When the election schedule was announced, NTR and his men were at Nirmal (then in Adilabad district, now a separate district). The Chaitanya Ratham immediately changed its route and headed towards Hyderabad. The selection of party candidates is a very important process requiring an elaborate exercise in any election.

The list was prepared at NTR’s Abids residence. Upendra, Shekhar and Satyanarayana used to compare notes and prepare a list of candidates after interviews and submit the list to NTR, whose decision was supposed to be final. Ramoji Rao, the owner of Eenadu, got the party manifesto prepared by experts and printed in his own press. Publicity material and pamphlets were also printed at his facility. NTR used to consult the media baron on almost every issue. Ramoji Rao divided the state into four zones and appointed supervisors to conduct a methodical survey to prepare a list of candidates who had good chances of winning.

One day, Ramoji Rao feigning innocence, casually asked NTR what was being done to shortlist suitable candidates. NTR said three of his trusted men (Upendra, Shekhar and Satyanarayana) were in charge. Unimpressed, Ramoji Rao said: “How can Shekhar and Satyanarayana, who mingle with the people for half an hour, and Upendra, who talks to the people who come on to the stage to greet you, prepare a list of candidates? Is it a political party or a vegetable market?”

NTR soothed the news honcho and suggested. “Let us sit together. We will prepare the final list after comparing the names recommended by the two teams.” This was done at Ramoji Rao’s residence.

NTR and Ramoji Rao sat as final arbitrators in the middle, flanked by representatives of Ramoji Rao on one side and the three assistants of NTR on the other. When they went through the lists discussing the names, 90 per cent of the names matched. NTR was very happy. He jocularly asked Ramoji Rao, “Didn’t our people do a good job?”

Of the 287 candidates the TDP fielded, 28 were postgraduates and 125 were graduates; they included physicians, lawyers and engineers. There were forty Dalit candidates. The average age of the TDP candidates was forty-one years as against Congress’s fifty. The Congress could not boast of such highly qualified candidates as the TDP’s.

All the TDP candidates were called and photographed with NTR. They were sent back to the constituencies with publicity material. Upendra was not fielded. He was made coordinator at the party’s head office. Dr Daggubati Venkateswara Rao, NTR’s elder son-in-law, did not contest. The younger son-in-law, Nara Chandrababu Naidu, was a minister in the Congress government.

Babu, as Naidu was popularly called, told Daggubati, “According to my estimate NTR will never get more than 5 per cent of Assembly seats...To what extent will his cine glamour fetch votes? He will not win...I am quite comfortable as a minister in the Congress government.”

In an election meeting at Nandyal town in old Kurnool district (now Nandyal district), Congress leader Bojja Venkata Reddy dramatically asked the crowd, “Do you want Indira Gandhi, a tried and trusted friend of the weaker sections, or NTR, a film personality who is playing gimmicks to get publicity?” To the utter surprise of the Congress leader, the answer was a roaring “NTR”.

In the run-up to the 1983 elections, Opposition parties, which were rivals to the Congress Party, proposed to have an electoral understanding with the TDP to avoid multi-cornered contests. The Janata, CPM, CPI, Lok Dal and the Republican Party of India (RPI) came together to form Progressive Democratic Front (PDF). During the talks with NTR and Bhaskar Rao, the PDF leaders offered 174 seats to the TDP.

NTR told them that he would not like to form a coalition government and would prefer to win a majority on his own to form the TDP government. He estimated that he would be able to win 60 per cent of the seats his party contested and, therefore, asked for 250 seats. As a final bargain, the PDF leaders asked for at least 90 seats. The talks failed and NTR decided to go alone. The TDP and PDF contested separately. It helped NTR immensely.

A fifteen-point manifesto covering food, shelter and clothing as main features was released by TDP.

The fledgling TDP had neither funds nor any party network. There were some districts that NTR had not been able to cover by the time the election schedule was suddenly announced. NTR then set out on the third and final phase of the campaign, attracting massive crowds. By then, people in Andhra and Rayalaseema regions were talking in terms of a landslide victory for the TDP. In Telangana, too, people gathered in large numbers at NTR’s meetings. However, enthusiasm levels were a little low compared to coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema.

Tirupati, one of the constituencies from which he was contesting, was the last leg of NTR’s whirlwind campaign. On 3 January 1983, the Chaitanya Ratham reached the temple town. Indira Gandhi’s public meeting in Tirupati also was scheduled for the same day, the last day of the campaign. Permission for the TDP meeting was withheld till the last minute. As per the earlier plan, NTR was scheduled to visit surrounding villages before addressing the public meeting at Tirupati, which was supposed to take place after the prime minister’s meeting was over.

Indira Gandhi arrived in Tirupati in the afternoon, thinking her party had fair chances of retaining power in the state. She drove in an open-top jeep through the main streets of the town to reach the Municipal High School grounds, the venue of her last meeting in the campaign. The Congress leaders had organised a big crowd, ferrying them in from the surrounding areas by various modes of transport.

Upendra and other TDP leaders who were in Tirupati to supervise the arrangements had come up with a mischievous idea. They requested NTR, who was touring in the hamlets, to enter Tirupati town without waiting for the scheduled time. Within minutes, the mikes blared announcing NTR’s arrival and asking people to gather at the venue of the TDP meeting, which was just a kilometre away from the school where the Congress meeting was in progress.

On hearing the announcement, people started leaving the venue even though Indira Gandhi was on the dais. Indira appealed to the people to stay back. The state Congress leaders repeatedly requested them to sit down and listen to the Prime Minister. Chandrababu Naidu, who was one of the organisers, tried to physically stop people from leaving. Soon, the venue looked deserted.

This kind of thing had never happened to Indira Gandhi, an established crowd-charmer. She understood that there was a strong NTR wave and that her party’s defeat was imminent. She blamed the state leaders for not informing her of the ground realities. She spoke briefly, hitting out at NTR and asked the people not to believe the actor’s promises.

Indira Gandhi was never a good speaker, certainly not comparable to NTR. This time she fumbled like she had never done before, groping for the right words in her rambling speech. Addressing a Telugu audience in English was a disadvantage. The translator bungled. PV Narasimha Rao was not there. From the venue she directly went to the airport and left for Delhi with a heavy heart, sure that her party would be trounced.

Meanwhile, NTR was speaking to a huge crowd. The excited audience heard him, responding enthusiastically to every punch line he delivered. “For thirty-five years the Telugus were subjected to humiliation. Their self-esteem was trampled upon. In four years, four chief ministers were changed in as many years as though they were lifeless toys. Yet, nobody protested. There were 294 MLAs representing six crore people in the State. Yet, Delhi chose to dump faceless MLCs or MPs (the reference was to Bhavanam Venkatram and Kotla Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy) on the state with impunity. Did this mean that none of the people’s representatives was “manly” enough to rule the state? How long did Indira Gandhi think she could go on humiliating the proud Telugu race in this fashion? Just because her cronies in the state had no guts to protest against this, it did not mean that the Telugus would take it lying down. In a country ruled by a woman Prime Minister, was it not a disgrace that women did not feel safe enough to move about?”

This was the refrain in the thousands of speeches he made throughout the length and breadth of the state. His message to his admirers at Tirupati meeting was simple and clear: “The Congress (I) have given the Telugus a raw deal. The state has gone downhill while the rulers, their relatives and chamchas (sycophants) have lined their pockets with public money meant for development. Give me your votes in the coming election. I promise you a clean government free of corruption, lethargy and inefficiency.”

NTR: A Political Biography

Excerpted with permission from NTR: A Political Biography, Ramachandra Murthy Kondubhatla, HarperCollins India.