Modi’s stature may work against him in Andhra politics

NTR’s legacy has firmly put the spotlight on local leaders and local issues. Those who are close to Delhi are promptly viewed with suspicion and shunned. Is YS Jaganmohan Reddy listening?

The discovery of “the local” has been NT Rama Rao's (NTR) greatest contribution to Telugu politics. Until he founded the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in 1982, political leaders in the state viewed New Delhi as its political capital, and Andhra leaders depended on the Congress high command for everything. State Congress leaders would rush to Delhi at the drop of a hat, pretending that Hyderabad was on the outskirts of the national capital.

By promoting the local i.e. culture, language, costume, etc, NTR untethered Telugu politics from New Delhi. He imbued this philosophy in the TDP so that the party stood for Telugu pride. For the first time, ‘the local’ started presiding in Telugu politics, and Telugu people made it a norm to follow their local leaders. They rejected outright any leader who behaved like Delhi’s man in Andhra. NTR's local pride philosophy effectively brought to an end the Congress rule in Andhra politics.

It was only in the mid-1980s, when YS Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR) was made the state Congress president that the national party received a fresh lease of life. Given his robust, independent personality, YSR almost declared autonomy from the All India Congress Committee after coming to power in 2004. He ran the Andhra unit of the party independently and in the 2004 Lok Sabha election, delivered 29 seats – the highest from any state for the Congress. There were even reports that YSR would break away from the Congress and launch a regional party. After YSR's abrupt death in September 2009, the state Congress lost its local identity with the “high command” again steering the party from New Delhi, leading to the end of the Congress in the state a second time.

No national leader, however tall his stature, has been taken seriously in the two Telugu states since the birth of ‘the local’ in Telugu politics in 1982. This is especially true for the BJP

Even as the Congress' popularity has waxed and waned, chief minister Chandrababu Naidu has been thriving on the local moorings of the TDP. His “local roots” have helped Naidu run the party successfully and brought him closer to the hearts of the people. This has proved that the local is important in Telugu politics.

This is also the case in neighbouring Telangana, where the statehood movement came to fruition only after a local leader stood his ground. The demand for Andhra bifurcation to create a separate state of Telangana had been a long-standing one. While many leaders gained popularity on the plank of a separate state, sooner or later they'd call off their movement after bargaining with the Congress. In fact the rebellious Telangana Prajasamiti, which had the tallest former Congress leaders from the region, stunned everyone by winning 10 of 11 Lok Sabha seats in 1971 on the separate state slogan. Yet, within months of winning, they merged with the Congress in the same year. The birth of Telangana was seen through by K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) in 2013-2014, who firmly stood his ground to promote the local dialect, the local food, customs and practices. Perhaps this is why YSR's son, YS Jaganmohan Reddy, has been reiterating his local roots to be seen as a credible leader.

Big stature, little following
No national leader, however tall his stature, has been taken seriously in the two Telugu states since the birth of ‘the local’ in Telugu politics in 1982. This is especially true for the BJP; neither former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, nor BJP stalwart LK Advani were able to inspire faith among the Telugu people. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no different. While Modi may have been able to wave his magic wand in other states, his charms have done little to curry favour in Andhra and Telangana. Local leaders such as NTR, YSR, KCR, Chandrababu Naidu, now Jaganmohan Reddy are bigger brands than Modi.

Modi's Lok Sabha election campaign promise, made from Tirupati in April 2014, of allotting special category status to Andhra Pradesh was no doubt a ploy to swing the Telugu vote in his favour, but will likely lead to his undoing in the state. The TDP, led by Naidu, an NDA ally until recently, is now projecting Modi as the villain for failing to deliver on his promise. On April 30, Naidu stood at the same place from where Modi had delivered the Special Category state promise and declared the prime minister a ‘mitradrohi’ (betrayer of friend) and ‘nammakdrohi’ (someone who breaches trust) in front of a large gathering. His motive is to paint Modi as unpopular and an untouchable in Andhra politics.

Rivalries heat up
The PM has never maintained a cordial relationship with the chief minister. The fact that Naidu is perhaps the only national leader in the NDA after him with an enviable profile, has always troubled Modi. Like Modi, Naidu is equally ambitious and is recognised for ushering in the IT era in India. And like Modi, Naidu too is a senior, seasoned politician in national politics. Perhaps mindful of this, Modi has been secretly encouraging YSR Congress (YSRC) founder YS Jaganmohan Reddy in the hope that the young man, who faces several CBI cases, will remain under his command and control. Jagan too has left the door open for speculation of a possible tie-up between YSRC and the BJP by never referring to Modi's name when he talks of the Centre's denial of Special Category status to Andhra Pradesh. This is his survival strategy.

Sensing Modi's proximity to Jaganmohan, Naidu declared Modi a persona non grata in Andhra Pradesh on April 30. As he played video clippings of Modi’s speech promising Special Category status, he asked the people to watch how Modi had betrayed them while branding Modi a ‘mitradrohi’ and ‘nammakadrohi’. In equal breath, he called upon the people of Karnataka to defeat Modi in the May 12 state assembly election. Naidu’s strategy is to make Modi so unpopular in his state that anyone who associates with him is automatically rejected.

A conscious Jaganmohan reacted a couple of days later. At a public meeting during his Prajasankalpa Yatra, Jaganmohan urged the people in Machilipatnam not to fall prey to criticism of his party’s future alliance with other parties, obviously referring to Modi. He also reassured people that his party would support any government at the Centre if it realises the demand of Special Category status.

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