Naidu has termed his fast ‘dharma porata deeksha (struggle for justice)’. A day before, he told his cabinet colleagues at a meeting, ‘This is just the beginning. The protest should continue.’

Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu started a day-long fast Friday, also his 68th birthday, to protest against the Centre’s refusal to grant special status to the state.

As his fast began, a large crowd of supporters gathered at the venue, Vijayawada’s Indira Gandhi Municipal Corporation Stadium, and several organisations offered their support in his pursuit for special status for Andhra.

Naidu has termed the hunger strike ‘dharma porata deeksha (struggle for justice)’. A day before, he told his cabinet colleagues at a meeting, “This is just the beginning. The protest should continue.”

The fast marks a beginning, indeed, with Naidu hinging the special status refusal on Telugu pride as he prepares for 2019.

It’s been a month since Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) quit the BJP-led NDA over the ‘special status’ impasse, a year before the Lok Sabha as well as Andhra assembly polls. In the year ahead, Naidu faces two challenges: Preserving his hold on Andhra, as well as navigating complicated alliance maths to possibly find a role in the opposition coalition taking shape to counter the BJP at the national level in 2019.

The fast will be followed by a ‘mahasabha’ on 30 April in Tirupati, where Naidu will again take on the Modi government for breaking its promise.

“It is the same place where, in 2013, Narendra Modi had announced he would grant special category status to Andhra Pradesh,” said Nara Lokesh, Naidu’s son and the state minister for information technology and panchayati raj. “Today, our CM is not celebrating his birthday but protesting against the Modi government for the injustice done to the people of Andhra Pradesh.”

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“We gave them four years… Despite our repeated reminders, Modiji failed to deliver on the promise. Now we will expose them before the people of the state… Similar rallies will be organised in each district of the state where the target would only be the BJP and Narendra Modi,” he said.

The fast is reminiscent of October 2013, when Naidu had begun an indefinite hunger strike in Delhi against the splitting of Andhra Pradesh. For him, the bifurcation, which happened the next year, was an injustice to the majority of the people, and he trained his guns on the then Congress-led UPA government at the Centre.

The BJP had supported the bifurcation as well, but, during his 2014 assembly election campaign, Naidu pitched the Congress as the villain of the division among Telugu people. He went on to win 103 of residual Andhra’s 175 seats.

Nearly five years later, the villain has changed, but the pivot remains the same. Naidu is now pitching the BJP as the villain for promising and then refusing special category status for Andhra. The essence of his grievance is that the bifurcation took a big bite out of Andhra’s resource pool and left it in revenue deficit.

At the start of his term, the government had promised a number of things for the newly created state. While some have been fulfilled, a cash crunch continues to hold his dream project, a new capital at Amaravati, hostage.

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Naidu has termed the refusal an assault on Telugu pride, and thus found a platform to enter next year’s election season.

Ever since Naidu announced his exit from the NDA, he has been getting feelers from other opposition parties on the coalition being planned for 2019. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has even called him a few times to enlist his support.

In the 1990s, Naidu did serve as the convenor of the United Front government but the current scenario puts him in a precarious position. The Congress is widely expected to lead any opposition coalition, and Naidu cannot be seen joining hands with the party.

Not only has he opposed the party on the Telangana issue, the TDP was formed on an anti-Congress platform based on Telugu pride. This is one reason why he has not responded to Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s recent overtures, despite the latter’s support for special status for Andhra.

Also, he wouldn’t have much of a bargaining power in the coalition, with the bifurcation cutting Andhra’s Lok Sabha representation from 42 to 25 seats. The TDP currently has 16 Lok Sabha members, making it smaller than Mamata’s Trinamool Congress (34 MPs) and thus a weaker voice in negotiations.

Asked about the TDP’s take on the coalition, Lokesh said it was too early to talk about it. “We strongly believe that any such alliance is formed in the last three months (before an election)…Our alliance with the BJP was stitched one month before the 2014 election. So, currently our focus is to do better for the state and weigh our options only when the elections draw closer,” he added.

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As his son said, Naidu’s focus right now is gaining the maximum possible seats in the two elections. To this end, he has been announcing new schemes, with a particular focus on Dalits, who form 18 per cent of the electorate and largely support the YSR Congress of Jagan Mohan Reddy.

For one, Naidu’s birthday marks the launch of the state government’s ‘Chandrana Pelli Kanuka’ scheme — targeted at scheduled castes and backward classes, it offers financial assistance of Rs 40,000 to brides from BPL families. “There is a Rs 100 crore budget for the marriage-related schemes benefitting more than 50,000 families,” says Kalava Srinivasulu, the Andhra Pradesh minister for information and public relations

Naidu always celebrates the birth anniversary of former deputy Prime Minister Jagjivan Ram. On 5 April, his birth anniversary this year, big posters of Ram were put up across all cities.

Having quit the NDA, Naidu also has on his radar Muslims, who form 7 per cent of the electorate and hold sway over 20 seats in Rayalaseema, a YSR Congress stronghold. The TDP government is mulling several schemes for the community, which is also eligible to avail of benefits under the ‘marriage incentive’ scheme.

“We will surely come back to power as people know the commitment of our CM towards the development of the state,” said Lokesh. “He has done it in the past, and we are doing it now too.” #KhabarLive