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Naidu versus Modi: A ‘Thittu Puranam’

The volley of almost-expletives being exchanged between the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and the Prime Minister echo a past bitter fight between the most powerful North Indian politician and an Andhra Pradesh satrap

By GS Radhakrishna

Political bitterness is par for the course. But Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu and his bête noire Prime Minister Narendra Modi have crossed boundaries of dignity and civility in the public domain with their recent jibes at each other.

Their initial bonhomie in 2014, when Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) allied with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has now given way to an utter lack of respect for each other. “Anybody (else) as Prime Minister will be better than Narendra Modi” as “there is no development, no freedom and no happiness under Modi,” said Chandrababu Naidu on November 29, 2018. The TDP had walked out of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government in March 2018, and subsequently joined hands with the main Opposition party Congress.

On January 8, 2019, Naidu also made out that Modi was scared to visit AP in view of his failed promises. The Prime Minister had cancelled a planned visit to Guntur on January 6, on his return journey from Kerala, reportedly because the TDP had planned big demonstrations against him, complete with black flags. “Modi is now scared to visit Andhra as people would ask him about his election promises,” crowed Naidu at Kurnool.

Over this past weekend, Modi, who had restrained himself thus far and let BJP President Amit Shah take on the AP CM instead, has now jumped into the fray and begun lashing out at Naidu relentlessly.

Modi, while speaking to party workers across the country via video conferencing on January 6 said “To set the son, he (Naidu) is creating an atmosphere for the sunset of the state”, adding that (Naidu) does not realise how his policies and corruption can lead to the sunset of the state.

The next day, Monday January 7, in another video conference with party workers, Modi continued the tirade against Naidu when he said “Chandrababu backstabbed NTR (TDP founder and former AP CM NT Rama Rao) twice and is daydreaming of becoming PM.”

It was this direct attack by Modi on Naidu which led to a chorus of retorts by TDP ministers and Naidu himself on Tuesday. “Modi is a negative minded, undignified and selfish person dragging my family into unnecessary issues,” said Naidu, reiterating that no one could prove even one paisa of corruption by him. “Anticipating all such brickbats as I grew in politics, I have set up a small business enterprise for my family and they don’t depend on my political career at all,” said Naidu at a Kurnool district Janma Bhoomi meeting.

Love-Hate Relationship

Things have never been cozy between Narendra Modi and Chandrababu Naidu; they shared a love-hate relationship both before and after allying in 2014. As chief ministers, they were bitter rivals in the development rankings of their respective states—Gujarat and AP. Naidu’s ambition is to beat Gujarat in the development race and claims to have achieved it as well. Naidu often said he was senior in politics to Modi. After the 1992 Godhra train burning incident, Naidu went on record to say that then Gujarat CM Modi should be sacked and even appealed to then PM Atal Behari Vajpayee to do so.

Lingering personal issues from the past could be adding more impetus to the current clash. In 1984, this writer was witness to Modi, then in the BJP party office, running errands for TDP leaders who had come en masse to Delhi to present a memorandum to then president Giani Zail Singh against the toppling of the NTR ministry, engineered by NTR’s own finance minister, Nadendla Bhaskara Rao.

Modi was a small fry then and was enlisted by Venkaiah Naidu, a BJP MLA at the time, to coordinate efforts with Chandrababu Naidu and TDP workers to make their case with the President at Rashtrapati Bhavan, and reach out to the Delhi media.

The TDP’s ‘struggle for democracy’ campaign, including a memorable train journey by TDP MLAs to Delhi, was strategised by the BJP, with Venkaiah Naidu in the lead. Chandrababu Naidu was then the TDP’s general secretary.

As CM of united Andhra Pradesh from 1995 to 2004, Naidu exploited his 35 MPs to support the first NDA regime under Atal Behari Vajpayee, and got several benefits for the state and personal glory for  himself. The TDP had managed to get a lot of goodies from Vajpayee.

Post-2014, it was payback time for BJP under Modi and Shah, as Naidu was suddenly dependent on the Centre for funds and clearances for the truncated successor state of Andhra Pradesh, after the creation of the new state of Telangana.

Naidu claims he visited Delhi 29 times to clear issues related to state reorganisation and sought lakhs of crores of rupees in grants for rebuilding AP. The Modi government’s disbanding of the Planning Commission and appointment of Niti Aayog took over a year. Naidu utilised this period to get a variety of clearances for AP’s new capital city Amaravati, the Polavaram project, and other infrastructural programs. The BJP supported him in all non-financial issues like environmental clearances for both Polavaram and Amaravati.

Prakash Javadekar, then union environment minister, is on record stating that the BJP-led government went out of its way to give clearances for Naidu, in the face of fierce opposition by Congress and environmental activists. The BJP-led government also gave clearances for all externally aided projects and funding to AP from Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and Britain.

But Amit Shah had begun making inroads into AP, campaigning to consolidate his party’s vote bank in both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Both Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhara Rao and Naidu were furious as Shah made frontal attacks on them during his visits to Hyderabad and Vijayawada.

In May 2017 Shah, speaking at the BJP’s ‘Mission South’ conclave in Vijayawada, warned Naidu that Modi was not like Atal Behari Vajpayee to yield to pressure tactics. “Naidu should know that things have changed under the Modi regime,” he said.

Naidu retorted that he was not at the begging end of the NDA and that if Modi’s promises made to the people of AP were not fulfilled, the BJP would meet the same end as the Congress in AP, without a single MLA or MP.

Naidu was also likely seething when Shah declared that “BJP also gave a home, living quarters to Chandrababu Naidu in Vijayawada.” The Lingamaneni estate bungalow on the banks of River Krishna at Undavalli village in Amaravati near Vijayawada, belonging to a BJP businessman, had been given to Naidu. Construction of the bungalow has come under fire for alleged violations of river basin protection zones. The issue is pending before the National Green Tribunal.

Senior TDP leader and deputy CM KE Krishnamurthy said on March 12, 2018 during the budget session of the AP assembly at Amaravati, that “Chandrababu has been facing a tough time with PM Modi from the beginning.” A few days later, the TDP quit the NDA.

In his 9-page letter to Amit Shah after the alliance broke, Naidu said he was also unhappy with BJP entertaining his main rival Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress MPs in Delhi’s power corridors.

YSRC leader Jaganmohan Reddy and later his close aide MP Vijay Sai Reddy met the PM, even as Chandrababu Naidu was snubbed, not having been given an appointment for over a year. “How can an A1 and A2 (Jagan and Vijai Sai Reddy) in criminal cases probed by CBI and charged in money laundering and extortion cases worth Rs 43,000 crore get to meet the PM, and not the CM of a state,” Naidu had questioned at the time.

Naidu could gain electorally by exiting the NDA. He stands to gain the goodwill of the 8% minority votes in AP. Further, in the event of a hung Parliament in 2019 with the Modi-led BJP unable to cobble a majority on its own, Naidu could flex his political muscle again, if he manages to garner a large share of AP’s 25 Lok Sabha seats. It was Naidu, after all, who had played a stellar role in the formation of the past National Front and United Front coalition governments.

Echoes of the bitter NTR-Rajiv Gandhi era rivalry

The present Modi vs Naidu spat has echoes of the Rajiv Gandhi vs NTR row in 1984. The Congress high command, then steered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv as a powerful party general secretary, had become the fount of all major government decisions, not only of the centre but also of Congress governments in states.

Before NTR’s TDP arrived on the political scene in AP, Rajiv Gandhi’s rough handling of then chief minister Tanguturi Anjaiah, a Dalit, had already marred the Congress party’s image in the state. Once in 1982, when Anjaiah went to Begumpet airport to receive Rajiv on the latter’s visit to Hyderabad, and tried to accompany him in his car, Rajiv rudely asked the CM to alight. Even the garland that Anjaiah had brought for Rajiv was thrown away. The incident became national news, and was described as an insult to Andhra ‘atma gowravam’ (self esteem). Later it is said that Indira Gandhi called Anjaiah and consoled him, but also said the mistake was his. “You are a chief minister. Why should you go to receive a party general secretary?” she reportedly told Anjaiah.

Rajiv Gandhi also held NTR in low esteem, dismissing him at an election meeting for the 1982 state assembly elections as a film star knowing little about administration and politics. Later, after TDP won the elections hands down within nine months of its formation and NTR was sworn in as CM in January 1983, such was Rajiv Gandhi’s disdain that he refused to shake hands with NTR when they met at an event in Vigyan Bhavan in Delhi in 1983.

Following TDP’s repeat thrashing of the Congress in Andhra Pradesh during the 1984 general elections on the plank of ‘Telugu atma gowravam’,  Rajiv Gandhi masterminded a coup in collusion with AP Finance Minister Nadendla Bhaskara Rao (a former Congress leader who had joined the TDP), and then AP Governor Ramlal. While NTR was away in the United States for a bypass surgery, Rao set into motion the actions leading to the dismissal of the NTR ministry on Independence Day, 1984. Bhaskara Rao was sworn in as CM overnight by Ramlal, without even a test of strength in the assembly.

Congress extended support to Bhaskara Rao in the house. But when the  time came for the test of strength, a senior Congressman Baga Reddy was appointed by the Governor to conduct the proceedings, as the Speaker T Satyanarayana was a TDP man. But Baga Reddy, a staunch Indira supporter (Indira Gandhi had contested from the parliament seat of Medak vacated by him), pretended to be sick and fainted while in the Speaker’s chair, and was moved to hospital. Even as the house was left in chaos, Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi, All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen MLA and father of current party leader Asaduddin Owaisi, styled himself as Speaker on Rajiv and Rao’s bidding, and declared Bhaskara Rao CM after a mockery of a voice vote in the disturbed house.

The entire melodrama in the AP assembly was enacted on the directions of Rajiv Gandhi, for whose benefit the house proceedings were relayed by video through Doordarshan’s Hyderabad unit. This writer, who was sitting in the assembly press box on those crucial days, was an eyewitness to the series of events. The media-savvy Bhaskara Rao had also confessed to the coup, contending that NTR was “mad” and wanted to turn the party and government into a family enterprise, placing them in the hands of son Nandamuri Balakrishna and son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu. “NTR is a megalomaniac, has no respect for democracy or rule of law,” Bhaskara Rao had told this writer then.

Seeing the media uproar and subsequent high-impact events during NTR’s ‘struggle for democracy’, including the TDP MLAs’ train journey to Delhi, images of a recovering NTR in a wheelchair meeting with President Zail Singh, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi stepped in. She put Rajiv in his place, took charge and removed Ramlal as AP Governor, appointing veteran Congressman Shankar Dayal Sharma in his place. NTR was brought back to power and sworn in by Sharma in September 1984, ending the one-month rule of Bhaskara Rao.

Over three decades later, the country witnesses another bitter fight between the most powerful North Indian politician and an Andhra Pradesh satrap

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