Will The BJP Believe In Itself In Andhra Pradesh?
Can the BJP back itself and focus on attracting a dedicated set of leaders and voters over the next couple of election cycles in Andhra?
On 1 October 2003, while Chandrababu Naidu was on his way to Tirumala, Naxals set off a series of explosions en route. The attack, though meticulously planned, failed. Naidu resigned soon after and tried to make the impending election a referendum against Naxals. His gamble was that public sympathy would help him tide over anti-incumbency. In the end, Y S Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR) dispelled the myth that Naidu cannot be outsmarted.
Naidu believed that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cost him the Muslim vote and he dumped the BJP in 2009.
We can go back in time to make sense of Naidu’s recent moves, which are rather predictable.
When N T Rama Rao (NTR) founded the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), he went solo but later stitched together an alliance with the BJP and the communists in the 1985 elections. The BJP was largely an unknown entity in the state at the time. So, the communists were the bigger partner. Thanks to the alliance, BJP won eight assembly seats in 1985. Venkaiah Naidu, who won as an MLA in 1978 and then in 1983 as a BJP candidate, lost in 1985 but later played a key role in sustaining the TDP-BJP alliance.
Then, in 1989, the Congress won big on the back of strong anti-incumbency. NTR faced several allegations of corruption and nepotism. Kapus, individuals of a particular agricultural community, in large numbers walked away from NTR, blaming him for the murder of Vangaveeti Mohana Ranga, a prominent Kapu leader.
In 1994, citing the Ayodhya agitation, NTR pulled the plug on the alliance, but won big. The BJP went solo for the first time, contesting 280 seats, but they won a mere three seats. The party got close to 4 per cent of the vote. However, NTR didn’t last long as the chief minister, thanks to the coup by Naidu in 1995. Naidu has since dumped most of the people who helped him in carry out the coup.
In the subsequent election in 1999, the alliance was back on track, minus the communists, and Naidu retained power.
In 2004, Naidu lost while the BJP retained its 3 per cent vote share. In 2009, Naidu broke off the alliance. While TDP’s vote share decreased in the assembly elections, its seat count almost doubled. Going solo, the BJP won just two of the 271 seats it contested, but retained the 3 per cent vote share.
The passing away of NTR in 1996 and YSR in 2009 turned events in Naidu’s favour. While there is no way of knowing, I bet the state would have remained one under YSR and he would have probably won a third term. Sadly, the narrative on YSR’s corruption was very different in the state compared to the rest of the country. In the state, he was seen as ‘helping’ the people. The buzz was that YSR helped everyone while Naidu helped himself.
Before we go any further, we must address the elephant in the room: caste. The Congress is a Reddy party. TDP is a Kamma party. Kapus are the single biggest caste block, but their loyalties are inconsistent. Chiranjeevi, a Kapu himself, had hoped they would vote for him in full measure, but that didn’t happen. Voting along caste lines is prevalent largely among Reddys and Kammas. I asked several Reddys in YSR’s home district as to why they support YSR even though he is a Christian. The response is unanimous: “He behaves like a Reddy”, whatever that means. Caste transcends religion.
In 2014, Naidu threw the kitchen sink. The BJP, Pawan Kalyan, the popular film star (Chiranjeevi’s brother), plus special status, plus loan waivers. Candidate Modi and Venkaiah Naidu said they would give special status for 10 years and not five. The alliance won narrowly, with a margin of just six lakh votes statewide. The BJP’s 3 per cent vote could have been the decisive factor.
The 2004 loss and YSR’s popularity changed Naidu. He decided to play the twin role of populist and reformist. Naidu 2.0 feels very different. According to some media reports, he sits on files. He is busy promoting his son, Lokesh, whom he sees as the successor. He is surrounded by cronies. He once called all the ministers and suggested they keep their children away from governance. One minister told a source known to me, “He said all this while Lokesh was by his side.”
Soon after the bifurcation, construction of the capital city was an emotive issue. He focused a lot on Amaravati. But the thing with emotive issues is, they can be transient. While a capital is important, it is not the sole issue, as it was earlier. He promised jobs, which never arrived. There is definite anti-incumbency.
“If you are explaining, you are losing”
The BJP walked back on the promise of a special status to the state. I see the BJP putting up numbers of special package, funds awarded, and citing the Fourteenth Finance Commission. Nobody is interested in these details. People live and think in broad strokes. The BJP has simply lost the popular narrative in the state. The Telugu print media, which is mostly owned directly or indirectly by the two political parties, will further damage the BJP’s prospects.
As Jagan became vocal on the special status, Naidu changed his tune. He had to go one step further. Being with the BJP would mean certain defeat. He had no choice but to break off the alliance. During the previous National Democratic Alliance rule, he had leverage with then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee since his members of Parliament were essential to the survival of the government. In 2014, the moment the BJP won 282 seats, there was disappointment within TDP. The leverage was gone.
Jagan is playing it smart this time around. He has realised that there is no gain for him in criticising Modi or the BJP. He is directing all his attacks on Naidu. He regularly talks about how even though the BJP made it clear that no special status can be given, Naidu stuck on with the BJP. All said and done, we cannot rule out the possibility of either TDP or Jagan supporting the BJP in 2019 should it get close to a majority.
So, why did the BJP go back to Naidu in spite of being dumped repeatedly? It was mostly because they needed the numbers at the centre. The other hypothesis is lack of belief. Their calculation was that Andhra will remain a two-party state and they would not replace either of these parties. They never gave events a chance. Who would have thought that the Congress party would lose their deposit in 150 of the 175 seats?
Naidu did everything to contain the BJP. Many BJP leaders in the state were against the alliance. However, Venkaiah Naidu prevailed. With him out of the picture, the alliance was anyway under pressure.
So, what can the BJP expect in Andhra?
For starters, things are not as bad as they are in Tamil Nadu. The state could have potentially become like Karnataka, but that prospect has now vanished.
In terms of strength, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has an adequate presence in the state. The BJP had a consistent 3 per cent vote share, one aberration being the 1998 Lok Sabha election, in which the BJP got 20 per cent of the vote, thanks in part to an alliance with TDP (Lakshmi Parvati) . Amit Shah said their booth-level presence is settled, which is a big plus. Modi’s popularity, though diminishing in the state, could rise if he wins in 2019.
On the negatives, due to the alliance and inconsistencies, none of the big leaders from other parties joined the BJP. The party barely gets 10 per cent of the seats in the alliance. There is no big state leader. They are long overdue to elect a new state president. Symbol recognition is poor. Voters saw the lotus symbol very few times. Simultaneous state and central elections means that the BJP will have fewer opportunities to go to the voters. They are not the main opposition and the only time they will have some salience is during the elections. It has no support of a prominent caste.
While the cycles for shifting of fortunes have become shorter, Andhra is no Tripura. The BJP will have to forget 2019 and build aggressively from then on. The BJP has to decide once and for all that they are done with the alliance and are on their own. They need to do that for two to three election cycles to build confidence and attract a dedicated set of leaders and voters.
Going forward, their biggest hope, in former British prime minister Harold Macmillan’s words, would be: “Events, dear boy, events.”
Note: An earlier version of this piece said that the BJP was in alliance with the TDP in 1983. In reality, the alliance was in 1985 when the BJP won eight seats. The error is regretted.
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