When Pawan Kalyan took the stage at Guntur on Wednesday evening, Telugu Desam leaders glued to their television sets expected the rocket of his aggressive rhetoric to head north and hit the BJP. Over the next couple of hours, they were left red in the face as the rocket without prior intimation or warning, changed direction and brought the TDP house down with damning allegations of corruption against Chandrababu Naidu's son, Nara Lokesh.
TDP leaders are livid at the actor-turned-politician because in one stroke, Pawan Kalyan has demolished the party's carefully constructed anti-BJP narrative in Andhra. Over the past three months, the TDP has been using friendly Telugu mainstream media and its social media network to tell the people that the BJP had done a Congress to Andhra and but for the saffron party, all the promises made in 2014 by Naidu would have been fulfilled.
With suspicion that Pawan's script was written by the BJP and that the saffron party is firing at Naidu and Lokesh using the Jana Sena chief's shoulder, the TDP rank and file is putting pressure on Naidu to quit the NDA. Though the TDP supremo had pulled out his two representatives from the Union ministry, he continued to stay put in the NDA for reasons known best to him. Pawan's pinch-hitting that targeted the top two of the TDP has made Naidu's continuance in the NDA untenable. The politburo meeting on Friday could well bring down the curtains on the TDP-BJP alliance.
“We are moving in a calibrated manner,” says K Rammohan Rao, senior TDP leader. “First step was to agitate, the second step was the withdrawal of ministers and the third is to exit the NDA. That final decision will be taken by the party chief. But it will look foolish if we continue to stay on with the BJP.”
That things have gone from bad to worse is obvious from the manner in which Naidu accused the BJP of trying to do a Tamil Nadu in Andhra Pradesh, during a teleconference with his MPs. His theory is that just like the BJP supported the O Panneerselvam faction against the Edappadi Palaniswami camp in the AIADMK, Modi was trying to pit YSR Congress and Jana Sena against the TDP.
The BJP dismisses these allegations as a figment of Naidu's imagination. Party MLC Somu Veerraju says Naidu is attacking the BJP because he realises the TDP is losing ground in Andhra.
“If he is saying BJP is doing Tamil Nadu drama in Andhra, who is Naidu in it - Sasikala or Jayalalithaa?” taunts Veerraju. “Moreover, Pawan Kalyan is in talks with the Left parties, how can he be directed by BJP at the same time. Naidu is only scoring self-goals with his charges.”
The TDP realises that the corruption charges have placed the party on a sticky wicket. For long, Naidu has used the corruption stick to beat Jagan with, taking jibes at his weekly court appearances. Pawan Kalyan's allegation linking Lokesh with sand mining baron Shekar Reddy, at whose properties Rs 130 crore was recovered by Income Tax authorities during raids in December 2016, will be used by TDP's rivals to hit back at Naidu. Reddy was a member of the Tirumala Tirupati temple Board.
The TDP is also irked by Railways minister Piyush Goyal not meeting its delegation of MPs and instead spending time with YSR Congress delegation. It sees the attitude as a clear indication that the BJP has decided to move on, making Naidu feel like an unwanted guest in the NDA home.
The TDP is also feeling cornered by the YSR Congress decision to move a no-confidence motion against the NDA government, thereby trying to hit two birds with one stone. It will send a message that YSRC is doing its bit to get Andhra its due and two, that contrary to the TDP propaganda, Jagan is not cutting an underhand deal with the BJP. So the TDP has now decided to support the motion, so that YSR Congress does not walk away with all the credit.
In 2014, Naidu had done the unthinkable when he walked the extra mile to go to Pawan Kalyan's residence, asking him to join his alliance. After the Guntur salvo, the TDP will find it impossible to do business with Pawan. Andhra politics is delicately poised because while Naidu wants to blame the BJP for betraying Andhra, his two regional rivals want to ensure much of the blame is laid at the chief minister's door.
The only silver lining that Naidu sees in this gloomy atmosphere is BJP's electoral loss in Uttar Pradesh. It sees in the results a reflection of anti-incumbency against Modi and an endorsement that Naidu with his decision to quit, is on the right track.