Debating India


Regionalism and sub-regionalism


Friday 23 April 2004, by VENKATESHWARLU*K.

THE Telugu Desam Party’s (TDP) role in national politics was shaped mainly by two factors - the need to keep its bitter rival, the Congress(I), away from power and the desire to grab the best deal possible for Andhra Pradesh from the Centre.

in Hyderabad

If the party has ended up playing the role of a kingmaker putting in place non-Congress(I) governments at the Centre on its own terms, credit goes to the TDP’s founder N.T. Rama Rao, better known as NTR, and current Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu.

A major factor that helped catapult the TDP to such an unassailable position where its support became crucial to the very survival of non-Congress(I) governments was the party’s consistent performance in parliamentary elections. The sizable number of MPs that the party has been returning to the Lok Sabha gave it the kind of bargaining power and political manoeuvrability that would be the envy of even national parties. This in turn led to the rise of NTR and Chandrababu Naidu, both of whom were just a whisker away from being chosen as Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister respectively.

The TDP’s strident anti-Congressism is deep-seated and can be traced to the party’s birth in 1982. Its main political slogan at the time was the self-respect of Telugus, which, according to NTR, was being "bartered away in the streets of Delhi" - a reference to the manner in which the State’s Congress(I) Chief Ministers were humiliated by the party’s high command. It struck an emotional chord in the people, who voted massively in favour of the TDP in the first elections it contested in 1983. Since then, anti-Congressism has become the TDP’s single-point political programme.

NTR’s antipathy to the Congress(I) reached the peak in August 1984, when he was dismissed as Chief Minister in a political conspiracy hatched by the national party. The development made NTR the Congress(I)’s most bitter critic and brought him close to the national Opposition parties such as the Janata Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left. The relationship proved enduring and the famous Opposition conclaves he held beginning with the one in Vijayawada culminated in the formation of the National Front under his chairmanship in 1988.

NTR’s political success at the national level, especially as one of the key architects of the National Front government led by V.P. Singh in 1989, made him a special target of Congress(I) leaders. More than ideological differences, it was political expediency and rivalry that roused his interest in national politics and steeled his resolve to work against the Congress(I). He argued that the Congress(I) was returning to power on the strength of minority votes and the disunity in the Opposition ranks.

Although Chandrababu Naidu pursued the anti-Congress(I) stance of the TDP, he was a shade more fortunate than his father-in-law NTR, who had to reckon with unfavourable dispensations at the Centre. Ever since he became Chief Minister following a family coup in August 1995, he had to deal with Prime Ministers such as H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral and A.B. Vajpayee, in whose choice he had played a major role, first as the convener of the United Front (U.F.) and then by lending outside support to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

On realising that the popularity of the U.F. government was on the decline, he threw his weight behind the BJP and the NDA. His calculations were simple. If he did not back the BJP-led regime, there was the risk of the Congress(I), his main rival in the State, coming back to power.

In order to deflect criticism that he was supporting a communal party, he ensured that the BJP stuck to the NDA agenda and did not take recourse to contentious issues such as Ram Janmabhoomi, uniform civil code and Article 370. He took a conscious decision not to participate in the government, preferring to extend support from outside. He understood the fast-changing political situation and made all the right moves. A stable TDP-friendly dispensation was in place, which ensured his own stability, gave whatever he asked for, and left the Congress(I) to cool its heels.

For over four years now, Chandrababu Naidu has scrupulously avoided making any move or criticism that would remotely harm the NDA regime, even while extracting the maximum benefits out of the arrangement. The best example is the way Andhra Pradesh got 55 lakh tonnes of rice as part of the food-for-work programme in drought-hit areas. If the BJP is able to boast of being the first non-Congress(I) government to last a full term, it is because the TDP remained its faithful ally through thick and thin.

The BJP’s dependence on the TDP has reached a stage in which it had to accept quietly the 27 Assembly and nine Lok Sabha seats that were offered to it by the TDP as part of the seat-sharing arrangement between the two for the coming elections. BJP activists protested saying that the offer was much smaller than the 42 Assembly seats and six Lok Sabha seats that the newly formed sub-regional outfit, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), got from the Congress(I). The BJP’s national leadership looked the other way because it knows the importance of the TDP in any future political formation.

However, it remains to be seen if the TDP would be able to play such a role, in view of the strong anti-incumbency factor that is working against it and the strong pro-Telangana sentiment that will decide the fate of one of the three regions of the State. If the TDP stormed to power invoking Telugu self-respect, K. Chandrasekhar Rao, president of the TRS, is harping on the "pride of Telangana people".

Speaking in an idiom understood well by people of the region, Chandrasekhar Rao has, in a short span of three years, ensured that the TRS becomes a political force to reckon with. He has been able to whip up pro-Telangana sentiments, after a gap of over three decades, by highlighting the TDP government’s neglect of a region that is perennially drought-hit and starved of development. He has effectively brought out the fact that though the major rivers, the Krishna and the Godavari, flow across Telangana, the benefits from these have been taken away by people of other regions, leaving the poor farmers of the region to depend on the more expensive method of drawing water from deep borewells using pumps. The majority of the 25 lakh agricultural pumpsets in the State are installed in Telangana.

Buoyed by its performance in the local body elections last year, the TRS won a good share of seats from the Congress(I) in a region that has 107 Assembly and 16 parliamentary seats. Whatever the outcome, the State is witnessing political realignments like never before.

See online : Frontline


Pic 1: P.V. SIVAKUMAR ; TDP president and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu at the party’s Mahanadu in Hyderabad in 2003. In the background is a hoarding of TDP founder N.T. Rama Rao.

Pic 2: MOHAMMED YOUSUF ; Telengana Rashtra Samithi chief K. Chandrasekhar Rao.

in Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 08, April 10 - 23, 2004.

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