May 3, 2002


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T V R Shenoy

Naidu's gamble

When was the last time one praised Jayalalithaa for restraint, simultaneously wondering why Chandrababu Naidu went out on a limb? Asked whether she too demanded Narendra Modi's resignation, Jayalalithaa said the spirit of federalism made it unethical for one chief minister to demand the head of another. This was in contrast to the dramatic stand taken by her Andhra Pradesh counterpart.

It was odd behaviour for the savvy Chandrababu Naidu. Particularly so, since he needs the BJP on his side, far more than does Jayalalithaa. Why so?

Well, the latest report from the Comptroller & Auditor General states Andhra Pradesh's revenue deficit has risen to Rs 4,149 crore. (It was Rs 1,233 crore in 1999-2000.) Worse, the state's aggregate liabilities rose to Rs 40,601 crore in 2000-2001 from Rs 33,629 crore a year earlier. The Chandrababu Naidu ministry needs continued, and generous, aid from the Union government -- more difficult to come by if the BJP is riled unnecessarily.

However, the Telugu Desam's need for support goes beyond money. There is a political deficit as well. Take a look at the party's performance in the past three general elections (the ones fought under Chandrababu Naidu's generalship).

The Telugu Desam won just 16 of the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in Andhra Pradesh in 1996. (A seventeenth, Nandyal, fell to it in a by-election after P V Narasimha Rao vacated the seat.) In 1998, the Telugu Desam's score fell to 12. Both times, however, Chandrababu Naidu emerged a winner thanks to some exquisite manoeuvring. But the fact remained that the Congress tally never sank below 22, a clear majority of the seats.

In 1999, however, there was a dramatic reversal. The Congress got only five seats while the Telugu Desam won a whopping 29. Some like to believe this was a vote for 'reform.' I am afraid it was nothing but old-fashioned electoral arithmetic, the result of a pre-poll seat-sharing pact with the BJP. Take a look at some of the constituencies that changed hands.

Let us begin with Tirupati. In 1998, Dr Chintha Mohan won the seat for the Congress, polling 288,904 votes. This represented only 38.52% of the total votes, but, in the face of a divided Opposition, it proved to be enough.

In the 1999 general election, Dr Chintha Mohan polled 373,981 votes, representing 47.31% of the total. Under normal circumstances, that massive leap would have meant a definite victory. Incredibly, it was not enough -- with the Bharatiya Janata Party's Dr N Venkataswamy getting 48.89%, a lead of 12,497 votes in real terms.

Let us turn now to Vishakhapatnam. In 1998 the inimitable T Subbarami Reddy held the seat with 375,782 votes (42.21% of the whole). In 1999, he improved both votes (getting 403,117) and the percentage (45.56%). Yet he lost the seat to M V V S Murthy of the Telugu Desam.

How about Medak, the first constituency in South India represented by a sitting prime minister, Indira Gandhi? In 1998, M Baga Reddy held the seat for the Congress with 269,122 votes (34.11%). In 1999, he registered a massive improvement on both counts -- 378,161 votes (45.54%). But Indira Gandhi's seat is now represented by A Narendra of the BJP!

I could go on, but why bother? It was much the same story in constituency after constituency across Andhra Pradesh. Polarisation meant that Congress candidates were polling more votes than in 1998 -- and still proceeding to lose. That was the flip side of polarisation -- votes coalescing in favour of the alliance between the Telugu Desam and the BJP.

The BJP has managed to build a cadre in Andhra Pradesh, dedicated enough for the party to be able to transfer its votes across the state. In 1998, the Telugu Desam had 41.68% in Vijayawada and the BJP had 11.62%; the Congress won. One year later, the first two came together, got 51.96%, and P Upendra bit the dust.

The same thing happened in Tenali, where in 1998 the Telugu Desam had 44.02%, the BJP got 9.51%, and the Congress' P Shiv Shanker romped home with 46.34%. In 1999, the former Union minister lost when the other two parties closed ranks against him -- getting an unbeatable 52.63%.

Very briefly, Chandrababu Naidu needs the BJP on his side -- whether he is the chief executive of Andhra Pradesh or president of the Telugu Desam. So what drove him to take a public stance on Narendra Modi?

Part of it, I think, was the fear that Muslim voters would desert him. But this would have happened the minute that he signed a deal with the BJP in 1999. The other rationale on offer is more complicated: apparently Chandrababu Naidu got the impression that the prime minister was about to dismiss Modi, decided that he might cash in by appearing to prove his influence, and came out with a public statement. But in doing so, the Andhra Pradesh chief minister forgot two cardinal rules of politics:

First: Never try to humiliate anyone to the point where they shall fight back.

Second: Always leave some corner for your own retreat.

Oh yes, there is a third thing to remember. The Congress organised a successful rally in Anantpur last week, with Sonia Gandhi drawing cheers by attacking the most visible flaw in the Telugu Desam's economic package -- the depression in the agricultural sector. It was a warning that the Congress remains a potent factor at ground level.

So, before the Telugu Desam distances itself from the BJP the party may like to recall Benjamin Franklin's warning at a previous declaration of independence; in 1776, he told his fellow Americans, 'We must now all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately!'

T V R Shenoy

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