officer's praise for his boss, except that across districts, similar compliments are offered by people who have been gruelingly tested by the cyclone.

"With so much destruction, it would be very difficult to get back. But with Chandrababu Naidu as chief minister, we feel more confident," said software professional Suresh.

Mr Naidu is likely to remain in Vizag till he is satisfied about a job accomplished. Late at night, the lights in his bus are blazing. A city waits to be reconfigured.