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Telugu Desam Party president N. Chandrababu Naidu, a key player in the United Front and NDA, distanced himself from the BJP-led alliance after the Gujarat riots. Despite a severe drubbing in the recent bypolls in Andhra Pradesh, Naidu says TDP will always remain a secular party. Excerpts from an interview to Madhavi Tata:
Would you support Narendra Modi as prime ministerial candidate of the NDA?
I am not going to say anything against the National Democratic Alliance now but ours is a secular party and we cannot unite with communal forces. The Congress is drifting and the BJP is not going anywhere. There is no question of supporting Narendra Modi as a PM candidate.
Baba Ramdev called on you recently and even in the bypolls, your campaign has focussed on corruption. But do you think voters have become immune to corruption?
The present issue is corruption —be it the CBI case against Jaganmohan Reddy, the liquor scam or Gali Janardhan Reddy bail, bribe scam. Political parties are creating role models like Gali Janardhan Reddy for the youth. Politicians like Jagan are trying to convey that corruption is an acceptable phenomenon. As a leader, I have to fight this even though it is an uphill task.
Which Presidential candidate will you support?
It is a choice between the UPA and NDA. We cannot support a candidate which the BJP puts up because it is not a secular party. And Pranab Mukherjee is a Congress candidate. We will have to decide. One thing is for sure, we will not abstain.
You are seen as a CEO politician and an able administrator but the farmer's vote eludes you.
During my tenure, I created wealth and the dividends paid off for the Congress government after 2004. I did several things for the farmers —be it timely supply of fertilizers, pesticides, seeds. Unfortunately, there were four years of drought at the time. Even then I introduced programmes like Food for Work. I am certainly more pro-farmer than the Congress. Even when I was part of the United Front government, we fought for farmers and introduced loan waivers. Farmers are in severe distress now. Every programme that the TD will launch will target the poor and focus on their uplift. In fact, we will now demand a separate budget for farming and agriculture every year.
What will Chandrababu Naidu's USP be as a chief ministerial candidate in 2014?
Good governance, honest administration, commitment to welfare and development programmes. We will restore AP's pride.
There have been a series of bypoll defeats for TD. What do you think is the primary cause?
There have been 65 bypolls in the state in six years. As an opposition party, it is really difficult to face so many bypolls. Repeated bypolls are bad for society. Both the Congress and YSR Congress spent ill-gotten money in the bypolls. We do not have such resources. During the current by-elections, Jaganmohan Reddy's arrest created a wave of sympathy. Whenever, there is a sympathy wave, people tend to forget their own problems and are easily misled. In Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha boycotted bypolls. There is an ongoing discussion in TD if we too should follow the AIADMK's example and fight only general elections.
Will the situation be any different in 2014?
I am not a defeatist and will never be. I am 100% confident that people will vote with a balanced mind in the general elections. People will realise that corrupt leaders like Jagan or the Congress cannot give them good governance. The political uncertainty caused by constant bungling by the Congress has reduced AP to a defunct state. Anything and everything is a scam. In 2014, people will weigh and analyse all issues when they cast their votes. The situation will certainly be different. It will be Victory 2014 for the Telugu Desam.
Do you think that the Kamma (caste) votebank which traditionally belongs to TD is being eroded by YSR Congress?
The TD is a secular party which has always done social justice. We give due importance to all castes and religions. That being said, even if there is some division in the Kamma vote, it is only temporary because of the sympathy factor.
Some TD leaders feel that the candidates contesting the bypolls were not motivated enough.
Everyone is fed up with frequent bypolls and our candidates cannot be blamed. It was a huge burden on them too. I did my best but some factors worked against us and voters were swept away.
Is there a rift between the Nara-Nandamuri families? There is talk of your nephew, actor NTR Jr being miffed. Will he campaign in 2014?
Speculations are always there especially in big families. But I always welcome everyone and carry family members along with me. I give due respect to all family members and party functionaries. In fact some of my family members are in the Congress. Have I ever disrespected them? NTR Jr campaigned for the party in 2009 and I will welcome him in 2014 too.
Do you fear any desertions from TD to Jagan's party?
People are not foolish. By 2014, both the Congress and Jagan's party will be in trouble. The TD has no scandals. I am confident that I can keep my flock together.
A shorter version of this interview appears in print