Rumblings in the TDP

Print edition : May 20, 2005

Chandrababu Naidu is no longer the unquestioned leader of the Telugu Desam Party, if the outbursts of two senior leaders at recent party meetings are any indication.

in Hyderabad

TELUGU DESAM PARTY (TDP) supremo N. Chandrababu Naidu is not used to colleagues telling him off. Leaders of his party, even the senior ones, are still too much in awe of the former Chief Minister to speak their minds in his presence. That is why it was such a shock for the party, still smarting from last year's drubbing in the Assembly elections, when Kodela Sivaprasada Rao of Guntur and Tummala Nageswara Rao of Khammam spoke out at recent meetings of the TDP polit bureau and executive committee, calling for a "change in mindset" of the leadership.

A party worker touches Chandrababu Naidu's feet on the latter's birthday on April 20.-SATISH H.

There was no direct challenge to Chandrababu Naidu, no mention of his name, but the meaning was clear. Sivaprasada Rao and Nageswara Rao, using a phrase that Chandrababu Naidu himself is in the habit of repeating - change in mindset - let it be understood that they wanted him to change his ways.

The meetings, of course, were not open to the media. Still, journalists got an inkling of what happened through conversations with the participants when they came out of them. Some of them `talked'. Sivaprasada Rao and Nageswara Rao had let it be understood that it was time the leadership accepted responsibility for the party's poor showing in the elections, did some soul-searching and came up with a concrete strategy to win back the people's support. They let it be understood, also, that they would like to see Chandrababu Naidu infuse some dynamism into the party.

That all was not well in the party became clear when Kodela Sivaprasada Rao made public a letter he had written to Chandrababu Naidu on the eve of his 55th birthday, complaining of the treatment he received at the hands of the Guntur unit president, Peddarathiah, and asking why Chandrababu Naidu could not take action against him. He thought his seniority entitled him to a greater say in party affairs in Guntur.

Predictably, Chandrababu Naidu was furious and the party swung into damage control. The two outspoken leaders were reportedly made to eat their words. Chandrababu Naidu, who has never faced an open challenge from within the party since he took over the reins in 1995, sent out a warning that acts of indiscipline would not be tolerated. Aggrieved members could write to him directly or express their views at the party's internal meetings, but not rush to the media. He is believed to have told leaders close to him that Sivaprasada Rao and Nageswara Rao were making a fuss because they were frustrated at losing power. Both had been Ministers for most of the nine years that he was Chief Minister, why did they keep quiet then? Chandrababu Naidu is said to have asserted: "The TDP is a dynamic organisation and it is changing in tune with the times."

Chandrababu Naidu may have managed to silence the two leaders for the time being, but the question is, for how long? There are quite a few leaders in the party who say, in private of course, that Sivaprasada Rao and Nageswara Rao merely said what they too had in mind but did not have the courage to say in the leader's presence.

It was a bolt from the blue for Chandrababu Naidu, who had systematically weeded out all his political adversaries in the party, including close relatives. And it could not have come at a more inopportune time. Coming close on the heels of the troubles in the Bharatiya Janata Party, which the TDP had supported doggedly, it looked as if the allies were competing with each other to get caught up in the `out of power' syndrome.

For years, the two parties had taken pride in the fact that they were "disciplined", cadre-based organisations, with no major instances of rebellion or dissidence in their histories. A few months out of power, and that pride stands pricked with more and more middle and lower-level leaders taking pot shots at the leadership and raising inconvenient questions.

But the malaise runs deeper in the TDP, mainly because it had been in power for nine long years. Leaders got used to power and are yet to come to terms with life after defeat. Leading them is Chandrababu Naidu himself. A year after losing the Chief Minister's chair, which he had proudly proclaimed he would keep for another decade or so, he has not yet perfected his role as the Leader of the Opposition in the State and is now apparently struggling to keep his flock together.

His party colleagues still address him as `CM garu' (Respected CM) and he seems to like it. It is quite a sight at the party headquarters whenever he arrives and leaves. Leaders and party workers line up on either side to greet him, and some supporters even try to touch his feet. It reminds one of a king's durbar. It is he who presides over all the important party fora and very often it is his monologue that is heard all through. He has not changed much, except that he devotes more time to reading and dabbles in Telugu poetry. Hence, perhaps, the call for a "change in mindset".

IT is not just internal squabbling that is troubling the TDP. Indeed, nothing seems to be working out in its favour lately, barring some Andhra Pradesh High Court judgments against the Congress government's decisions. These related to issues such as reservation for Muslims in government jobs and educational seats, irrigation tenders, excise policy and the decision to revive the Somasekhara panel on the Yeleru land scam. The party could perhaps call these its "successes", but only by default, because barring the Somasekhara panel it had nothing to do with the other decisions. It was more of a rebuke for some hasty decisions that the government made without doing enough homework. The TDP, however, could not capitalise on these developments.

The party has not launched any major public campaign though there are a number of issues that it could have seized upon. There has been no major turnaround in the ground situation of the State since the Congress government took over. Farmers continue to commit suicide, weavers die of starvation. The much-touted free power supply scheme has been a non-starter. Growers, especially of chillies and tobacco, are an unhappy lot. But the main Opposition party has not done much to take up these issues. Instead, its leaders fought and dragged on for days together a controversy over the murder of the State legislator from the party, Paritala Ravi. It tried to focus on corruption in the finalisation of tenders for irrigation projects, but the campaign has not been very effective.

On the national political front, Chandrababu Naidu's plans to recast his party's alliances have gone awry. Subtle but strong signals that the party is moving away from the BJP has not brought it any closer to the Left parties; the latter still seem to nurse a grudge against him for having propped up the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. Nor could he succeed in his attempts to resume his earlier role as kingmaker and bring together non-Congress and non-BJP parties. Out of power, Chandrababu Naidu seems surrounded by enemies within his party and outside. If some of his party leaders are clearly ganging up against him as the TDP prepares to celebrate its 23rd Mahanadu (the party's annual meeting, slated for May end), the Congress government, by constituting a dozen judicial and House Committee inquiries into his decisions as Chief Minister, has ensured that he remains busy.

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