Chandrababu Naidu's political script after exiting the NDA is still on the drawing board. His utterances reveal that his mind is grappling with multiple possibilities in the run-up to 2019. In cricketing terms, Naidu is deploying both the power of pace and the guile of spin, to maximise his winning possibilities in the India Cup of 2019.
His first move was to publicly announce his arrival on the opposition stage with his presence at HD Kumaraswamy's swearing-in ceremony in Bengaluru last month. Naidu was not perturbed by the presence of the Congress leadership on the same stage. This is significant given the anti-Congress DNA of his party, the Telugu Desam.
The BJP was quick to point out how Naidu is undoing NT Rama Rao's TDP. So lest his pat on Rahul Gandhi's back in Bengaluru be construed as a ghar waapsi of sorts to the Congress - don't forget, Naidu began his political career in the Congress and was a minister in the Andhra cabinet in 1978 - the TDP chief batted for a regional leader to head the Federal Front. It was also a subtle way of throwing his hat into the ring, reminding people of his past experience as convenor of the United Front in 1996.
But it was Naidu's third move that was most significant. As if on cue, C Kutumba Rao, vice chairman of the Andhra Pradesh Planning Board floated the theory that the RSS, if the BJP loses the three state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, would replace Modi with Nitin Gadkari as PM before 2019. Though on the face of it, it sounds like a preposterous thought, given Modi and Amit Shah's vice-like grip over the party organisation, Rao claims the silence of the unhappy lot within the BJP-RSS is telling.
But Rao-speak revealed something significant. That even as Naidu is keeping his foot in the opposition boat; he would be open to a BJP minus Modi and Shah. The TDP chief has taken on Shah publicly on more than one occasion, accusing him of interfering in administration of Andhra Pradesh. The latest salvo came this week at the TDP conclave in Vijayawada.
“Amit Shah claims that the utilisation certificates by Andhra government of work done in Polavaram and Amaravati are false. I ask, who is Amit Shah to say whether they are authentic or not? In what capacity does he say this? Let the Union minister concerned or the PM say it. Let Niti Aayog say that the certificates are false. We will respond then. Why is Amit Shah interfering in administration matters?” asked Naidu.
Significantly, this is the second time that Naidu would be taking up cudgels against Modi. He had done so in April 2002 after the Gujarat riots, with the TDP politburo calling for Modi's resignation stating that “the leadership in Gujarat has lost its moral authority to govern”. The TDP held out a veiled threat to the Vajpayee government pointing out that “secularism is a fundamental principle for the TDP and strict adherence to it is one of the basic conditions for our support to the NDA”.
In 2004, when Naidu lost the elections, he blamed it on the lack of action taken by the BJP after the Gujarat riots. He believed the TDP lost the Muslim vote and the elections because it stayed on in NDA despite Gujarat.
More recently, Andhra deputy CM KE Krishnamurthy made an appeal to the Telugu-knowing population in Karnataka not to vote for the BJP. But what was more important was how he worded his message, focusing on Modi. He said, “Modi has done injustice to Andhra people. So do not support Modi. Support anyone but Modi.”
With Rao's comment, Naidu is trying to tap into the feeling of discomfort with the Modi-Shah leadership, that the TDP is convinced, exists. TDP leaders have for some months now in private conversations been floating the name of Gadkari as a possible replacement. But this is the first time someone from the camp has gone public with it.
The TDP also points out that Gadkari has never criticised any of the erstwhile NDA partners. Besides, the Union minister with his Nagpur connection is believed to stand a good chance.
Naidu would ideally want the bloc of regional parties that in many states with Congress in tandem would ensure a straight fight against the BJP, to emerge as the single largest bloc. But in case the BJP emerges as the single largest party and needs partners to get to 272, the indications are that Naidu would be willing to play ball if Nagpur replaces Gujarat.