The TDP’s pullout from the Union government has the possibility of reworking the equation prior to 2019.
Hurt Telugu pride was at the root of N.T. Rama Rao’s rise in the early 1980s. This changed the topography of Indian politics inexorably for years. NTR became pivot of the non-Congress or anti-Centre parties in the 1980s. With his charismatic presence and ability to keep several arch-rivals united in pursuit of the aim to oust the Congress government, NTR gave a fresh lease of life to anti-Congress politics after the botched Janata Party experiment. According to an apocryphal story, in 1982 the newly-anointed Congress general secretary, Rajiv Gandhi, landed at Begumpet airport on a private visit. He was surprised when he was greeted on the tarmac by the state Cabinet and party workers led by chief minister T. Anjaiah. Instead of setting this aside as an act of unabashed servility, Rajiv Gandhi publicly humiliated him — some records say he called Anjaiah a “buffoon”. The story goes that already hurt by Indira Gandhi whimsically changing several Andhra Pradesh chief ministers in quick succession, NTR decided to quit his film career and turned politician. The Telugu Desam Party swept the ensuing elections and NTR became the first non-Congress CM of the state.
In the melodramatic parting of ways between the BJP and the Telugu Desam Party earlier this week, no one called each other names but TDP chief N. Chandrababu Naidu claimed that the Prime Minister was not available — which is odd in this mobile age — when he wished to communicate the decision to pull out from the NDA government at the Centre. “My OSD spoke to his OSD,” he said, explaining how the decision was communicated. Flashback to 2013-14, when Mr Modi and Mr Naidu had worked in tandem — for Mr Modi as PM and the latter as CM. Workers of both parties termed the duo “Jodi No. 1”. Partings are bitter but have deeper impact if one party accuses the other of humiliation. Mr Naidu claimed that he visited New Delhi “to meet the PM and Central ministers 29 times in the last four years. I showed a lot of patience, but we were taken very lightly all the time. The Centre is behaving as if we are greedy to get a lot of money from the Centre which does not belong to us. We are only asking for what is rightfully ours”.
Effectively, he claimed that since May 2014 he visited the Indian capital once every month and a half to seek what was promised but was humiliated. This will be interpreted as another instance of causing hurt to Telugu pride.
Mr Naidu’s principal challenger in the state, Jagan Mohan Reddy of the YSR Congress, has for long pursued the narrative of the Centre habitually snubbing regional aspirations.
Mr Reddy has been at this theme since 2011 when he stormed into Parliament in a byelection after being denied political space and dignity by the Congress after his father Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy died tragically. His declaration of upping the ante against the NDA government — the party is circulating a no-confidence motion in Parliament, failing which its MPs are to resign from the House — ensures a clean slate for the BJP from Andhra in the next elections because the principal rivals are in sync on their anti-Centre posture. Mr Naidu’s decision to snap the pact with the BJP may have been taken with intent of not vacating the anti-Centre space in the state, but is also indicative of the BJP’s growing woes with allies.
The trouble with the present BJP leadership is that it remains intoxicated with the 2014 verdict, and reads too much into state victories. However astounding the triumph in Uttar Pradesh may have been, the party’s fortunes almost crashlanded on the banks of the Sabarmati river. Likewise, the victories in Tripura and the formation of coalitions in Nagaland and Meghalaya may have given rise to that heady sentiment once again, but only to be brought down thanks to the belligerence of supporters who display acute inability to remain level-headed after a victory. Mr Modi’s decision, against the grain of his track record, to issue a stern statement on the reports of vandalism from different parts of the country, was no change of heart or sudden love for the memory of Lenin. Instead, it was indication that the party leadership has recognised irreversible damage to party fortunes in Tamil Nadu caused by desecration of Periyar statues. After all, actor-turned-aspiring politician Kamal Haasan declared in public that Tamilians did not require assistance from the police to protect statues of the icon of Tamil nationalism. With the BJP already politically inconsequential on its own in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala, its failure to reverse the setback in Tamil Nadu bodes ill for the BJP — these four southern states account for 101 Lok Sabha seats.
Additionally, the BJP is in troubled relationships with its two oldest allies — the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal. Concerns about Mr Modi’s domineering personality once raised controversially by Nitish Kumar lie at the root of the BJP’s uneasy partnership with these parties. The sentiment is shared by several others who are part of the NDA government. But while they have not immediately followed in the footsteps of Jitam Ram Manjhi, the possibility of major realignment cannot be ruled out if the parties begin to perceive that the hawa is blowing in a different direction. There is also no certainty if the party’s ties with the People’s Democratic Party in Jammu and Kashmir will hold comfortably till the next hustings. Although the PDP’s support may not be required for the BJP to retain its stranglehold on the Jammu region, association with ideologically diverse parties increases its acceptability at the national level, and especially among people who are not fundamentally Hindutva supporters. The TDP’s pullout from the Union government has the possibility of reworking the equation prior to 2019. How Mr Modi now responds to this challenge will be crucial in the short and medium term.