An ally's dilemma

Print edition : May 01, 2002

In view of the political realities in Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu Desam Party decides to strike, but not hurt, the BJP.

BY staging a walk-out ahead of the voting on the censure motion on Gujarat in the Lok Sabha on April 30, the Telugu Desam Party, a key ally of the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre and alliance partner of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Andhra Pradesh, played it safe.

The party had, until the last minute, entertained hopes of a "positive response" from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on its main demand, the dismissal of the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat. As Vajpayee did not oblige, its members trooped out.

Significantly, the walk-out marked the end of party supremo and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu's indecision. The Gujarat imbroglio had found the TDP on the horns of a dilemma - to vote or not to vote. He chose the middle path, probably the only course available to the party. Chandrababu Naidu personally guided the TDP's responses by closely following the debate until the pre-dawn voting and by consulting the party Members of Parliament.

Voting for the Opposition-sponsored motion under Rule 184 would have benefited its arch political foe, the Congress(I), which has been strengthened by its recent electoral successes. And rallying behind the beleaguered Prime Minister and the "discredited" BJP would have made a mockery of its oft-repeated claims of commitment to secularism. It would also have undermined the party's minority support base, not very substantial though it is.

Chandrababu Naidu has been seen as a leader willing to strike, but afraid to wound, the BJP. The TDP's Gujarat policy evolved over a fortnight, gaining in stridency with each meeting of the politburo. The party's response began with a formal condemnation of the February 27 Godhra carnage and the violent reprisals. Initially Chandrababu Naidu only called for a "full stop" to the violence in the State and parried questions relating to a change of leadership on the ground that restoration of normalcy and rehabilitation of the riot victims was more important than all other things, including Narendra Modi's resignation or ouster.

But on the eve of the BJP's National Executive meeting in Panaji in April, the TDP politburo, in view of the escalating violence, demanded Modi's head.

In a strongly worded resolution, the TDP charged the Modi government with having failed miserably to quell the violence and to handle the law and order situation in a fair and impartial manner. It said that unless Modi resigned "we would be guilty of eroding public confidence and failing to provide fair and just governance" to the citizens.

Chandrababu Naidu maintained that secularism was an article of faith with the TDP. It never failed to protest against any aberration like the saffronisation of education. Strict adherence to secularism was a major condition that the TDP had put forth for its support to the NDA, but the cataclysmic events in Gujarat had "tarnished India's secular image," he said. The party argued that the incidents could not be viewed as an internal issue of the State as their impact was felt across the country. The nation could not be held hostage to the "partisan and short-sighted agenda" of some misguided bodies or individuals. Leaders of the TDP complained that Vajpayee had drifted from the NDA agenda to the BJP agenda and, worse still, to "the Sangh Parivar agenda".

The TDP criticism turned sharper when the Gujarat BJP mooted the dissolution of the Assembly and early elections. It said the BJP was "trying to make political capital out of a human tragedy and a covert attempt to clothe the narrow and partisan ends with the legitimacy of a democratic process".

Formulation of a policy position on Gujarat was no easy task for Chandrababu Naidu. Perceptions and opinions among party MPs were clearly divided. Some felt it was time to distance themselves from the BJP before the latter became a liability and the minorities started drifting away from the party. Chandrababu Naidu's secular image suffered a dent after he allied himself with the BJP in 1999. Another section of the MPs, mostly first-timers, preferred not to rock the boat. The important question was: where to go after breaking with the BJP.

The TDP supremo invited oblique criticism from the MPs that the leadership took the stand in Parliament without consulting them. Another criticism was that wittingly or unwittingly, the party allowed itself to be embroiled in the Gujarat issue. The idea was to utilise the debate in Parliament to establish its secular credentials, indulge in Modi-bashing and in the process take a few potshots at the Vajpayee government, but never to destabilise the government. This led to media speculation of a split in the TDP over the issue. Chandrababu Naidu dismissed the speculation while the MPs themselves assured him that they were all together.

The party was not clear about the modalities of raising the issue in Parliament. While ruling in favour of a debate under Rule 184, Deputy Speaker P.M. Sayeed said that the TDP had given notice of the motion without mentioning the rule under which the debate should take place. This was unprecedented. This comment left the fourth largest party in the Lok Sabha red-faced. The confusion showed until the last. "In politics we may take a wrong decision on a crucial issue and yet rectify it. But dilly-dallying is worse and shows the party in a poor light," senior leader and a former Union Minister said.

Another important factor that weighed with Chandrababu Naidu was the implication of a vote against the NDA for his administration. Proceeding enthusiastically into second generation reforms in Andhra Pradesh, he had gone on record that his political future hinged on how well he pushed the reforms process and took the State forward on the high road to progress. Substantial external assistance was in the pipeline. An adverse decision by the party vis-a-vis Gujarat might jeopardise the flow of funds from the Centre and external funding agencies, and thereby derail his development initiatives.

In order to provide clarity to the cadre, Chandrababu Naidu addressed letters to Members of the Legislative Assembly, Zilla Parishad and municipal chairpersons and other leaders of the local bodies and also to the general body of the party detailing the sequence of the Gujarat events, their impact on secularism and the party's response to the developments from time to time.

With the BJP-led coalition firmly rejecting its main demand for a change of guard in Gandhinagar, the TDP just had the satisfaction of "effectively" championing the cause of secularism and highlighting the lapses of the Modi government.

The April 30 manoeuvre marked another milestone in the tenuous relationship between the BJP and the TDP. The two came close in August 1984 when the BJP rallied vigorously, as did many other non-Congress parties, behind N.T. Rama Rao after he was unconstitutionally toppled in a Congress-blessed coup. After his historic reinstatement, a grateful NTR offered a place in his Cabinet for the BJP. They entered into an alliance to contest the 1984 Lok Sabha and 1985 Assembly elections. The relationship soured the following year at the time of the elections to the Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad. The alliance proved beneficial to both in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, when the TDP broke with the Left parties.

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