The absolute directionlessness of N Chandrababu Naidu

It’s not uncommon in India for politicians and political parties to traverse the entire spectre of coalition politics in a matter of years.

There have been the likes of Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress, and the late M Karunanidhi of the DMK that at one point in time associated with both the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance as well as the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), but few come close to the crests and troughs witnessed by N Chandrababu Naidu.

After parting ways with NDA in 2018, Naidu’s party, the Telugu Desam Party, has suffered humiliating losses in both Lok Sabha and Legislative Assembly elections. In a span of a few years, Naidu has gone from being one of the most sought-after regional party leaders, who could command following at the national level as well, to a near political pariah with a political identity that is as directionless as it can ever get.

Few political legacies can be as confounding as the one that now defines N Chandrababu Naidu. A master strategist known for his political acumen and timing, Naidu managed to overcome the trappings associated with political adventurism.

Despite a successful coup within the TDP in 1995 against the person who not only founded the party but also happened to be his father in law, NT Rama Rao, Naidu’s image as a dynamic leader who was not shy of the future in terms of initiating technology-aided reforms, washed away the ills of politicking.

A former Congress party member who became the 13th Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh after taking over the party from NTR, Naidu’s growth as a politician coincided with the Internet boom in India and it cemented his reputation as a politician of the future.

The millennials were on the lookout for a leader who spoke their lingo, and the generation that preceded them found Naidu to be the ideal mix of old-world political astuteness and someone who could keep pace with the times.

Moreover, Naidu’s ability to align with other political parties, especially at the national level, also helped him emerge as an acceptable consensus candidate, a trait that often helped regional heavyweights outside their states. This was a leaf straight out of NTR’s book where the film icon-turned-chief minister became a centripetal force that attracted anti-Congress parties across the nation as a united front.

Much like how NTR played a significant role in the formation of the VP Singh government in the late 1980s, Naidu was the fulcrum in the initial years of the National Democratic Front government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the mid-1990s.

Naidu’s penchant for technology, his zeal to usher the state of Andhra Pradesh into the new millennium, and affability made him a future prime ministerial candidate.

It wouldn’t be entirely incorrect to say that it was Naidu who indeed was the first amongst the tech-savvy chief ministers and might have served as an inspiration for the then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi.

In his first stint as chief minister between 1995-2004, Naidu failed in ensuring that his efforts to modernise administration to benefit all percolated to the last mile. Naidu believed that he lost despite achieving visible economic impact as he was unable to balance reforms and welfare.

As a result, the Congress under YS Rajasekhara Reddy won the 2004 Assembly Elections. A one-time colleague of Naidu in the Congress, YSR undertook a mammoth three-month-long padayatra, or walking tour, of 1,475 km during the hot summer months, across Andhra Pradesh as a part of his election campaign and his connection with the grassroots won him the state.

Naidu forged a comeback in 2014 that benefitted by teaming with the BJP and the NDA that went on to form the government at the Centre under Narendra Modi.

This time around Naidu was clear to handhold the lowest sections of the society and came up with a vision document that defined 12 ‘non-negotiable’ basic needs for all that included water, power, gas, roads, fibre optics, food, and nutrition besides health and housing.

As the first chief minister of the newly bifurcated Andhra Pradesh, Naidu was driven to create a model state for the future, but midway things changed. Despite the work being done and the use of social media to convey the efforts, Naidu walked out of the NDA and became a staunch critic of the Narendra Modi government.

His party cited the Centre’s inability to accord special status to the state as one of the reasons for the split.

In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Naidu tried to form the ‘Third Front’ and imagined that regional parties would end up playing a significant role in the formation of the next government.

He raked up Andhra pride sentiment and pitched himself as the underdog, a David who was taking on the Goliath. Naidu’s stance evoked the feeling akin to what Martin Luther King once says, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

But nothing worked and the party suffered a major setback in both the Parliamentary as well as Assembly polls.

In a matter of months, Naidu went from being a possible kingmaker to becoming utterly irrelevant. In just four months since Narendra Modi’s second term, Naidu has publicly expressed that the exit from NDA led to the TDP’s loss.

The former Andhra chief minister reportedly said that the TDP differed with the Centre for the benefit of the state, and things would have been different if such differences didn’t exist. While Naidu mused that TDP lost on multiple fronts, the BJP isbelieved to have made it clear that they would never ally with Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP.