News Analyisis

Modi ignoring calls and the threat from Jagan: Why Chandrababu Naidu is taking on the BJP

The Andhra Pradesh chief minister is hoping to wrest control of the narrative in the face of anti-incumbency.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu on Wednesday gave Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet its biggest jolt yet, announcing that the two Telugu Desam Party ministers in government would be stepping down. Naidu said that the decision was taken after the party failed to convince the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to provide “special category status”, under which additional funds would be granted, to Andhra Pradesh. The TDP, which with 16 Lok Sabha seats is the third-largest constituent in the National Democratic Alliance, has not yet withdrawn support to the government, but that possibility remains very real. On Thursday, the two BJP members in the Andhra Pradesh cabinet also resigned.

Because of the numbers in the Lok Sabha (though the BJP’s brute majority is now reduced to only one seat more than the halfway mark by itself), the BJP could lose every one of its allies and still pass a no-confidence test. This has insulated Modi’s cabinet from the drama that often consumed the government in the Congress-run United Progressive Alliance years, when allies had much more sway over the Centre’s decisions. In that sense, even if the TDP leaves the NDA – which it has not done yet – it would not endanger the government.

But that does not mean the act is without consequences. Here is a quick run down of what these developments might mean:

‘Special’ problem

The reason being given for TDP’s tantrum is its demand for Andhra Pradesh to be given “special category status”. This label, first recognised by the Finance Commission in 1969, was created to address the financial needs of particularly needy states, with the National Developmental Council later setting down guidelines for which states would qualify. Once recognised as special, states are given much more funds from the Centre. Although Andhra Pradesh does not fit those guidelines, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised five years of special status to the state after its bifurcation, when the revenue-generating city of Hyderabad went to the newly formed Telangana instead. The BJP at the time went even further, saying it would give Andhra Pradesh special status for 10 years.

After coming to power, however, this has not happened. The Centre has fallen back on the decisions of the 14th Finance Commission, which increased allocations going directly to states, reduced the gap between special and other states and accounted for the revenue deficit that Andhra Pradesh was facing. Naidu argues that the calculations are problematic and that the state has not received what it was promised at the time of bifurcation, including more money to build a new capital and the construction of a new railway zone. Earlier in the week, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley insisted that the Centre would provide support to Andhra Pradesh that is equivalent to special status, without labelling it so. Naidu, however, has said that this is not enough.

Insult politics

In announcing that the TDP ministers would be resigning, Naidu made it a point to mention how he was treated by the Centre. He claimed that he had visited Delhi 29 times and sent ministers, Members of Parliament and officers to the capital to remind the Centre about its commitments, to no avail. He also tweeted out that once the decision about ministers leaving the Cabinet was made, he tried to speak to Modi out of courtesy, but even that did not happen initially.

This is classic Andhra Pradesh politicking. NT Rama Rao, the first non-Congress chief minister of the state, stormed to power with a new party on a platform that sought to leverage the feeling that the Congress government in Delhi had insulted the Telugu people. This emotional appeal is a way of trying to explain why Andhra Pradesh has not received special status over the last four years, despite Naidu’s TDP being a close ally of the BJP at the Centre. The idea is to suggest that Naidu has relentlessly tried to get the BJP to listen for the last four years, yet they have ignored him.

Later, on Thursday, Modi tried to make up for it, by having a 10-minute phone conversation with Naidu, but it seemed like a clear effort at damage control, though one of the TDP ministers who had resigned did confirm that the party is not yet exiting the NDA.

The Jagan threat

As much as the TDP’s moves might be grounded in actual economic concerns, this is also about Naidu’s political situation in the state. There is a general feeling that anti-incumbency against his government is strong and Opposition leader Jagan Mohan Reddy, of the YSR Congress, has been at the forefront of the special category status demands. Reddy has been on a walking tour of the state in an effort to build up support for his party, and has also been using the services of campaign strategist Prashant Kishor to burnish his image. Naidu’s move seems aimed at trying to take back the narrative of the “defender of Andhra pride” that Reddy had grabbed, while also making a show of taking on the BJP. In Assembly polls in 2014, the vote share difference between the TDP and the YSR Congress was only a matter of a couple of percentage points, and so Naidu cannot afford to give any space to Reddy, with elections due next year.

BJP’s unhappy allies

The BJP’s huge numbers in Parliament have allowed it to act as it wishes, without being pressured by its political allies. After four years of having to deal with limited access to power, those allies are now getting restive, especially in the belief that the BJP is unlikely to win as many seats as it did in 2014 – potentially giving them more sway over the Centre if the NDA returns to power. The Shiv Sena, the largest party by Lok Sabha seats in the NDA after the BJP, has been complaining about the alliance for years now and announced a little while ago that it would contest the 2019 elections by itself.

The Shiromani Akali Dal, one of the BJP’s oldest partners, has complained about the heavy handed treatment the party has handed out. And now the TDP too is threatening to push back. Andhra Pradesh alone has 25 Lok Sabha seats – the same as the entire North East. By portraying the BJP as the villain of the Telugu people, Naidu is both making it hard for the YSR Congress to tie up with the saffron party and also difficult for the BJP to campaign in the state, meaning the votes are more likely to be focused on local outfits than the national party.

Third Front

The Third Front has always been a long-shot in Indian politics, and is usually more of a platform for older regional politicians to air out their national ambitions rather than any genuine platform aimed at providing an alternative to the BJP or the Congress. In the last few days, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao has tried to bring other political parties on board for his idea of a third front, and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has always positioned herself as someone whose popularity might extend beyond her state.

“I am the senior most political leader in the country in contemporary politics. I have been in politics for more than 40 years and have vast experience,” Naidu has said over the last few days, prompting talk about whether he also wants to be part of the Third Front conversation. Many see any potential of a Third Front as simply an advantage for the BJP, since an Opposition that is not united will be less likely to press home any anti-incumbency, but it continues to bubble away as a concept in the background of national politics.

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