On NTR’s 98th Birth Anniversary, Is TDP’s Resurrection Nigh?
NTR changed the course of Andhra Pradesh’s history by establishing the Telugu Desam Party. Will the TDP survive?
The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), founded by legendary actor-turned-politician NT Rama Rao, whose 98th birth anniversary fell on 28 May, is facing an uncertain future in the changing political environment of Andhra Pradesh.
It’s not merely the challenge posed by the YSR Congress Party, the ruling party in Andhra Pradesh, led by a belligerent and aggressive YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, but also the threat posed by the ambitious plans of the BJP to replace it which have cast doubts over the future of the once formidable regional party.
Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao (NTR) stunned the world when he swept to power in 1983 within nine months of founding the TDP at the ripe age of sixty and brought to an end the three-decade unbroken hegemony of the Congress in Andhra Pradesh.
NTR’s fierce and successful fightback during 1984 August crisis when his government was toppled at the behest of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s coterie, and his party’s emergence as the largest opposition group in the Parliament following the 1985 general elections catapulted Telugu Desam, like no other regional party, into national limelight.
Muddled in Crises Since Inception
The first major crisis faced by the TDP was in 1995 when Nara Chandrababu Naidu ousted his father-in-law in a palace coup. Contrary to apprehensions, the party flourished under the new leadership of Naidu, who shot to prominence winning the 1999 Assembly and Parliament elections, besides bringing recognition to the regional party as a harbinger of free market economy at the regional level.
The party went on to play a key role in the United Front and later the National Democratic Alliance governments at the Centre. At the turn of the millennium, Naidu was calling the shots at the Centre under AB Vajpayee, even as he emerged as the undisputed leader in Andhra Pradesh.
The built-up fortunes came crashing down in 2004 when Naidu’s party was routed in both the state and Parliamentary elections. TDP was defeated once in the past, in 1989 under NTR but had returned with an overwhelming mandate in 1994. So, the 2004 defeat was not particularly alarming for the party.
However, the changing political equations soon threw the TDP into disarray, as the party lost grip over unfolding developments. It began when the Congress Party leader YS Rajasekhara Reddy whipped up the agitation for a separate Telangana state to weaken the TDP’s hold on the state during Naidu’s second tenure.
Ideological Void Under Babu
The demand for a separate state gathered momentum under K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR), a deputy speaker in the TDP government, who fell out with Naidu over a cabinet berth. Rao joined hands with the Congress in 2004, helping defeat the TDP in both the Assembly and Parliament elections. Subsequently, KCR became a Central Minister in the Manmohan Singh government, while his party, Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), shared power in Reddy’s cabinet.
Rao’s party fell out with YSR and entered into alliance with the TDP in 2009 elections. Naidu, who had a reputation for political management, was thought to have a fair chance to return to power through this alliance.
However, the entry by another actor Chiranjeevi who launched Praja Rajyam Party queered the pitch for the TDP which lost the elections for the second time. There were doubts at the time whether the regional party could ride out two consecutive terms without power.
It was, however, not the loss of power for the second term that had a debilitating effect on the party, but the ideological void that the party was gradually falling into had an effect. The TDP’s tentative and opportunistic stand on the issue of separate Telangana was the beginning of its undoing.
One of the TDP’s founding principles was the unity of Telugus and the integrity of the state. In both addressing the concerns of the advocates of the separate state and in taking a firm stand on the integrity of the state, Chandrababu Naidu failed to stand by the party’s ideological essence.
It was certainly to Naidu’s credit that the party was able to sustain through a decade out of power. But where the TDP’s standing saw a discernible fall was in its failure to keep up the image of a people’s party. The TDP’s core principles such as transparency in administration, corruption-free governance, welfare-oriented approach, cultural rejuvenation and commitment to secularism suffered under Naidu due to his ‘market-oriented’ and ‘management style’ politics.
Under him, federalism became passé and the only ‘ism’ considered worth following was tourism. The party’s stellar contribution to the Indian political debate on issues such as autonomy for the states, the role of the governors and regionalism with commitment to national integrity was allowed to recede.
Thus, caught in his own ‘posterboy of economic reforms’ image, Naidu lost touch with the emotional and intellectual appeal that the TDP of NTR had for a large number of Telugus.
Failures of the CEO Chief Minister
Naidu, who as CM called himself a CEO, however proved a trailblazer in many areas. He gained recognition at the national and international level as a leader with vision and a flair for knowledge economy. His contribution was especially evident in the transformation of combined Andhra Pradesh into a progressive and development-oriented state at the turn of the century. Under him, the TDP acquired the image of a modern political party invested in the aspirations of a rising middle class.
But Naidu, in his zeal to come out of the shadow of NTR and build his image as a ‘tech-savvy’ leader, tended to dilute the party’s role in governance as well as in policy making. The party nearly slid into irrelevance under Naidu at the peak of his popularity during 1999-2004. The TDP had a strong organisational machinery, which Naidu himself helped build over the years, but it came to be deployed only during election time.
The bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh was a great failure of the Telugu Desam Party under Chandrababu Naidu. The Congress Party, as many observers noted, undertook the rather inept move with the tacit support of the BJP to, among other matters, undermine the TDP in Andhra Pradesh.
The TDP’s own contribution to the erosion of its base during the Telangana imbroglio was no less. While neither Congress nor the BJP benefited out of the division of the state – which they pushed in the Parliament in the most inglorious manner, the TDP also lost heavily in the newly-formed Telangana.
The party has been more or less wiped out by 2018 in the new state, a region where the TDP was once seen as a liberating force, especially by the Backward Castes.
In the residual Andhra Pradesh, voters chose the experienced Naidu over the YSRCP’s Jagan Mohan Reddy in 2014 in the hope of a better future for the battered state. Naidu did a reasonably good job in dragging the state out of its post-division mess. While he was careful this time in balancing development with welfare, Naidu once again reverted to his dependence on the bureaucracy at the cost of the party.
Even as Prashant Kishor-led social media managers of YSRCP carpet-bombed the state with allegations of caste bias and corruption, Naidu seemed completely lost in his capital dreams.
The state ranked first in Ease of Doing Business, attracted large investments such as those by Kia Motors and made good strides in various sectors of the economy. Andhra Pradesh registered double-digit growth through the TDP’s five-year period.
But all such achievements failed to register with the people under the blitzkrieg launched by the YSRCP. Trapped in Jagan Mohan Reddy’s ploy, Naidu’s TDP was forced to snap ties with the BJP over Special Category Status. Believing that Narendra Modi was on his way out in 2019 elections, Naidu joined hands with the Congress and other non-BJP parties, thus enabling the YSRCP to cosy up to the BJP.
The result was the party’s crushing defeat in the 2019 Assembly and Parliament elections. Two years on, the TDP is yet to recover from the shock.
BJP’s Efforts to Replace TDP
Once in power, Jagan Reddy made it his mission to decimate the TDP by targeting the party’s rank and file. He unleashed the government machinery against the opposition party, its leaders, and their business interests.
The CM has been conspicuously picking on the Kamma caste and its interests in every field under the assumption that they are the financial backbone of the TDP. He seemed to have the BJP on his side in this relentless pursuit. Jagan Reddy is a new-age politician, who is unafraid of pursuing raw vendetta politics, while fortifying his vote bank through reckless distribution of doles.
The TDP is reeling under this onslaught by the ruling YSRCP, even as the current BJP leadership in the state appears to be cheering Jagan Reddy government’s actions. The calculation apparently is that if the TDP can be vacated from the state’s political space, the BJP will have a chance to replace it.
Naidu has a never-say-die attitude but the septuagenarian doesn’t have too many active political years left. He will be 74 by next election. Never an effective speaker, Naidu’s shortcoming is being felt in the age of social media explosion more than ever.
Unlike the DMK, which has stuck to its Dravidian philosophy through thick and thin, the TDP under Naidu failed to maintain its ideological identity. The absence of a strong second-rung leadership, largely attributed to Naidu’s politics, is also being acutely felt now.
Naidu’s son Nara Lokesh, a Stanford graduate, who is still learning the ropes, is being projected as the next leader to inherit the TDP legacy. But many observers as well as party men are yet to be convinced of his ability to lead the TDP at this critical juncture.
It is in this backdrop that the TDP’s future seems to be in a quandary. With another three years left in his term, it is not known to what extent CM Jagan Reddy might go to demolish the Opposition party. The past two years have shown that Reddy is unlike any other politician that AP has seen in his pursuit of naked power.
He is a regional Narendra Modi but with a twist, enjoying the support of significant sections of the upper castes and the Dalits. A Reddy by caste whose family converted to Christianity two generations earlier, Jagan commands the unstinted support of politically and financially powerful Reddys, and a loyal following among Dalits, most of whom in Andhra Pradesh are converted Christians. His single-minded focus on freebies has economically emasculated the state, but appears to have enlisted the support of poorer sections.
The TDP thus has been left with little maneuverability, even while facing a crisis of credibility, engendered in part by the YSRCP’s propaganda machinery between 2014 and ‘19. But the silver lining is that the BJP has failed to make any headway in its attempts to replace the TDP in Andhra Pradesh.
Still a Chance for NTR’s Party?
The euphoria for CM Jagan Reddy also seems to be waning among the middle class because of his needless animosity towards everything that Naidu represented, whether it is construction of capital Amaravati or job creation through industrialisation. A sense of fatigue is building against Jagan Reddy’s blatant nepotism, vendetta politics, lack of focus on development, cynical reliance on creating votebanks to the detriment of the state's economy and poor administrative capabilities as evidenced in tackling the corona pandemic.
The party founded by the charismatic NTR still commands a sizeable vote bank in Andhra Pradesh, and neither Jana Sena of actor Pawan Kalyan nor the BJP has been able to offer a credible third alternative in the state.
The resilience shown by the TDP in the face of relentless persecution by Jagan Reddy in the last two years has surprised even its detractors. Besides, the recent victory of the DMK after two consecutive defeats and the hat-trick by TMC in the face of the BJP’s onslaught in West Bengal have given a new hope to the beleaguered regional party.
However, it is time for the party to reinvent itself, for which, it can draw inspiration from its own legacy. Because without getting back to its ideological moorings, besides encouraging new and young leadership, shedding the image of family-owned-party and sharpening communication strategies, the TDP cannot hope to make itself relevant, and emerge stronger in time for elections in 2024.
(Ramesh Kandula is a journalist based in Hyderabad. He recently published ‘Maverick Messiah - A Political Biography of N.T. Rama Rao’ brought out by Penguin Random House India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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