N Chandrababu Naidu after his arrest by Andhra Pradesh CID, September 9, 2023
RAJAMAHENDRAVARAM CENTRAL PRISON allowed former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu only two ‘mulaqats (meetings)’ and two phone calls a week, like any other inmate. Those who met him inside say he looked energetic, was following his routine of yoga, and reading books on ‘resilience’ sent by his son Nara Lokesh.
Naidu read all the newspapers he got, made some clippings and jotted down notes to brief his party leaders. One of the visitors during his first week in jail was Telugu actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan who, immediately after the meeting, announced an alliance between his JanaSena Party, a constituent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP), to take on their common foe—Chief Minister and YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) leader YS Jagan Mohan Reddy—in the Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh next year. Naidu is said to have told Kalyan that it was unfortunate that the state police had stopped him from going to Vijaywada to support him, a day after the TDP leader’s arrest in an alleged scam involving a ₹371 crore skill development project when he was chief minister from 2014 to 2019. The decision to fight the elections together was taken in the first 20 minutes of a nearly 45-minute-long meeting, a move that may have been in the pipeline but was apparently spurred by Naidu’s arrest.
The same evening, Nara Lokesh, who was with Kalyan when he met Naidu in jail, flew to Delhi with the case files. His schedule was packed with back-to-back meetings with the legal team led by Supreme Court lawyer Siddarth Luthra, party MPs and the national media. The mission was to fight the case legally as one of “baseless charges” and “political vendetta”. In the TDP supremo’s absence, Nara Lokesh, as the party’s national general secretary, held parleys with his MPs who were in the capital to attend the special session of Parliament, conveying to them the directions from “Mr Naidu”, as he publicly refers to his father. The issue resonated in both Houses of Parliament with TDP MPs drawing the attention of the Centre to Naidu’s “political incarceration” and YSRCP members alleging that notices served by the Income Tax Department and Directorate of Enforcement (ED) have found a money trail.
“It was a surreal experience to meet Mr Naidu in the prison’s administrative block, which he himself had inaugurated in his last stint as chief minister. He was smiling. He showed us his markings on newspapers and told us that the facts have to be told,” Nara Lokesh told Open, as he finalised a series of meetings with party leaders. He has heard that Naidu was “inspecting” the jail. While inaugurating the administrative building of the Central Prison in 2016, Naidu had said the aim of imprisonment should not be to punish but to bring change to the lives of prisoners through reforms, and suggested skill development training for the inmates for better job opportunities after their release.
Seven years later, whisked away by the Andhra Pradesh Crime Investigation Department (CID) from his caravan in Nandyal in Kurnool district in the early hours of September 9, Naidu was produced in the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) Court in Vijayawada the following day and then taken on a 200km drive to Rajamahendravaram for a 14-day judicial remand. The news came in the midst of the G20 summit in the national capital. It was also a time when there was speculation about TDP returning to the NDA fold ahead of the 2024 elections in Andhra Pradesh which coincide with the Lok Sabha polls.
At 73, Naidu, an eighth-time MLA in his nearly 45 year journey in politics, is at a new crossroad. Behind bars, he has captured the national spotlight. His arrest has galvanised his party workers into action by organising protests against the YSRCP government, and fortified battle lines. “He has said the protests should be peaceful. People have come out in solidarity. This will not go in Jagan’s favour,” says Nara Lokesh.
Naidu’s arrest on corruption charges, however, not only gives 50-year-old Jagan an agenda to go on the offensive against him in the run up to the elections, but could also dissuade the BJP from tying up with the TDP. It has to be seen whether Naidu can cash in on any sympathy factor that his arrest may evoke. Few days into his arrest, superstar Rajnikanth made a call to Nara and told him that his “dearest friend Chandrababu” was a “great warrior” and that the arrest and cases foisted against him will not deter him.
It was a surreal experience to meet Mr Naidu in the prison’s administrative block, which he himself had inaugurated as chief minister. He has said the protests should be peaceful. People have come out in solidarity. This will not go in Jagan’s favour, says Nara Lokesh
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WHILE ANALYSTS PREDICT a political churning in the state where Naidu has been chief minister thrice— twice in undivided Andhra Pradesh and once after its bifurcation—there is suspense about what shape political equations will take. Naidu has recently praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi, calling him a “visionary”, sending a message that he was again ready to put the bitterness of the past behind. BJP, which Naidu has tangoed with and spurned, is keeping its cards close to its chest. TDP, treading cautiously, has adopted a wait-and-watch approach. Party leaders respond with an emphatic “no” on joining the opposition INDIA alliance, though several of its leaders have come out in Naidu’s support, but when it comes to the likelihood of going with BJP they are non-committal. “Let’s see,” says a TDP leader. YSRCP has 22 of 25 Lok Sabha seats in the state and nine members in Rajya Sabha, backing the Modi government’s controversial legislation like the Delhi Services Bill in Parliament. TDP, with three MPs in Lok Sabha and one in Rajya Sabha, is wary of BJP veering towards Jagan. But the recent alliance of the JanaSena, a BJP ally, with TDP has complicated the political equations. BJP, which has no seat from the state in Lok Sabha or Assembly and a minuscule vote share of less than 1 per cent in both, is evasive on its Andhra strategy. The ball would be in the prime minister’s court after a sour parting with TDP in 2019 when Naidu and Modi were unrelenting in their attacks on each other.
A canny politician, Naidu has entered alliances on both sides of the political aisle, his allegiances dictated by electoral interests of his party, and even played protagonist in coalition politics. He started his political career in Congress, becoming a minister in his first stint as an MLA. He continued in Congress even after marrying NT Rama Rao’s daughter Bhuvaneswari but later joined TDP, inheriting his father-in-law’s legacy of anti-Congressism. That, however, did not stop him from accepting the post of convenor of the United Front (UF) government formed in 1996 with the outside support of Congress. Naidu, picked for the job because he was seen as an organisational man, abandoned the third front two years later after the UF fell and Congress, under the leadership of YS Rajasekhara Reddy, who incidentally was his friend, won 22 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Andhra Pradesh.
After the split verdict of the 1998 Lok Sabha polls, Naidu attended a meeting at Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader Murasoli Maran’s home where former Prime Minister IK Gujral suggested forming an anti-BJP, anti-Congress front. From that meeting Naidu headed straight to meet Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He offered TDP’s support of 12 MPs to BJP in forming a government and managed to get the speaker’s post for his party. Later, at a press conference, he insisted TDP was “secular” and not communal.
It was the ‘secularism’ plank that was behind the uneasiness in his relationship with Modi after the 2002 Gujarat riots. Naidu, then chief minister, took a strident stand against Modi, then his Gujarat counterpart. Like Modi, Naidu too was not a run-of-the-mill chief minister and saw technology as the harbinger of change. He pushed for reforms, worked long hours, liked to be seen as a tech-savvy ‘CEO’ and built Cyberabad, an IT hub, to make Hyderabad a counter to Karnataka’s Bangalore. Those who worked closely with Naidu recall how he ensured US President Bill Clinton came to Hyderabad on his India trip in 2000. Somewhere along the line, however, the appeal of the hi-tech-beguiled chief minister started waning, particularly among the poor and rural voters of Andhra Pradesh. He lost the Assembly elections of 2004 and 2009, and was confined to the opposition benches for a decade. A year before the 2014 elections, Modi, who was named BJP’s prime ministerial candidate at the party’s Goa conclave, and Naidu decided to put behind their differences and join forces. Naidu became chief minister again in 2014, winning with a narrow margin. Although he has served the longest term as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, of the five elections he led the party in, he has won only two. In 1995, he had been sworn in chief minister after a ‘coup’ against NTR.
Naidu has played a crucial role in national politics for nearly three decades. After the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh and under pressure from his political opponents to ensure the Centre gave special category status to the state, Naidu hardened his stand. He withdrew his two ministers from the Union Cabinet to step up the pressure. Relations between him and Modi started turning hostile and finally they fell out. He lost the 2019 polls to Jagan Mohan Reddy whose YSRCP swept the state with even Nara Lokesh losing his maiden Assembly election from Mangalagiri to Ramakrishna Reddy.
“When I decided to enter politics, my fathertold me ‘Define your own path… but remember, if youlive by the sword you will die by the sword,’” recalls Nara Lokesh, who was on a padyatra when Naidu was arrested. Alleging that even operational procedures were not followed in the arrest “on false charges”, he says when his image was being tarnished Naidu would like people to know the truth.
While Nara Lokesh camped in Delhi, Andhra Pradesh CID chief N Sanjay, in an unusual move, held a press conference in the capital saying the “scam” centred round allocation of money to Siemens through a nomination process bypassing standard procedures. He said of the ₹371 crore allocated, ₹241 crore was funnelled to various private companies, and accused Naidu of masterminding the scam.
TDP sources have denied the allegations, dubbing the case against Naidu as fraudulent. Party MP Ram Mohan Naidu says that under the scheme, establishing Centres of Excellence (CoE) in skill development, with 90 per cent funding by Siemens and 10 per cent by the state government which provided infrastructure, 2.15 lakh youth benefitted and 80,000 of them got jobs. When CID registered a case in 2021, Naidu’s name had not figured among the 36 accused.
While the high court has reserved its order on Naidu’s plea for bail and quashing of the case till September 21, after hearing lawyers from both sides, CID has filed a petition in the ACB court for Prisoner Transit Warrant in another graft case related to an alleged scam in allotting tenders in AP State Fibernet Ltd (APSFL) when Naidu held the portfolios of the energy, infrastructure and investment.
As elections near, allegations and counter-allegations of corruption between YSRCP and TDP are likely to peak. Inside prison, where, as Z-plus category security protectee, Naidu was given separate accommodation, he was keeping himself abreast of developments through newspapers and reading the books sent by his son. Nara Lokesh, however, refuses to disclose the names of the three books he had sent him, saying, “That’s between father and son.”