How NTR convinced Indira Gandhi that strong states did not mean a weak Centre

NT Rama Rao and his TDP stormed to power in the 1983 Assembly Polls, fighting for atmagauravam (self-respect), writes Rasheed Kidwai in ‘Ballot: Ten Episodes that have Shaped India’s Democracy’.
How NTR convinced Indira Gandhi that strong states did not mean a weak Centre
How NTR convinced Indira Gandhi that strong states did not mean a weak Centre
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By Rasheed Kidwai

Andhra Pradesh came into existence following the revolutionary freedom fighter Potti Sreeramulu’s fast unto death, demanding that a separate Telugu state be carved out of the Telugu-speaking districts of Madras State and Hyderabad State. From the state’s inception in the 1950s to 1983, the Indian National Congress won every assembly election held in the state.

Things changed for the state after 1982, triggered by an unusual occurrence. In 1982, Rajiv Gandhi, then the AICC general secretary, visited Andhra Pradesh on a ‘private’ visit. At the Begumpet airport, the otherwise sober Rajiv lost his temper when he spotted Congress Chief Minister Tanguturi Anjaiah waiting to welcome him, armed with garlands, his entire cabinet in attendance. The pomp and ceremony, and the crowd of party workers continued as the chief minister failed to read Rajiv’s angry reaction. At the end of it, those within hearing distance heard Rajiv calling Anjaiah, an elderly politician hailing from a weaker section of society, a ‘buffoon’. Rajiv’s arrogance and rashness did not end there. Back in Delhi, he convinced Indira Gandhi to sack Anjaiah. While giving up his post, Anjaiah is reported to have remarked that he came to power by the ‘grace of Madam’ and he was leaving under her orders, but he did not know why he had come or why he had to leave. This perceived insult to a ‘Telugu bidda’ became welcome ammunition for N.T. Rama Rao, newly arrived on the political scene, and in the 1983 state assembly polls his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) stormed to power, fighting for atmagauravam (self-respect).

N.T. Rama Rao, popularly known as NTR, had turned 60 in 1982. A veteran of 292 films released between 1949 and 1982, NTR built up the TDP with the help of N Chandrababu Naidu, his son-in-law and a minister in Anjaiah’s cabinet. NTR began his campaign six months before voting was scheduled to begin, travelling across the state, covering over 75,000 kilometres and drawing unprecedented crowds. NTR ensured that the news of the formation of his political persona was seen and heard of by over thirty million people – this in a time before 24x7 news and social media became easy vehicles of the dissemination of news.

In some ways, NTR could be given credit for redefining the concept of election campaigning, creating methods that were later perfected by L.K. Advani and Narendra Modi – he converted a Chevrolet van into a rath (chariot), bringing tinsel-town techniques to politics. NTR’s contemporaries and rivals, however, remained contemptuous of his innovative techniques, dismissing them as fads. Today, all politicians swear by the effectiveness of road shows. His vehicle, which he christened the ‘Chaitanya Ratham’, was fitted with rotating floodlights and loudspeakers. The actor would climb on to its top through a hatch to address amassed crowds and use the van’s interior to relax. On average, he clocked 120 kilometres every day, stopping to address gatherings of 15 people and more. The Telugu press was in a tizzy. Eenadu, one of the state’s largest‑selling newspapers, was already on board with its owner Ramaji Rao becoming a staunch supporter of NTR. Each day, Eenadu would carry a story on how NTR had stopped by at a roadside shop to have a plate of piping hot idlis, pesarattu and coffee. The TDP even had a signature tune ‘Maa Telugu thalliki malle poodanda’, or ‘a garland of jasmine flowers for Mother Telugu’. The response to the exhaustive tour was overwhelming. Even if NTR was late to arrive at his scheduled stop by 24 hours, and sometimes even 72 hours, he would find throngs of people waiting. They would camp right by the roadside, bringing along cots, stoves and utensils, to ensure they did not miss him. Dasu Keshav Rao of The Hindu remembers NTR being so focused on winning the 1983 assembly polls that he did not return to Hyderabad until the election was announced, missing the marriage ceremonies of two of his sons as a result.

On the campaign trail, NTR focused on the Congress government’s corruption and decay and the tendency of ‘Delhi’ – the central government – to use chief ministers like puppets. When Indira Gandhi travelled to Andhra Pradesh to campaign for the Congress, she realized that the party had no chance against NTR. Most Congress MLAs had not nursed their assembly constituencies, hoping that ‘Indira amma’s’ charisma would see them through. NTR, on the other hand, had done his homework well. Aided by a young and crafty Naidu, the TDP chose as their representatives educated people from various walks of life, with clean images and a desire to serve in public life. NTR also tried making strategic pre-poll alliances with non-Congress players such as the Left parties, the Janata Party and the Sanjay Vichar Manch led by Maneka Gandhi. However, by the time the assembly polls were held, only Maneka’s party was still on board as the Left grossly underestimated NTR’s appeal and demanded 150 out of 294 seats. Both NTR and Naidu were clear that the TDP would contest the majority of seats to enable the party to form a government on its own strength.

Among NTR’s election promises one was to make rice available for the people at `2 for a kilogram. In those days, the union government had classified rice into three categories – common, fine and super fine. Their market prices were `2.50 for the common variety, and `2.80 for the fine and super fine varieties. NTR promised the people that all varieties of rice would be available to them at `2 for a kilogram. Although he was derided by the Congress, the voters took him up on his offer.

In the end, the TDP won 201 out of 290 seats while the Congress finished with 60 seats, and NTR became the first non-Congress chief minister of Andhra Pradesh.

Both Indira and Rajiv were deeply upset over the Congress’s defeat in Andhra Pradesh and took NTR’s success as a personal setback. In 1984, when NTR was away in the United States for a medical procedure, Governor Ram Lal, under instructions from the Centre, dismissed NTR’s government, despite their being in the majority. The Congress propped up a TDP rebel, N. Bhaskara Rao, as the chief minister. The unjustified dismissal was decried by 17 Opposition parties in the state, including the CPI (M), BJP, National Conference, DMK and the Janata Party. NTR rushed back and took charge of the situation. He took to wearing black all the time to register his protest. He paraded his party’s MLAs outside Rashtrapati Bhawan to demonstrate the support his government enjoyed. As a result of the furore caused by the Centre’s interference in the state’s governance, Bhaskara Rao lasted for merely 31 days as chief minister and NTR was reinstated.


Once back as chief minister, NTR introduced several populist welfare measures, cementing his place in the hearts of the Telugu-speaking population. While he zealously emphasized Telugu culture and language, according to his biographer S. Venkat, his lesser‑known achievement was to have convinced Indira how economically and politically strong Indian states could ensure a strong Centre, contradicting her earlier notion that strong states implied a weak Centre.

Excerpted with permission of Hachette India from ‘Ballot: Ten Episodes that have Shaped India’s Democracy’ by Rasheed Kidwai.

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