Two decades ago, then Andhra Pradesh chief minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu was one of India’s most powerful politicians. Recognised as a reformer who had put Hyderabad, his state’s capital, on a journey of meteoric rise as a software-exporting investment destination and business hub, he was given the sobriquet of CEO of AP Inc., and acknowledged as a young leader who had put three Prime Ministers in office, working out backroom nuances of national coalition politics.
Twenty years later, after several careening twists and turns of fate, Mr Naidu has suffered electoral losses in 2004 and 2009, and had a disastrous stint as the first chief minister of a bifurcated Andhra, leading to his decimation and ouster in 2019. From that low, Mr Naidu has not only been staring at the precipice since, but a fate similar to Lalu Prasad Yadav is hovering over him.
Last week, a special court of the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) began hearing a case of disproportionate assets against him, filed by Lakshmi Parvathi, widow of N.T. Rama Rao, after over 14 years. A day later, income tax raids on his former personal secretary and three infrastructure companies owned by TD party leaders, found at preliminary stage false and benami transactions of Rs 2,000 crores. The tax sleuths also grilled a close aide of his son, Nara Lokesh.
On another front, Andhra chief minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy is building a strong case of insider trading in lands around Amaravati by Mr Naidu and other TD leaders — both politically and legally. Mr Reddy has politically undone most of Mr Naidu’s major moves during his 2014-19 stint as CM, including shifting the capital from Amaravati, renegotiated tenders of Polavaram and other major projects, and is trying to abolish the Legislative Council, where the TDP has a majority and hopes to stonewall some of YSRC moves.
The upending of his clout as a leader has seeped to a sharp attack at a personal level too. Mr Naidu has had his security clipped down, a convention centre built during his tenure in the capital region was torn down, and a guesthouse he is residing in as a tenant is being set up for demolition.
One of his close aides, former Andhra speaker Dr Kodela Sivaprasad Rao committed suicide after a series of cases, including one of stealing furniture from the Assembly, was registered. TD cadre and local leaders are deserting the party because it can no longer protect them from the belligerent, often violent, YSRC cadre.
Sensing an increasing vacuum in the Opposition, created by the rapid decline of TD in the state, the BJP and Tollywood actor K. Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena have tied up.
Mr Naidu has no friends and three powerful enemies — Narendra Modi in Delhi (whom he tried to dislodge in the Lok Sabha elections by trying to front a Rahul Gandhi-led anti-BJP coalition), K. Chandrashekar Rao (whom he tried to have defeated in the Telangana Assembly elections in a coalition with Congress) besides Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy (against whom he failed in the Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh).
With Amaravati and Hyderabad hostile by definition, Mr Naidu tried to look towards Delhi, but the BJP rebuffed his overtures, saying all doors for an alliance with him have been permanently closed.
Politically, Mr Jagan Mohan Reddy has further consolidated his narrative in Andhra since his win, he is delivering on welfare promises even if at a high cost. Though Mr Reddy rarely acknowledges issues like investments, growth or jobs creation, welfare alone should suffice for him for another term in 2024.
With the legal noose tightening, Mr Naidu has reached rock bottom of his unusual political career — having served as CM three times and, into his third stint as Leader of the Opposition.
The endgame leaves him with only one option — smell the coffee, cease being in denial, redefine his career and salvage whatever can be. The only route left for him is to offer to merge the Telugu Desam into the BJP. This would imply he would never again be the chief of a party and instead have to report to a political boss. It means giving up on all dreams of even becoming CM. It would require accepting that he would never see the coronation of his son. The merger option means a complete reinvention starting with making political sacrifices, a concept rather alien to his psyche. But as in any trade, there are several benefits if Mr Naidu opens up to some lateral thinking.
Mr Chandrababu Naidu, who has modelled his career benchmarked against icons Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore or Mahathir bin Mohamad of Malaysia, might disparage a call to fashion his future as the Himanta Biswa Sarma of Telugu states, but that is the best possible to him from now on, while avoiding the worst.
The first consequence of being the leader of a national party could lead to a possible shift to the central government and end his hibernation for next four years right away, also give him a first-time opportunity as a Union minister. The Modi Cabinet could use some good talent and Mr Naidu has a knack of delivering the goods.
The second consequence is to give his cadre and leaders loyal to TD a blanket protection, under the BJP flag, against the YSRC aggression. It would put YSRC on a backfoot, because they cannot attack BJP leaders with impunity like they do with the TD.
As a leader of BJP, a national party, Mr Naidu will have a stronger political punch to his visceral desire to take the battle to his two Telugu rivals on both sides of the bifurcated border — Mr Reddy in Andhra and Mr Chandrashekar Rao in Telangana. Mr Naidu can best help the BJP realise its goal to come to power in these states, an otherwise difficult possibility. Powered by Brand Modi, organisational acumen and the resources of Amit Shah, Mr Naidu can pull strings as he never could since 2004.
The BJP and Mr Naidu’s best-case pitch in Andhra Pradesh is to project a non-Reddy, non-Kamma chief minister. The promise of an end of duopoly of Reddy-Kamma power in caste-driven AP would galvanise people against the YSRC in an emotional way. After all, of two CMs Andhra had before 1956, 16 CMs who served in 23 terms before bifurcation, and two after bifurcation — only Tanguturi Prakasam, Damodaram Sanjivayya, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Jalagam Vengala Rao and Konijeti Rosaiah have come from other communities.
In Telangana, despite being into his second term of a debt-laden state, Mr Rao has no peer to match him on the Opposition side. As anti-incumbency rises against TRS in his second term, Mr Naidu can get help galvanise the Opposition against Mr Rao, his bête noire, and making it battle-ready.
The lure of becoming the BJP's Biswa Sarma may not be fascinating, but Mr Naidu must know the alternative — he would end up as the Lalu Prasad Yadav of Andhra. He must decide fast because the clock is ticking and time is running out. Take a last U-turn, or it’s curtains.