Chandrababu Naidu’s distancing act is replication of his post-Gujarat tactics in NDA’s first edition.

Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief, N Chandrababu Naidu, is a serious political ally not given to tantrums associated with some among his peers in other states. From 1996 to 2004, he virtually ran the show in Delhi – first as the convener of the United Front and thereafter as the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s life support from outside.

The United Front (UF)  experiment that had the backing of the Congress and the Left was a patchwork secular substitute to the BJP that formed the government, but failed to prove its majority in the House in 1996. In that limited sense, Naidu’s crossing over to the saffron party was an opportunistic volte face.

But from his standpoint, changing camps in 1998 stood as much to reason as to political pragmatism. As time proved, the TDP leader was reading the political terrain right in his state. People in Secunderabad were on the streets wearing black bands when Vajpayee went on a hunger strike after Kalyan Singh’s ouster as UP CM in a SP-BSP pincer move.

“People of Andhra want to see Vajpayee as Prime Minister. I must partake of that goodwill,” he told me. “Mine will be a restraining influence on the BJP. I’d keep them in check…”

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The allusion of course was to the saffron outfit’s contentious agenda: common civil code, scrapping of Article 370 and Ram Temple. As Vajpayee’s survival depended on his support, Naidu could keep the word he gave to his friends from the UF days. For him, the question also was arithmetical. He was clear that he’d count for nothing in Delhi without having numbers to show in Andhra.

The gamble fetched him dividends till 2004 — when the BJP lost power in Delhi and the TDP in Andhra. Looking back, he cited three reasons for his defeat: continuation with the NDA after the Gujarat conflagration; failure to invest in the farm sector accruals from beneficiaries of first generation reforms; and belied hopes of sympathy after the Naxal bid on his life.

In the interregnum, such was his commitment to the NDA that he didn’t withdraw support from it even after Gujarat 2002. He allowed himself to be persuaded by Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference who telephoned him to argue: If you go, with what face would I continue in the government?

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That had Naidu take the middle ground. He did not pull out, but distanced himself from the alliance by not reclaiming for the TDP the Lok Sabha speakership. The vacancy arose from his party colleague and incumbent GMC Balayogi’s death in a chopper crash.

With Narendra Modi, the TDP chief has replicated the ‘distancing’ route that registers protest without showing him as an unreliable ally. His tactics underscore his political savvy. The BJP will have problems addressing in Andhra the denouement he has engineered on the emotional issue of the Centre’s help to rebuild the state. In the same stroke, he has taken the sting out of his regional rival — the YSR Congress’ plans to hype the special status demand by making its members quit the Lok Sabha.

Politically, Naidu couldn’t afford to be seen as less than demanding on the question of financial support for Andhra. At the 2015 foundation laying ceremony at Amaravati, his plea to Modi was based on sound logic. After bifurcation, Andhra was the only southern state without a revenue generating centre comparable with Hyderabad, Chennai or Bengaluru.

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Naidu was upset because the Centre was neither generous nor deferential to his urgings. His calls to New Delhi, including the one he made to the PM before withdrawing from the NDA regime, often went unanswered. His last call was returned only when he went public with the complaint of being snubbed by the PM.

Modi’s gesture was timely damage control. He knew and had often mentioned in the 2014 poll campaign that the TDP’s rise under NT Rama Rao was on the ‘Telugu atmagowaram’ plank. The fledgling party seized the issue at the Congress’s expense when Rajiv Gandhi upbraided then CM T Anjiah while on a visit to Andhra as AICC general secretary in 1982.

Naidu deserved the protocol he perhaps was lately denied in Delhi as a leader with a role in the making of three Prime Ministers: HD Deve Gowda, Inder Kumar Gujral and Vajpayee. In the NDA’s first edition, the very powerful L K Advani would invariably walk up to the doorsteps to see him off at his North Block office. The numbers then were provided by the TDP. Now the BJP has them. #KhabarLive