This week, N Chandrababu Naidu withdrew his Telugu Desam Party’s two ministers from Narendra Modi’s Cabinet. But he has not ended his partnership with the Bharatiya Janata Party – for now at least. It was more a shot across the bow. Indeed, the Andhra Pradesh chief minister has left open a window for rapprochement by staying put in the National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP.
By exiting the Modi Cabinet, Naidu is seeking to transfer to the BJP the blame for his own government’s poor showing, especially in building the new capital in Amaravati and the Polavaram irrigation project. By so doing, he may be hoping to counter the groundswell of anger against his administration in time for the Assembly election, which is scheduled to be held alongside the parliamentary election next year.
In the last election campaign in 2014, Naidu played the “Andhra sentiment” to the hilt by projecting the Congress, then ruling at the Centre, as the villain out to deny the state its due. It brought rich rewards: his party swept both the Assembly and parliamentary elections. Naidu is now poised to repeat the strategy, only this time his guns would be trained on Modi. That is, of course, if the Telugu Desam Party and the BJP do indeed part ways for good. In that case, Naidu has four options going into next year’s elections.
1) Go it alone
This proposition is fraught with risk, but it could potentially bring gain as well. It will help convert the anti-Modi sentiment into votes. Specifically, it will enable Naidu to put on a secular face to woo Muslims, who are 7% of the electorate and have a considerable presence in over 20 Assembly segments in Rayalaseema region. For now, the Muslims are largely with the YSR Congress of YS Jaganmohan Reddy, whose father, former chief minister YS Rajasekhar Reddy, gave them 4% reservations in education and employment.
But given the difference in the vote shares of the ruling party and the YSR Congress was just 2.07% in 2014, going it alone might be too risky.
2) Form a third front
Naidu could forge what is known as a non-Congress, non-BJP third front with Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samiti and other regional players on a plank of cooperative federalism. Rao has served under Naidu as a minister in the 1990s and as a prominent kingmaker in national politics and a prime ministerial candidate in the past, Naidu will find it difficult to work under Rao or even treat him as an equal. He was after all the convenor of the United Front in 1996, when Deve Gowda and later IK Gujaral became prime ministers. Naidu also had immense clout in the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance from 1998 to 2004. His bargaining power on the national scene nosedived after the bifurcation of the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh shrank the number of parliamentary seats in his truncated state to just 25. With numbers not in his favour, he will have to play second fiddle to the likes of Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal, Nitish Kumar of Bihar, Navin Patnaik of Odisha and Mulayam Singh Yadav or even Akhilesh Yadav of Uttar Pradesh. Besides, the third front would still perhaps need the support of the Congress, given the resurgence shown by the grand old party.
3) Partner the Congress
The saying, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, may not be apt for Andhra Pradesh. Siding with the BJP’s chief rival Congress will not go down well in the state. After all, Naidu got a new lease of political life after a decade out of power by painting the grand old party as a villain for dividing the Telugu people. His anti-Congress rhetoric is still fresh in the minds of people and if Naidu is seen in that party’s company, he will have to face questions about his credibility.
More importantly, the Telugu Desam Party was founded by Naidu’s mentor NT Rama Rao in 1982 with “anti-Congress ideals”. So, it might not go down well within his party’s rank and file if he strikes a deal with the Congress.
4) Ally with the Left and Pawan Kalyan’s Janasena
Such an alliance could be stitched on the plank of secularism. The problem is that it may not be strong enough to take on the YSR Congress. The Left parties have become non-entities in the state with no representation in the Assembly. In any case, the communists may not be much help at a time when they are being squeezed even in their bastions of West Bengal and Kerala.
As for Kalyan, his moorings are unpredictable, although he helped Naidu and Modi in 2014 by turning the swing votes of his Kapu community and his social media followers in their favour. The actor-politician is currently leading a civil society movement demanding special status for Andhra Pradesh, with leaders of the YSR Congress and the Congress on board. His ideological fluidity makes it hard for him to figure out his friends and rivals in the political arena. For this reason alone, even if Naidu manages to draw Kalyan into his camp, it is likely to be more a liability than an asset. Besides, his Janasena party has no organisational structure and political form yet.