Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu completes four decades in politics this year. At 27, he stepped into the (undivided) AP Assembly after winning from his native Chandragiri in Chittoor district on February 27, 1978. Subsequently, he became the cinematography minister in the Anjaiah cabinet of the Congress.
Naidu’s elevation eventually helped him marry the daughter of matinee idol NT Rama Rao (NTR) who later founded the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). After all, politics is like a snake-and-ladder game. Yet, it’s some miracle that Naidu, a research scholar in SV University, Tirupati from a middleclass background, and without a godfather or a sound financial background, ultimately reached the top.
Naidu began his innings in the Congress and switched to his father-in-law’s TDP after a humiliating defeat to the TDP candidate on his home turf in 1983.
Naidu breaks the record in the history of, undivided and later newly formed, Andhra Pradesh for being active in politics for four decades as the longest-serving CM for 14 years – 1995-2004 and 2014-19. He played catalyst in changing the course of politics from the Congress-led monopoly and was even instrumental in anointing Deve Gowda and IK Gujral as non-Congress prime ministers. As a visionary and reformer, Naidu became the darling of industry captains across the globe by redefining politics driven by populism in his previous stints.
What’s the secret behind Naidu’s success? His admirers attribute his phenomenal rise to his hard work, organisational skills and leadership abilities. But his critics have a different take – they say turncoat politics, manipulative skills and craftiness is what keeps him going.
In his public addresses, Naidu takes credit for bailing out the party from a couple of its worst crises. In 1984, Nadendla Bhaskara Rao, who was considered to be No. 2 in the NTR cabinet, staged a coup and dislodged NTR from power with tacit support from the Indira Gandhi government. Naidu activated the war room and saw his father-in-law back in the saddle within a month by leading a movement for “revival of democracy” with the support of non-Congress opposition parties. The second time, Naidu claimed to have saved the party from the clutches of NTR’s second wife, Lakshmi Parvathi, by leading a coup against his mentor. He, however, got the legitimacy for transition of power in his favour by staging a comeback in the 1999 elections.
The next existential problem for the TDP came with the disintegration of the state in 2014. The party was floated in 1982 as a pan-AP outfit with Telugu self-pride as its bedrock. NTR’s filmy charisma, spread over Telangana, Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra regions, became its elixir. The TDP under Naidu’s leadership failed to accommodate the Telangana’s sub-regional aspirations in the post-NTR era. Consequently, the party senior leader K Chandrasekhar Rao spearheaded a separatist movement that culminated in the formation of Telangana state. In the process, the TDP with its Andhra tag lost relevance in the newly carved state and is on the way out. In Andhra, however, Naidu managed to get his party come to power by riding on the anti-bifurcation sentiment 10 years after its hibernation.
NTR, who spent a majority of his life in tinsel world, was not used to the art of politics and got carried away by emotions. His typical idiosyncrasies necessitated the need for Naidu to play a greater role as a backroom boy for NTR. The party has survived for 36 years since inception with the help of NTR’s legacy initially and Naidu’s acumen and organisational skills later.
How does one visualise TDP after Chandrababu? He succeeded NTR at the age of 44. At 61, he embarked on a marathon 2,300 km-long foot march while in the opposition and galvanised the people and his party rank and file in the run up to the 2014 elections. Now, at 66, he still has the reputation of being a workaholic with an 18-hour work schedule.
“The issue of change of leadership does not arise in the near future. Because our leader is hale and healthy, and works like a bull,” commented a senior party leader.
Naidu, however, seems conscious that a changeover is imminent in the future, if not today. The decks were cleared for his son Nara Lokesh to fit the bill. At 35, Lokesh was allowed to play an active role in the party a year before the last elections, later becoming MLC and minister with three major portfolios – Information Technology, Rural Development and Panchayat Raj. Earlier, these three portfolios were being held by three different ministers.
Prof K Nageswar, a political analyst, sees no hurdles for the changeover, if a need arises. There is no strong contender from within the party or from the NTR family for the role being played by Naidu as of now. Realising this harsh reality, the Daggubati family (NTR’s daughter and former minister Purandhareswari and her husband Dr Daggubati Venkateswara Rao) deserted the TDP in pursuit of greener pastures in the Congress and later in the BJP.
As a calculated move, Naidu cemented relations with his actor-brother-in-law Balakrishna by arranging the marriage of the latter’s daughter Bramhini with his son. With this, the other members in the NTR family, including Harikrishna, remained silent and have not thrown their hat in the ring. And the legacy of NTR is gradually fading as a lot of water has flowed under the bridge for Andhra since his death two and a half decades ago.
NTR founded his party with rural people as the basis. His successor Naidu, over a period of time, cultivated a new generation of voters mainly based in urban areas. He caught the imagination of urban technocrat middleclass sections by harnessing the IT revolution in the mid-90s. His initiatives opened the floodgates for upwardly mobile educated youths in his native state to explore opportunities overseas and emerge as a neo-rich middleclass with admiration for Naidu. With Lokesh given apt portfolios and learning from his father at close quarters, it seems that the TDP is going to be in the reckoning for some time to come.