N Chandrababu Naidu in West Godavari district, May 12, 2023 (Photos: ANI)
THE COUNTDOWN TO 2024 has begun early for the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) which has been mobilising forces on the ground, announcing welfare schemes, and making other preparations for the electoral showdown. So, when TDP president N Chandrababu Naidu met Union Home Minister Amit Shah at his residence in New Delhi on June 3, it naturally led to speculation that he may be looking to return to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) fold ahead of the 2024 election in Andhra Pradesh. The meeting was yet another attempt by Naidu to reach out to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership since he exited the NDA government in 2018 over its denial of special status and financial aid to the residuary state. TDP was under pressure, with Assembly elections looming and the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) accusing Naidu of failing the state despite being part of the government at the Centre.
Asit turnedout, Naidufailedhisownpartyinthe2019Assembly election that saw TDP suffer a crushing defeat and his challenger YS Jagan Mohan Reddy sweep up 151 of the 175 seats. Dubbed “U-turn Babu” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his pre-poll volte face, Naidu may yet again be seeking an alliance that could help him win the state back. After all, this is not his first time cosying up to a party he had distanced himself from. He had quit NDA in 2004 over the Gujarat riots, only to join hands with it again in 2014. And then again, in 2019, he formed a ‘Prajakutami’, or people’s alliance, with Congress, TDP’s traditional rival, in Telangana. While TDP has not ruled out a tie-up with BJP in Andhra Pradesh this time round, thereisspeculationthatNaidumayhaveactuallysoughtthe Centre’s tacit support in countering Reddy’s attack on partymen and supporters, including pro-TDP media group Eenadu’s head and Margadarsi Chit Fund chairman Ramoji Rao who faces charges of money laundering. The media mogul had been a thorn in YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s side when he was chief minister. “With BJP emerging as a threat to regional parties across India, ChandrababuNaidumayjustbelookingtomendfenceswiththem. A formal alliance may not be on the cards since BJP has no support base in the state. In fact, allying with BJP may further alienate SCs, STs and Muslims,” says political commentator Ramesh Kandula.
If TDP is to stay relevant, it has to win the 2024 Assembly polls and return to power. Even a few months ago, this had seemed impossible. Reddy looked all set to coast to victory once again, thanks to his populist schemes and loyal vote banks among the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) which together constitute about 23 per cent of the electorate. If his 3,648-km Praja Sankalpa Yatra and his framing of the 2019 election as a struggle to unseat the rich and the allegedly corrupt had won him his first term in office, his government’s direct benefit transfers to the tune of ₹2 lakh crore over the past four years have given him a head start in the electoral race this time round. Despite the populist schemes, however, anti-incumbency has crept in—Reddy could even be forced to call early polls if murmurs against his administration continue to get louder. Meanwhile, TDP has been doing the unthinkable. It has picked itself up and shaken its cadre out of the hypnagogic state they had slid into. Naidu’s son Nara Lokesh, former state IT minister, set out on a padayatra of the state over a hundred days ago, a journey that has not just re-energised the party’s support base but also signalled his own coming-of-age.
On the 111th day, at the height of summer, Lokesh spoke to Open from Rayalaseema, the hottest region in Andhra, and said there was palpable anger against Reddy’s government for its failure to create jobs and economic activity. “I have covered 1,400km. Throughout the journey, I have encountered the same grievances—price rise, lack of employment and collapse of all economic activity in the state. People believe in Chandrababu Naidu’s track record of delivering growth and development. This is what makes us optimistic about winning the elections,” he said. Lokesh is not his father, but he is working doggedly at becoming an acceptable political heir. He walks 14-16km a day and does not go home for the weekend. The yatra has also created social media traction in favour of the party and birthed campaigns like the #SelfieChallengeToJagan, which urged people to share selfies showing stalled development projects, failed schemes, and other problems. “On the one hand, there are no private jobs and the farming community continues to be in distress. On the other, Jagan Mohan Reddy has hiked state taxes. He stalled the development of Amaravati, the ambitious capital envisioned by Mr Naidu, and instead has nothing to show in his three capitals. There has been no new infrastructure development and, therefore, no investor confidence in the state,” Lokesh said.
“I have covered 1,400km. I have encountered the same grievances—price rise, unemployment and collapse of all economic activity. People believe in Chandrababu Naidu’s record on delivering growth and development. That makes us optimistic,” says Nara Lokesh TDP general secretary
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The state has been ranked a top achiever in the Ease of Doing Business index for three years in a row, and bagged over ₹45,200 crore in 45 projects in 2021-22—more than any other state— Andhra Pradesh Minister of Education Botsa Satyanarayana pointed out in a conversation with Open. A total of 387 MoUs were signed at the just-concluded Global Investment Summit held in Visakhapatnam, he added. “Visakhapatnam had become our de facto capital over two years ago. Now, the chief minister is keen on making it the IT hub of the state,” Satyanarayana said. Media reports indicate that the projects will bring in a total of ₹8.85 trillion in investments, resulting in employment for 1,29,650 people. Employment is without a doubt the biggest issue plaguing the Jagan government, with data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s (CMIE) Consumer Pyramids Household Survey during September-December 2022 showing that the unemployment rate among graduates in Andhra is over 35 per cent—more than double the rate of unemployment among graduates across India.
IN A REPORT following the Sri Lankan financial crisis last year, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) flagged Andhra Pradesh as one of the states displaying signs of fiscal vulnerability, largely due to the expenses incurred on doling out freebies. Over 14.1 per cent of the state’s revenues are spent on subsidies like Amma Vodi—annual cash benefit to mothers for sending children to government schools—and YSR Cheyutha, which entails a financial assistance of ₹75,000 for women aged 45-60 hailing from SC, ST, BC, and minority communities, towards improving their livelihood. Meanwhile, government employees have been agitating for timely disbursal of salaries. Andhra’s net debt for 2022-23 is estimated at about ₹4.42 lakh crore, up from ₹3.98 lakh crore the previous year. TDP has alleged that the state’s debt doubled in the past four years—a claim that Special Secretary to Chief Minister (Finance and Economic Affairs) Duvvuri Krishna recently sought to debunk. Andhra’s debt grew at a slower pace—62.78 per cent—in the last four years than earlier, he said, adding that the government’s liabilities had more than doubled during TDP’s term in office after the bifurcation. Whoever wins in 2024, there is no redemption on the horizon, especially now that TDP has promised that it will continue offering the welfare schemes introduced by Reddy and even announced a few more.
In a speech at the party’s biennial conclave held in Rajamahendravaram last month, Chandrababu Naidu announced a mini-manifesto with seven promises—Maha Shakti (₹1,500 monthly assistance to women), Thalliki Vandanam (annual financial aid of ₹15,000 to all mothers), Yuvashakthi (25 lakh jobs and ₹3,000 unemployment allowance), Annadatha (₹20,000 a year to farmers), access to drinking water, legislation for the security of the Backward Classes (BC), and Vision 2047, dubbing the package as a guarantee for a bright future–“Bhavishyathuku guarantee”. “Every rich man will be asked to adopt one or two poor people. By 2047, India will emerge as a global power. By then, 35 per cent of Telugu people will be in corporate governance and administration across the globe. Making the poor rich is possible with such achievements,” Naidu said. The second part of the manifesto is set to be released in October.
Once lauded as a free-market apostle, Naidu’s reform focus could well falter as he faces the threat of extinction for a party he took over and ran with elan for almost three decades. Like NT Rama Rao before him, Naidu at the height of his political prowess was a kingmaker who helped install prime ministers and presidents and influenced major decisions by Union governments. From pushing for greenfield airports and an open sky policy to endorsing Prime Minister Modi’s “vision” at media events now, only a victory in the Assembly election can break the three-time chief minister’s precipitous fall from favour. An alliance with actor-politician Pawan Kalyan’s JanaSena Party may help TDP bridge the gap by winning over kapu voters, women, and youth. While poll alliances are yet to firm up, BJP has been sending mixed signals. “The Jagan Mohan Reddy government is widely seen as enjoying the Centre’s support, so Naidu’s meeting with BJP leaders has left everyone confused,” Kandula says. The Centre has just released ₹12,911 crore to Andhra Pradesh for the Polavaram project, just weeks after the long-pending release of ₹10,460 crore as compensation for the revenue deficit suffered by the state following its bifurcation. “Coming at a time when the state government is especially cash-strapped, this infusion of money indicates that BJP is keeping all options open for 2024,” he adds.