“I have 30 per cent of Congress blood flowing in my body,” Chandrababu Naidu had said some two decades ago. At that time, the context was to tell the Congress that he is adept at outsmarting the Congress at its own game. But a look at Naidu's politics would tell you that his blood group may well be C positive.
Naidu started his political career in 1978 in the Congress and was a minister in the Andhra Pradesh government at that time. As the United Front convenor in 1996, he negotiated with the Sitaram Kesri-led Congress to install two Prime Ministers - first HD Deve Gowda and then IK Gujral. Though the Telugu Desam as founded by his father-in-law NT Rama Rao had a distinct anti-Congress DNA, Naidu has not flinched from mutating it whenever it suited his political interests.
Question of Survival for TDP
Naidu's decision to let his Telangana unit work out an alliance with the Congress therefore should not surprise anyone. The TDP, for all practical purposes, is on its death bed in India's youngest state.
Its sole MP and 13 of its 15 legislators in Telangana have deserted the party and even the 14th MLA is looking out for greener pastures.
Resuscitation by being part of a rainbow alliance to take on K Chandrasekhar Rao, is its only hope for survival.
During the Telangana agitation, the TDP was labelled as an anti-Telangana party primarily because of Naidu's reluctance to support the agitation. Hailing from Rayalaseema region, he was against the division of united Andhra Pradesh. He had also realised that if Telangana was formed, his bete noire KCR would emerge as a powerful political entity. Naidu's metaphorical attempt to balance Telangana and Andhra by likening his two eyes to the two regions did not cut ice with the people of Telangana. While it helped him come to power in Andhra in 2014, he was seen as a liability in Telangana.
What Naidu is doing now is practical politics. Having burnt his bridges with the BJP, he is manoeuvring his TDP bicycle into the opposition parking stand. Naidu would not like it to be likened to the return of the native but it is obvious he is ready to clasp the Congress hand more tightly than ever before. Naidu is no longer squeamish about being in a relationship with the Congress, at least in Telangana.
Shift in Congress’s Attitude
The Congress is the senior partner in this relationship. It needs to ally with the TDP for the simple reason that Naidu's party still has a loyal vote base in many urban pockets and arithmetic is the only hope the Congress has to beat KCR's chemistry with the voter. The TDP's catchment area will be in and around Hyderabad, where a large number of people from Andhra have settled down over the years.
The willingness of the Congress to accommodate the smaller parties in the Mahakutami (Grand Alliance) also marks a shift in its attitude. That it is willing to take a back seat and be a team player.
Will This Alliance Work?
But is the Alliance truly Grand as it pretends to be? Would it be so easy to forget that from 1983 to 2014, the Congress and the TDP were each other's principal political rivals in united Andhra Pradesh? How willing will be a Congress activist to work for a TDP candidate and vice versa? That will hold the key to the success of the alliance. Another important aspect will be to manage dissent after the distribution of tickets.
Two previous attempts–in the Achampet civic body election and Palair assembly bypoll–both in 2016, when the opposition put up common candidates against the ruling TRS, came a cropper. This is because usually people bless an alliance when it is focused on taking up people's issues rather than the selfish motive of coming to power. The opposition alliance at this point in time, runs the risk of appearing like a cluster of several chief ministeral aspirants, each eager to unseat KCR.
Grander Challenges Await ‘Grand Alliance’
KCR has already sharpened his knives, planning to once again make Naidu the villain of the piece. The TRS chief has already labelled the TDP an “Andhra party” and he can be expected to make the previous discrimination of Telangana at Andhra rulers' hands, the main weapon in his political armoury. The Congress response is that if it was not unethical for KCR to admit a dozen TDP lawmakers into his party, there can be nothing objectionable about working with Naidu.
But neither the TDP nor the Congress in Andhra is happy with the Telangana arrangement. This is because the Congress having presided over the division of Andhra Pradesh in 2014, is extremely unpopular in the residuary state and TDP will only burn its fingers if it allies with the national party in his state. The Congress on the other hand, is fearful that even if there is a tacit understanding, Naidu will gobble up the Congress votes and accelerate the process of the party's complete annihilation in the state.
The Telangana experiment will give an idea of how well the opposition can stitch together a state-by-state alliance to defeat the BJP or its ‘friendly’ parties like the TRS. From a national point of view, therefore, the Telangana template will be watched closely. If these two political rivals can collaborate to create electoral success, it will be held as a model for arch-enemies in other states to emulate.
The proof of political anxiety is in the name calling. The mocking of Naidu and Telangana Congress chief Uttam Kumar Reddy as two ambitious bearded men by senior TRS leaders is a giveaway that the ruling party sees this alliance as having the potential, at least on paper.
(The writer is a senior journalist who tracks South India’s politics. He can be reached at@Iamtssudhir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)