It was arguably the last authoritarian decision taken by Indira Gandhi before she fell to a volley of bullets shot at her by assassins.
The chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, the erstwhile superstar of Telugu cinema N T Rama Rao, had gone to the United States for a complicated and painful triple coronary bypass surgery. While he was in a hospital in America, trusted advisors of Indira Gandhi hatched a diabolical plot to execute a palace coup against him.
They persuaded a senior Telugu Desam (the party floated by NTR in 1982) leader N Bhaskara Rao to play Judas. Governor Ram Lal was pliable enough to do as Delhi ordered. On 14 August 1984, a tired and weakened NTR landed in Hyderabad after recovering from the surgery. On 15 August, the coup was executed without NTR getting even a whiff of it.
N Bhaskara Rao “revolted” along with some other MLAs. As if his life depended on speed, Ram Lal dismissed NTR as the chief minister and installed Bhaskara Rao in his place.
Andhra: Once an Impregnable Bastion
The authors marvel at one thing: how would political commentators and analysts have reacted if such a thing were repeated in contemporary India?
To be fair to them, a deep dive into media reports of those days reveals that the whimsical and vengeful move to oust NTR was almost universally condemned, barring some “never say die” Congress sycophants in the media.
The authors also marvel at another thing. Despite protests and criticism about India becoming increasingly authoritarian in recent times, there is no chance whatsoever of such a palace coup happening. Of course, politics being politics in any era, parties can be broken and governments made to fall for want of a majority as has happened in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra since 2019.
But they are more acts of Machiavellian maneuvers than brute force.
Barring a brief period of genuine resurrection under Y S R Rajasekhara Reddy in the first decade of this century, Andhra Pradesh has been slipping out of the hands of the Congress ever since.
That must be a a difficult pill to swallow for the Grand Old Party as the state was once an impregnable bastion. Even in the post Emergency Lok Sabha elections of 1977 when the Congress was swept out of power and Indira Gandhi lost her own seat, the party had won 41 out of the 42 seats on offer.
NTR and the Rise of the TDP
Rajiv Gandhi is still fondly remembered by his admirers for his smile, his affable, polite and courteous behaviour. But even “Prince Charming” occasionally displayed his anger and authoritarian behaviour.
One such example was the manner in which he had publicly sacked India’s foreign secretary A P Venkateshwaran in a live press conference. That didn’t really damage the Congress much. What did was his behaviour at the Hyderabad airport in 1982 when he, as the newly anointed General Secretary of the Congress visited Andhra Pradesh.
The chief minister of the state, T Anjaih, went to the airport to welcome the inheritor to the throne. For some strange reason, Rajiv Gandhi lost his cool and publicly humiliated the chief minister in front of everyone.
Reports of the unseemly behaviour of Rajiv Gandhi appeared in the media and people in Andhra Pradesh were genuinely offended and outraged. Till then, NTR was the reigning superstar of Telugu cinema and had not evinced any interest in becoming a politician. Almost overnight, he announced that he would do anything he could to avenge the humiliation heaped upon the Telugu people by Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress.
NTR formed the Telugu Desam Party soon after in 1982 and took an air-conditioned chariot (like a vanity van of film stars) called “Chaitanya Ratham” across the state to rapturous crowds and welcome.
Analysts did notice the impact he was having but still thought a newly born party with no grassroots workers and support base would fail in the elections. However, the January 1983 assembly elections shocked everyone.
The TDP won a staggering 46.3 % of the vote share and 201 seats in the 294-seat assembly. The Congress tally crashed from 205 to 60. Neither Indira nor Rajiv Gandhi was able to digest this result. The refrain in their inner circle was: how can a film star who often behaves like a joker insult the mighty Gandhi dynasty like this?
Aides started plotting almost immediately.
As written in a column written for July in this series, Indira Gandhi had ousted the chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir Farooq Abdullah in a palace coup in 1984. Buoyed by the “success” of that project, the plot to oust NTR gathered momentum and was executed as India was celebrating Independence Day.
But unlike Jammu & Kashmir and Farooq Abdullah, NTR never compromised with the Congress. The coup failed when the Bhaskara Rao government collapsed, and fresh elections were called. This time, the TDP won 202 seats and the Congress slumped further to 50 seats
Chandrababu Naidu and the Family Coup
A combative NTR had taken the fight to Delhi and sat on a dharna. A slew of opposition parties supported him. One prominent face was Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then the president of the four-year-old BJP. Somehow, this bonhomie resulted in a kind of alliance between the TDP and the BJP. In the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi won a monstrous majority, sweeping aside all opposition. But voters of Andhra Pradesh had not forgiven Rajiv. The Congress tally crashed from 41 to 6 while the newly born TDP won 31.
One interesting victory was that of BJP candidate Chandupatia Janga Reddy from Hanamakonda, now in Telangana. Along with A K Patel from Mehsana in Gujarat, Reddy was one of the two BJP candidates who managed a victory in 1984. But politics is a strange animal. NTR was convinced by his sycophants that he was invincible and a national leader. Prior to the 1989 elections, he floated a national party called Bharat Desam. This time, the voters taught NTR a lesson and he lost both the assembly and Lok Sabha elections badly. Is there a lesson or two here for K C Rao who has changed his Telangana Rashtra Samiti to Bharatiya Rashtra Samiti?
From then for about 20 years till 2004, the Congress managed to rule Andhra for 5 years between 1990 and 1995 when voters had turfed out a whimsical and often eccentric NTR. His son-in-law N Chandrababu Naidu ousted NTR soon after a TDP comeback victory in 1995 and ruled till 2004. Naidu forged an alliance with the ascendant BJP and became the talk of the town, transforming Hyderabad into Cyberabad.
So lavish was the praise for him in Indian and global media that Naidu inevitably became a victim of hubris. Even as he was basking in global glory, Congress leader Y S R Rajasekhara Reddy was traversing across Andhra in a manner that NTR had done in 1982. In many ways, both the BJP and the TDP led by Naidu had scored self-goals well before the 2004 elections. And history, as usual, was repeated.
NTR stormed back to power in the state in 1994. But he was ailing and his son-in-law Naidu deposed him in a family coup. Laxmi Parvathi, wife of NTR vowed to reclaim the NTR legacy after he passed away in 1996. In the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP tied up with the Parvathi faction of TDP. It won 4 seats and garnered a respectable 18.3% of the vote share. In the region that is now Telangana, the BJP vote share crossed 30%. The TDP was down four seats to 12. Soon after this, Laxmi Parvathi faded away. The BJP tied up with Naidu-led TDP for the 1999 Lok Sabha elections and won 7 seats.
The TDP tally shot up from 12 to 29 seats. But to respect the “alliance”, the BJP ceded space and ground to the TDP, like it did with the JD(U) in Bihar in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and 2020 assembly elections. As mentioned earlier, Congress leader YSR was travelling across Andhra. He forged key alliances with the CPM and TRS. And won Andhra handsomely. Naidu lost badly again in 2009 and came back to the BJP and NDA in 2014 and won. H dumped them again in 2018 and was decimated in 2019. He is now hoping for a comeback with the BJP's help.
Jagan's Entry and Congress' Annihilation
The hard work of YSR paid off. So did the hubris-inspired decision by Naidu to dump the BJP as an alliance partner before the 2004 elections. He was convinced he could do it alone. In contrast, YSR forged alliances, particularly with the TRS led by K. Chandrasekhar Rao who was leading an agitation for a separate state of Telangana. In the 2004 assembly elections, the Congress won just 1% more votes than the TDP.
But the game changer was TRS, an alliance partner of Congress that won 6.7% of the vote share. It was game over for the TDP within a few years, YSR became the tallest Andhra leader and delivered a comfortable for the Congress in the 2009 assembly elections. Unfortunately for the Congress, YSR died in a helicopter crash soon after the elections.
Then comes the final twist that led to the disintegration of Congress in Andhra, a process that started in 1982 and gathered momentum in 1984. The son of YSR, Jagan Mohan Reddy wanted the throne like a dynast, a practice not uncommon in the Congress. But whatever the reasons, the Congress under Sonia Gandhi refused. In fact, Jagan Mohan was arrested on charges of corruption and spent a long stint in jail. After this humiliation, he formed a new regional party and named it after his father YSR Congress.
Then Sonia Gandhi executed what her advisors thought would be a master stroke. The UPA rammed down legislation that created two states: Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The Congress was wiped out in the 2014 elections in Andhra, with a vote share of about 12% and a total of 21 seats. In the 2019 assembly elections, YSR Congress won 151 out of 175 seats and TDP was reduced to 23.
The Congress had disappeared. Worse, the Congress hoped voters in the newly created state Telangana would reward the party. No such thing happened. The TRS (now BRS) led by K C Rao has won two consecutive elections in the state. The Congress hopes to ride on anti-incumbency and restore some old glory.
Worse, the Congress hoped voters in the newly created state Telangana would reward the party. No such thing happened. The TRS (now BRS) led by K C Rao has won two consecutive elections in the state. The Congress hopes to ride on anti-incumbency and restore some old glory.
Political analysts often single out Tamil Nadu as an outlier state where the Dravidian parties march to their own tune. The fact is, both DMK and AIDMK have been either UPA or NDA allies (formally or informally) since the 1990s. It is in Andhra Pradesh that politics is crazy with the leading parties so far staying away from both the UPA and NDA.
In 2018, TDP moved a no-confidence motion against the Narendra Modi regime. YSR Jagan Reddy supported the motion. This time around, both openly supported the BJP during the no-confidence motion. K. C. Rao of course has his own plans. The authors have a feeling that in the event Narendra Modi manages a third consecutive mandate in 2024, it won’t matter who wins in Andhra and Telangana because the NDA government will get support for passing crucial bills.
Such has been and is in Indian politics.
(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)