New Delhi: Not quite in Mayawati’s league but still certainly a serious contender for prime minister this summer is the divided Andhra chief minister, N. Chandrababu Naidu. Heading a state with twenty-five Lok Sabha seats, Naidu has limited bargaining power should a united opposition wrest the mandate from the National Democratic Alliance to choose the next PM. Naidu’s only hope rests on emerging as a consensus PM choice among opposition allies, and he has, to that end, begun the cultivation of opposition leaders in earnest.

Prior to the Congress party’s stunning victory in the three Hindi-belt states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the Congress leadership was amenable to going along with Naidu’s joint front against Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Previously, the Congress and Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party had come together to take on the Telangana supremo, K. Chandrasekhar Rao, in the early elections called by Rao. That alliance bore no fruit partly because the Congress and the TDP have been historically inimical while it solidified the informal understanding between Rao and the central BJP leadership. The Congress’s game-changing victories in the three north Indian states further altered political equations with Chandrababu Naidu. The Congress now will fight Andhra’s Lok Sabha and assembly seats alone and not together with the TDP as planned, and this is part of the Congress’s scheme to contest the general election largely on its own strength, resources and ideology. The positioning of Priyanka Gandhi in eastern Uttar Pradesh with a mandate to capture the whole state flows from this idea.

Is Chandrababu Naidu whistling in the dark then? Naidu is not bereft of political strengths. He is in his third term as chief minister but heads a small state after Telangana was carved out. Naidu was at the zenith of his power in the first two terms when he sought to modernize Andhra Pradesh at a pace probably unusual for the time and the province. He started the great rivalry with Bangalore by making Hyderabad a cyber hub, opened doors for software giants like Microsoft in the state, and pushed e-governance to the greatest extent. With Alyque Padamsee to manage his image and industry and business bodies like CII rooting for him, it seemed Chandrababu Naidu could do no wrong. In his hubris, he neglected growing farmer suicides and spreading agricultural distress, and shared the fate of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government with its “India Shining” campaign.

In his third term, Naidu is not just weaker from his failed vision of the first two terms; he also heads a state which in many ways has suffered from the partition of Andhra Pradesh. Down from a respectable forty-two to twenty-five Lok Sabha seats, Andhra does not command the previous political heft. It has lost Hyderabad to Telangana. When he was aligned with the Vajpayee government in his earlier run, Naidu held the whip hand in the alliance, making sometimes outre demands on the prime minister, who was as accommodative as possible. With Vajpayee’s BJP PM successor, Narendra Modi, Naidu’s demands for a Rs 1 lakh crore-plus special economic package for rebuilding Andhra with a new capital at Amravati met with a stony rebuff. Breaking with the National Democratic Alliance, Naidu hitched with the opposition, but the Congress’s three state victories have altered equations. Rahul Gandhi, the new Congress president, desires to form the next government at the Centre preferably on his own, and he cannot make alliances that endanger that project.

A move to New Delhi at all events would have been the capstone of Chandrababu Naidu’s career, but that looks increasingly difficult in the prevailing circumstances. In the state, the Yuvajana Srimika Rythu Congress Party of Y. S. Jaganmohan Reddy is rapidly catching up with the Telugu Desam Party despite the numerous corruption charges against Reddy. Ignoring this and voter base and ideological differences with his party, the BJP has placed its bets on Reddy to contain Naidu. A faded leader, his charm no longer works. Ideally, he would like his son to take over the state while he shifts to the Centre, but that is easier said than done. If Naidu can stake a claim to PM, Mamata Bannerjee and Mayawati surely have greater prerogatives. Not to speak of Akhilesh Yadav, whose party, albeit non-seriously, wants him in the race.

Nevertheless, one factor still works in Chandrababu Naidu’s favour. With his record of work in Andhra Pradesh, he has established himself as an economic modernizer and liberalizer. The glitz and mega-economy associated with Hyderabad owes entirely to his effort. Naidu is the darling of big business and foreign investors would be relieved to have someone like him after the regressive social orientation and economic policies of the present Central government. With few Lok Sabha seats, fewer at any rate than what Mamata and Mayawati are likely to fetch in the general election, Naidu will be well-behaved as prime minister. The natural autocratic tendencies of all powerful people would be curtailed in him. In power, Mamata and Mayawati would be little different from Narendra Modi. Chandrababu Naidu may be expected to be more malleable. His consensual side would require greater expansion and exhibition to be the opposition PM choice for a hung parliament. Rating: Four out of 10.

Also read “2019”, “2019 - 2” and “2019- 3” here, here and here.