Second thoughts in Andhra Pradesh

Print edition : December 19, 1998

In the wake of the BJP's dismal performance in the recent Assembly elections, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu appears to be reappraising his options.

ALTHOUGH elections to the Andhra Pradesh Assembly are still a year away, the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Congress(I) have begun taking stock of the political situation in the wake of the Bharatiya Janata Party's defeat in November 25 Assembly elections in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

In an obvious attempt to ensure that the BJP's dismal performance does not affect his party's chances in the State, Chief Minister and TDP president N. Chandrababu Naidu appears to be distancing himself from his ally at the Centre. According to TDP general secretaries, "The party is trying to insulate itself from the adverse impact of the BJP's policies and performance." During a recent State-wide tour as part of the TDP's Jana Chaitanya Yatra, Chandrababu Naidu himself lost no opportunity to criticise the Vajpayee Government for the rise in prices of essential commodities. (The Jana Chaitanya Yatras are aimed to take party workers closer to the people in order to gauge the popular mood.)

In March 1998, Chandrababu Naidu decided to extend support to the BJP-led coalition at the Centre on the ground that it was the Congress(I), under the leadership of Sitaram Kesri, that forced an election, which resulted in the weakening of secular parties. The TDP, he said, would not extend any kind of support to the Congress(I) because of its irresponsible action.

After eight months of BJP rule at the Centre, there is a definite shift in the public mood in Andhra Pradesh. The urban middle class, which had appeared keen to instal Atal Behari Vajpayee as Prime Minister, is disappointed today: it is unhappy that instead of addressing issues that affect the people, Vajpayee is using up his time to placate the BJP's warring allies.

As a consequence of this change in the public mood, Chandrababu Naidu seems to have decided that the time has come to keep a safe distance from the BJP. Further, the TDP's decision to back the BJP-led Government has alienated it from the Left parties and the minority communities. The TDP has come to realise that the people's resentment towards the BJP over issues such as price rise is bound to affect the BJP's friends, particularly parties in power like the TDP.

Chandrababu Nai-du, who banks on his own record of hard work and good performance to see him through the next elections, views the verdict against the Hindutva party as a message against its "dismal record and maladministration". He is of the opinion that even in Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP was not in power, the BJP-led Central Government's non-performance and inability to check the price rise outweighed other considerations. Chandrababu Naidu believes that the charisma of a leader - in this case Vajpayee - may catapult a party to power, but to retain power there is no alternative to good performance.

The TDP leader's analysis of the Assembly election results was an attempt to rebut the Congress(I)'s claim that the anti-incumbency factor worked against his government. "The good work we have done is our strength," he asserted.

Meanwhile, the State unit of the Congress(I) rejoiced over the outcome of the Assembly elections in the belief that the TDP too will be voted out. The Congress(I)'s views are similar to those of the TDP vis-a-vis the results in Madhya Pradesh: it too believes that the public indignation over the BJP's policies was much stronger than the anti-incumbency sentiment. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) said that the BJP's debacle was a "moral defeat" for the TDP.

ON the face of it, Chandrababu Naidu's belief that the anti-incumbency factor will not work in Andhra Pradesh appears to have a sound basis. In spite of diluting and reversing several policies of his predecessor N.T. Rama Rao, including the populist Rs.2-a-kg rice scheme for the poor, Chandrababu Naidu survived the anti-incumbency factor in the 1996 and 1998 Lok Sabha elections - in these elections his TDP won 18 and 15 seats respectively along with its allies.

Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu with Union Home Minister L.K. Advani.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

In April this year, Chandrababu Naidu surprised his friends and foes alike by asking his 12 Lok Sabha members of Parliament to support the Vajpayee Government's confidence motion, instead of remaining neutral. Chandra-babu Naidu rationalised this political turnaround (he was the convener of the United Front before allying himself with the BJP-led coalition) with the plea that "political compulsions" had dictated the decision. However, he came out in open support of the BJP when that party nominated the TDP's G.M.C. Balayogi for the post of Speaker of the Lok Sabha.

However, over the last nine months relations between the BJP and the TDP, which were formal for the most part, appear to have deteriorated. Although Chandrababu Naidu continued to maintain cordial relations with Vajpayee and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, he asserted that there was no question of the TDP going in for any seat adjustment or alliance with the BJP in the Assembly elections. He also said that the TDP would withdraw support to the BJP if it tried to alter the secular fabric of the nation. He criticised the Vajpayee Government for its attempt to invoke Article 356 of the Constitution to dismiss the Rabri Devi Government in Bihar, its inability to control prices and its proposal to make the singing of Saraswati Vandana compulsory in schools.

For its part, the State unit of the BJP does not see any merit in hanging on to the TDP's coat-tails. Having polled 20 per cent of the votes in the 1998 elections and won four Lok Sabha seats, it feels that an alliance with the TDP would only hurt its electoral prospects. In fact, the BJP's State Executive Committee passed a resolution at its Warangal session, which stated: "We have no alliance with the TDP although it is supporting our Government at the Centre. Our only aim is to win the elections."

AFTER 40 months in power, during which period he earned the sobriquet of "hi-tech" Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu appears to have changed tack. The high-profile Chief Minister has shifted his emphasis from computers to service of the poor and empowerment of the people through self-help groups. He no longer emphasises his achievements on the information technology front; instead he speaks about constructing five lakh houses for the weaker sections by March 1999, distributing house sites to the poor and supplying improved tool-kits to artisans. The Chief Minister believes that if leaders begin to fear the incumbency factor, none of them would be able to take decisions and the development of States would come to a halt. He said that it was for the leaders to explain their policies to the people and convince them of their efficacy.

Meanwhile, State Congress(I) president Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, who has been touring the State, criticised Chandrababu Naidu for his "pro-rich and anti-poor policy" of allotting 250 acres of land for the Indian School of Business promoted by a consortium of big industrialists and his "obsession" with the information technology sector. Rajasekhara Reddy said that this kind of "pro-rich" policy benefited only a small section of the population.

Chandrababu Naidu, a shrewd strategist, is bound to keep his options open. The political scenario is still unstable, and anything, including a drastic realignment of political forces, can happen between now and next year's Assembly elections. However, chances are that the TDP will rather go it alone instead of fighting alongside the BJP. There is also the possibility of it having a seat adjustment with at least one Left party.

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