The Modi-Naidu equation, from bad to worse

It is a little more than a year since the Telugu Desam quit the NDA. The parting was bitter with Chandrababu Naidu going to town over Narendra Modi’s refusal to grant Special Category Status to Andhra Pradesh. Of course, the TDP conveniently glossed over the fact that Naidu had agreed to the special package and even passed a resolution in the state assembly thanking Modi for it. 

On Monday, Modi was in Rajahmundry on the election campaign trail where he likened Naidu to Bhallaladeva, the antagonist in SS Rajamouli’s superhit `Baahubali’. What Modi meant was that Naidu was just days away from a political defeat. Political discourse usually turns ugly at election time but the barbs exchanged between Modi and Naidu have revealed the rancour in their relationship. 

Modi has accused Naidu of being interested only in Nara Lokesh’s son-rise and asked the people of Andhra to ensure a son-set. He has called him a backstabber, referring to the 1995 episode of Naidu overthrowing his father-in-law NT Rama Rao in a palace coup. Naidu retorted by telling Modi that he does not understand family values and started using the hashtag #ModiIsAMistake in his tweets. 

Modi and Naidu at the foundation stone laying ceremony at Amaravati, October 2015

But those surprised by the acrimony between the two only need to rewind the clock back to 2002 to know that the two were never quite best friends. Soon after the 2002 riots in Gujarat Naidu publicly took an anti-Modi position. In April that year, the TDP politburo called for Modi’s resignation stating that “the leadership in Gujarat has lost its moral authority to govern”. It even held out a veiled threat to the Vajpayee government pointing out that “secularism is a fundamental principle for the TDP and strict adherence to it is one of the basic conditions for our support to the NDA”.

According to those in the know, Naidu’s hardtalk was based on the premise that after Vajpayee’s rajdharma snub to Modi, the BJP will show the Gujarat CM the door. This would have enabled Naidu to score brownie points with the Muslim community in Andhra Pradesh.

But the BJP National Executive in Goa that backed Modi with LK Advani’s support put a spanner in Naidu’s plan. Modi, reportedly, was not amused at a non-BJP chief minister interfering with who BJP should choose as a CM.

In 2004, when Naidu lost the elections, he did not blame himself for ignoring agrarian distress and his over emphasis on personal brand building as the CEO of AP Inc. Instead, he faulted the BJP for the TDP losing the minority vote in Andhra Pradesh.

According to those in the know of things in the BJP and the TDP, including those who had helped forge an understanding, Modi never forgot the twin snubs.

In 2013 however, after back channel confabulations resulted in a meeting between Naidu and Modi in New Delhi, they decided to fight the elections together. Actor Pawan Kalyan too was roped in and the 2 per cent vote difference helped Naidu edge out Jaganmohan Reddy to the chief minister’s chair.

The TDP got representation in the Union cabinet and BJP MLAs secured ministries in Naidu’s government. But things started going downhill once the Centre made it clear no special category status will be given to Andhra, despite promises made by BJP leaders during the campaign. Naidu had no option but to agree to a special package and he tried to market it, explaining only the nomenclature was a tad different.

In August 2017, when Venkaiah Naidu was moved out of government to the Vice President’s Office, it clipped the Andhra CM’s clout in the corridors of power as he was Chandrababu’s go-to man in New Delhi.

Modi with Jaganmohan Reddy

The fissures deepened in 2017 as Naidu did not get an appointment with the PM for an entire year. The TDP felt Modi rubbed it in by giving time to Jagan in May that year and later even meeting YSRC Rajya Sabha MP Vijaysai Reddy, a close confidante of Jagan.

Over the last one year since the parting of ways, things have gone from bad to worse. Naidu believes central agencies have been used against TDP leaders. The trust deficit is so acute that when the Election Commission wanted to shift the Intelligence chief last week, Naidu threw up a fit, accusing Modi, K Chandrasekhar Rao and Jagan of plotting it. 

Modi on the other hand, rubs it in by telling Naidu that he is only senior to him in losing elections. Modi never lost an election in Gujarat after becoming CM.

As I see Modi addressing an election campaign meeting at the LB stadium in Hyderabad on Monday evening, I am reminded of 2014 when Naidu and Modi were together at the same venue. Then, Modi pulled Naidu by the hand and forced him to sit on the special chair meant for Modi on the dais. At that time, it was seen as a feel good moment that made the audience feel the bitterness of Gujarat was a thing of the past. In hindsight, you realise all of it was meant only for the cameras. 

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