‘TDP does not divide society based on religion, caste, and region’: Nara Lokesh

The contestant from Mangalagiri says he “cannot be held responsible” for statements made by BJP leaders on revoking reservations for Muslims.

Published : May 06, 2024 14:06 IST - 8 MINS READ

Nara Lokesh (C)

Nara Lokesh (C) | Photo Credit: PERIASAMY M.

When the Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy-led Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) rose to power in the previous term, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) was routed and won only 23 out of 175 Assembly seats and three out of 25 Lok Sabha seats in 2019. Back then, Nara Lokesh, TDP supremo N. Chandrababu Naidu’s son, had yet to prove himself deserving of eventually taking over his father’s legacy. But he lost the Mangalagiri Assembly constituency. The party has re-joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and the Bharatiya Janata Party and JanaSena Party (JSP) are its alliance partners in Andhra Pradesh.

There is a lot at stake for both Lokesh and the TDP in 2024. Lokesh has yet to win his first direct election and is contesting again from Mangalagiri. He is currently TDP’s national general secretary. He was elected as an MLC in 2017 and served as the IT, Panchayat Raj, and Rural Development Minister for nearly two years in Naidu’s cabinet. In an exclusive interview with Frontline, Lokesh discusses the TDP’s decision to ally with the BJP, the ongoing communal rhetoric in India, his criticism of the YSRCP tenure, plans for the future, and reflections on the 2019 defeat. Excerpts:

How is the campaign going?

It’s been fantastic. In Rayalaseema, traditionally the stronghold of YSRCP, people have been showing up in large numbers to campaigns by us. People have got vexed with the current government. It’s evident. Andhra Pradesh is headed for a virtual sweep by the alliance.

Except for 2019, the only other time TDP did so poorly was in 2004 (when Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy-led Congress swept the elections). What were the reasons that TDP faced such high anti-incumbency?

More than anti-incumbency, it was a narrative that YSRCP was effective in taking to the people. They focussed on two things. First, Jagan is YSR’s [former Chief Minister and Congress leader Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy] son, and he will work the way YSR did. Thus, he should be given one chance. We were unable to debunk this “one-chance” narrative. Second is the false allegations that were made against the TDP. Theykilled their own uncle, and they blamed it on the TDP to gain a sympathy vote. [Avinash Reddy, a cousin of Jagan Mohan Reddy, is one of the accused in the murder of Y.S. Vivekananda Reddy, Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy’s younger brother. A CBI inquiry is ongoing.]

Then there was the Kodi-Katti incident, which, again, they blamed on the TDP. [Five years ago, in the run-up to the elections, Jagan Mohan Reddy was attacked with a knife often used in rooster fights]. All this kind of drama, which is what YSRCP is good at, is what resulted in such a challenge for the TDP. The youth have understood that we brought jobs and companies. People have learnt that the “one-chance” vote was the biggest mistake of their lives, and they are repenting it.

Also Read | Andhra Pradesh and Telangana: An alliance and a straight fight

The TDP walked out of the NDA prior to the 2019 elections. Do you believe this affected the party’s Lok Sabha election prospects?

Definitely. People do want a strong, stable government at the Centre. They want a government with which the local and regional party is aligned so that the required funds and other dispensations can be achieved.

TDP walked out of the NDA, as Chandrababu Naidu said back then, due to the injustice to Andhra Pradesh. It is the same NDA government that has been at the helm. Once again, it’s a similar injustice to Andhra Pradesh. The special category status (SCS) has yet to be granted. The Polavaram project is pending. The Vizag Steel Plant is under the threat of privatisation. Why, then, did the TDP go back to the BJP when you still have the same set of differences?

Fundamentally, the Vizag Railway Zone was sanctioned. However, the State government didn’t provide the required land for it to be delivered, so it failed to take off. If you look at Polavaram, before the current government assumed power, nearly 72 per cent of the project had already been completed during the TDP’s term. In the guise of reverse tendering, the YSRCP delayed Polavaram. Then, there were the floods, and the project got damaged. They were unable to go back to the Central government and demand the share [owed]. So, they have struggled to complete the project for various other reasons. Third, the backward districts’ funds were also cut because these people were giving matching grants. All these have been pre-discussed and agreed upon [with the BJP]. Regarding the capital city issue, the TDP, JSP, and BJP’s stand has been very clear. It is one State, one capital, and it should be Amaravati. We have aligned based on the larger issues and agenda.

TDP-JSP workers raise placards of JSP president Pawan Kalyan and TDP national general secretary Nara Lokesh during an election campaign in Vijayawada.

TDP-JSP workers raise placards of JSP president Pawan Kalyan and TDP national general secretary Nara Lokesh during an election campaign in Vijayawada. | Photo Credit: K.V.S GIRI

However, even TDP failed to get the SCS. And you could not complete Amaravati as planned.

Amaravati is like Cyberabad; there is no end to that project. We pooled in 33,000 acres of land. We completed all major trunk infrastructure. The Assembly is there, the secretariat is there, and all the work is happening from Amaravati. When we finalised the major designs for the core infrastructure, the government changed. If you look at what Jagan has done, in the name of three capitals, he has destroyed all three zones in Andhra Pradesh: Rayalaseema, South Andhra, and North Andhra. People understand that now. If you see Jagan, all he talks about is pushing the button. He has no leadership capacity to create a vision for the State and take it in the right direction, where jobs get created, industries come, and our capital, which everyone will be proud of, is actually built.

The TDP is a part of the NDA. What do you have to say about the BJP’s heightened communal campaign in the past few weeks?

The TDP does not divide society based on religion, caste, and region. Our stand is that wherever Telugu people are there, they have to be number one. TDP has done a lot of good work, and welfare has been delivered since the 1980s. In terms of our commitments to minorities, Dalits, Backward Castes, and economically backward OCs [Open Category/Other Castes], we are dedicated to serving all.

Also Read | When Jagan marched to power in Andhra Pradesh

What about the BJP’s central leaders, Amit Shah, and others who have been saying the party will revoke 4 per cent reservations for Muslims?

I cannot be held responsible for their statements, which have not been made in Andhra Pradesh. Our stand is clear as far as the 4 per cent reservations in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are concerned. None of the BJP leaders in Andhra Pradesh has made any statements regarding minority welfare or reducing anything to that effect.

The TDP-BJP-JSP alliance has stated that Amaravati is going to be the sole capital of Andhra Pradesh. What is your criticism of the three capitals idea? Do you not think it would help in decentralisation?

It’s been five years since the Chief Minister promised three capitals. He destroyed Amaravati. Meanwhile, what has he done in Kurnool or Visakhapatnam? No development or work has happened. We have done it in Anantapur (KIA), Visakhapatnam (IT), Chittoor (electronics manufacturing), Kadapa (sporting infrastructure), and so on. We adopted a focus area for each district and used that for decentralised development.

Chandrababu Naidu, you, and others were booked in cases concerning Amaravati [Amaravati assigned land scam, Amaravati inner-ring road design scam]. It has been alleged that your family, kin, and those close to the TDP were set to benefit.

False cases have been hoisted against us. Even one of them has yet to be proven. If you look at the skill development scam [Chandrababu Naidu was booked and arrested in September], they first said it was a Rs.3,000 crore scam, then it became a Rs.270 crore scam, and now it is a Rs.27 crore scam. It’s nothing but a political witch-hunt.

You have spoken to quite a lot about Mission Rayalaseema. However, several of these projects have been pending for quite a long time (even before YSRCP’s term).

If you look at Handri-Neevi, we have completed 90 per cent. The prevalence of the horticulture projects, sporting infrastructure, and 90 per cent subsidy for drip irrigation have happened because of our work. I will accept that for the Kurnool Parliament, we have not done sufficient justice, and a few specific projects that we have sanctioned didn’t take off for various reasons.

Uttarandhra has strongholds of the TDP. The issues in this region precede the tenure of the YSRCP. Srikakulam and Vizianagaram (formerly) have experienced chronic migration problems, and irrigation projects have been pending for a long time. The people feel neglected.

This is due to the lack of irrigation projects in certain areas. The TDP started the Uttarandhra Sujala Sravanthi project, which would have solved the water issue in Uttarandhra. When this government came to power, they stopped it, which created a huge problem. Between 2014 and 2019, the TDP made critical investments in Visakhapatnam and north Andhra, but this government didn’t take them forward.

What is your promise to this region, then? There is no minimum support price for several crops grown in this region, which is one of the reasons that poorer Adivasis tend to sway towards ganja cultivation.

Yes, no crop will be as remunerative as ganja for apparent reasons. But we can’t say people can get addicted to marijuana for that reason, right?

No, but how are you going to tackle it if you come to power?

We have done it in the past. If you see the Araku Coffee project, we did it. We will work on creating sustainable livelihoods for the people in the tribal area.

If the alliance wins, what are the top priorities?

The first is DSC [Department of School Education] notification and getting other jobs rolling. The second is tackling the ganja situation. The third is creating a good sand policy. The fourth is for the government to start capex (roads, etc) and get the entire ecosystem back up and running.

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