August 09, 2020
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Taking On The Mantle

NTR's widow musters public sympathy as she issues a challenge to Chandrababu Naidu

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Taking On The Mantle
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Public sympathy is the trump card that Lakshmi Parvathi, the widow of Telugu Desam Party (TDP) patriarch N.T. Rama Rao, hopes to cash in on as she sets out on her self-appointed mission to teach his detractors a lesson. Parvathi's battle is against those sons and sons-in-law of NTR who deserted him last year. With assembly elections a good four years away, she may not find it easy to unseat her late husband's most hated son-in-law, Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, or woo TDP MLAs from the Naidu camp, but she has managed to whip up public support, thanks to the ill-treatment meted out to her by NTR's family after his death.

Suddenly Parvathi is projecting herself as the wronged woman. She may not have the glamour and presence of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha, who also found herself in quite the same situation after the demise of her mentor former chief minister M.G. Ramachandran. Jayalalitha, too, was subjected to ridicule by those close to MGR but she stuck it out and was able to ride to power on the tide of public sympathy. Parvathi hopes to use the same success formula as the Tamil Nadu chief minister but, unlike Jayalalitha, who was assisted by early elections and the strong anti-DMK sentiment in the aftermath of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, she has to sustain a prolonged campaign before elections are due in Andhra Pradesh.

However, NTR's widow says she is all set to plunge into state politics. She is already getting a sympathetic ear and the popular perception is that Naidu had wronged her by his initial refusal to hand over the ashes of NTR. Parvathi had made it clear that she was being deprived of her right to perform her duties as a "true Hindu wife". The unruly behaviour of Naidu's supporters, who used muscle in an effort to keep leaders of the NTR faction away from the funeral, is viewed to have been in bad taste and the accusation made by Parvathi that NTR's immediate family was trying to isolate her in her hour of grief has many takers.

But before she can be a serious challenge to the Naidu faction, Parvathi has to mend fences with those in the NTR faction who she did not take kindly to while her husband was alive. Also, she has to dispel fears among her supporters that she does not intend to be dictatorial in running the party. Parvathi has already showed signs of being a shrewd politician by appointing Venkateswara Rao as the working president of the NTR faction of the TDP. There was some talk that she would usurp this position but she has proved her detractors wrong by going so far as to say that her aim is to see Rao through to the chief ministership of Andhra Pradesh.

In this context, her primary task would be to first ensure Rao's renomination to Rajya Sabha, elections for which are scheduled on February 19. Once Rao makes it to the Upper House, he would be able to spare more time to chalk out the NTR group's Lok Sabha campaign. Parvathi is now trying to win over another 10 MLAs to ensure Rao's election. As of now, the NTR faction of the TDP has 37 MLAs in the 293-member assembly and will be short of five votes, provided no one shifts his or her loyalties to Naidu. To be on the safe side, she is contemplating mustering an additional 10 votes from sympathetic MLAs belonging to other parties.

To win a Rajya Sabha seat, a candidate requires the backing of 42 MLAs. Naidu's ruling party is certain to win four of the six seats, leaving two of his Left partners, the CPI and the CPI(M). To garner support for its entry into the National Front-Left Front combine, the Naidu faction has magnanimously offered a seat to the CPI.This sop, the chief minister's camp believes, will prompt the Left Front to stick to its demand that the National Front induct the Naidu faction into its fold.

To neutralise this, the Parvathi camp is persuading Janata Dal leader S. Jaipal Reddy, who will be retiring from the Rajya Sabha, to enter the fray. Rao has even made it known that he is willing to withdraw from the elections to accommodate the senior Janata Dal leader who was a close friend of NTR. This is not the only friendly overture from the NTR faction. Rao has already taken the initiative to rope in senior Dal leaders to support the faction's entry into the National Front. Invitations have again been sent to senior Front leaders for the rescheduled Simha Garjana (the Lion's Roar) rally at Vijayawada on February 15.

NTR had planned the rally for February 2 to launch his wife's political career formally and also to tell partymen that she was for all practical purposes his political heir. He did not live to fulfill this dream. Now Parvathi has rescheduled the meeting and, in the presence of senior National Front leaders, is likely to proclaim that she will complete the tasks that her late husband had entrusted her with.

It was clear even before her husband's death that Parvathi would be groomed as a TDP leader. At one of his last press conferences, NTR told journalists that "half" of his body had "already been given to Parvathi", adding that he was the "only fortunate politician in India to have such a good wife". His last compliment was even more flattering: "She is highly educated and understands what politics means."

 Parvathi's political understanding and shrewdness will be put to test at the February 15 rally, the first she will be attending after NTR's death. 

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