Cabinet meetings in Andhra Pradesh are always preceded by a two-hour long meeting of the coordination committee of the Telugu Desam and the government. Senior ministers and party presidents in the state's 13 districts are part of this exercise.
On Friday, the meeting that saw TDP district presidents joining via video conference, witnessed leaders competing with each other to tell Chandrababu Naidu to divorce the BJP. A leader who was present at the meeting jocularly called it an attempt to “out-anger” each other. The air became so anti-BJP, that finally, Chandrababu had to ask the leaders to refrain from commenting on the alliance in public and said he will take the decision at the right time.
That “right time” is not likely to arrive in a hurry, if Chandrababu’s style of doing politics is anything to go by. In March 1998, he took considerable time to announce his support to the AB Vajpayee-led NDA government at the Centre. Chandrababu is known to bargain hard and he has always put a price to his support to the party ruling at the Centre.
But 2018 is not 1998. And Narendra Modi is not Vajpayee. Unlike Vajpayee, Modi does not really need TDP MPs to survive in power. This numerical confidence is what, TDP leaders believe, reflects in the Union budget giving Andhra's wishlist the cold shoulder.
Chandrababu feels miffed by the Centre's refusal to accommodate the demands of the bifurcated state of Andhra Pradesh, despite sharing power with the BJP both in New Delhi and Amaravati. This when he had met the Prime Minister and the Finance minister in January to lobby for his demands.
Add to that the frequent pinpricks by the state BJP leaders, that the TDP is convinced are fired with the explicit approval of New Delhi. Pushed to the wall, Naidu made it clear that he is willing to walk out of the alliance, if the BJP continued to cross the line.
“Because of coalition dharma, we are keeping quiet. If they don't want us, we will do ‘namaskaram’ and chart our own course,'' said Chandrababu last week.
Sources close to the TDP supremo admit “the marriage is not going to last” and that it is “a matter of time.” But Naidu will take his time for two reasons. One, to find out through authoritative non-party sources how the break-up is likely to be received on the ground. Two, how it will affect the TDP politically one year ahead of Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.
TDP leaders are certain the BJP adds zilch to the TDP kitty. But the argument is based less on the fact that the BJP has an unimpressive presence in many districts of Andhra Pradesh and no leader with a pan-Andhra acceptability, and more on external factors. This lobby within the TDP has been pointing more to the BJP's performance in Gujarat and the Rajasthan bye-elections to buttress its argument. The case being made out is that the Modi magic is on the wane.
Rewind to 2014, when the TDP realising the Modi wave building up went out of its way to sew up an alliance with the BJP. It also roped in Jana Sena, with Chandrababu personally visiting actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan to convince him to campaign for the TDP-BJP tie-up. The arithmetic helped Chandrababu pip Jaganmohan Reddy to the top job four years ago.
But a lot has changed since. The Congress that was then made the villain of the piece for having divided Andhra Pradesh, is no longer relevant politically. Like in 2014, when it failed to open its account in the Assembly, 2019 is likely to see an encore. If Chandrababu divorces the BJP and blames it for not helping Andhra Pradesh, he will get a new punching bag. It will further help his case if Jagan ties up with the BJP as he can then accuse both of harming Andhra's interests.
Telugu atmagauravam (self-pride) has always been the cornerstone of TDP politics. Pushed to the wall, Chandrababu has chosen to once again position himself as the one who will protect Telugu interests. The question is whether the people will buy into Chandrababu spiel and renew his innings in power.
But while the tough posturing keeps the TV cameras engaged, a window has been left open for back channel talks. One of the CM's close aides pointed out that till the budget document is passed by Parliament, it is open to additions and subtractions. Having made his displeasure clear, Chandrababu wants to use the pressure to get the BJP to give in.
Despite the party asking him to opt out, it won't be an easy decision for Chandrababu as he will also be looking to the political chessboard post-2019. In case, Modi returns to power at the Centre, it will not help Chandrababu’s cause (assuming he too gets re-elected) to have an unfriendly party in New Delhi.
Views expressed here are author's own.