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Chandrababu Naidu: A Neo-Liberal Mascot

Naidu’s success mantra is that one must effectively use the given opportunity and convert every adversity into an advantage

Photo: Getty Images
Eventful Journey: Naidu on a fast, protesting against the formation of Telangana on October 9, 2013 Photo: Getty Images
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N Chandrababu Naidu is the son of a landowning farmer from Naravaripalle of Chandragiri Mandal in Tirupati district of Andhra Pradesh (AP). However, he is well-known today not only in the Telugu states, and in India, but beyond the boundaries of the country. As a first-generation politician, known for converting a crisis into an opportunity, Naidu is a pragmatist in using those opportunities for self-elevation. A deep analysis of his track record for more than four decades reveals that he has been a mastermind in political-cum-electoral strategies, mobilisation of resources and managing coalition politics at both the state and national levels.

While assessing a successful politician, one needs to also locate the historical perspective of the changing political economy and electoral politics of the state and nation. Retrospectively, Naidu’s political career began when he attracted the attention of Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, when he was a research scholar at Sri Venkateswara University in Tirupati. Hailing from the skilful Kamma community, he is said to have become close to N G Ranga and Rajagopala Naidu, both of whom were Congress MPs belonging to the Kamma caste. With the help of Ranga, Naidu got a chance to contest as an MLA from Chandragiri constituency on a Congress ticket and won the election in 1978.

As first-time MLAs, Naidu—along with Y S Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR), the former chief minister (CM) of AP and father of Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy, and K E Krishnamurthy (KEK), the deputy CM in Naidu’s cabinet during 2014-19—became ministers in the jumbo cabinet of T Anjaiah, who was CM of AP in the 1980s. After getting a ministerial berth, he got married to matinee idol N T Rama Rao’s (NTR) daughter in 1981. In informal discussions, close circles disclose that it was YSR and KEK who convinced Naidu to marry NTR’s daughter so that he would get financial support for the next election.

Offering prayers at the Sri Venkateswara Swami Temple in Tirumala on June 13, 2024 Photo: PTI
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However, by 1982, NTR himself launched the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and contested against the Congress. In the 1983 assembly election, Naidu was the Congress candidate, but was defeated due to the NTR wave. Naidu never thought that the TDP would create a tsunami in state politics by challenging the single-party domination of the Congress since the 1950s.

Naidu was in a dilemma for a short span of time after his defeat in 1983. However, in the Indian Hindu tradition, the words of the daughter with specific reference to her husband are mandatory directions to be followed by the girl’s parents. In the case of Naidu, it was the opening of the TDP’s doors. NTR was kind enough to make Naidu a member of the TDP family, without anticipating that he would one day be dethroned by his son-in-law.

From Populism to Neo-liberalism

During the regime of NTR, the focus of policy was on populist schemes like subsidised rice, clothes and housing for the poor, electricity to the farmers, and prohibition. However, when Naidu became CM in 1995, he provided a new direction to the state—the neo-liberal model of development. Neo-liberalism was gaining ground in India from the 1990s due to structural adjustments, liberalisation and globalisation, which was introduced during the reign of PM P V Narasimha Rao. Neo-liberalism emphasised the economy, efficiency and effectiveness (3Es) by creating institutional choices like markets and companies, while making information technology the instrument for globalisation of the capital.

Arriving at a meeting to select the prime ministerial candidate in New Delhi on May 14, 1996 Photo: Getty Images
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Naidu, having learned from the globalisation process, wanted to capture the financial resources from the World Bank and information technology (IT) to convert AP into a laboratory for experimenting with neo-liberalism under the project titled ‘Restructuring of AP economy’. He claimed that he was the Chief Executive Officer of the state government. As part of the economic and governance reforms, he withdrew prohibition, hiked the rates of state government subsidies and introduced user charges on basic services like health and water. In terms of governance reforms, parallel institutions to local bodies such as water users, parent-teacher associations and hospital management committees were created.

Having learned from the globalisation process, Naidu wanted to convert AP into a laboratory for experimenting with Neo-liberalism under the project titled ‘Restructuring of AP economy’.

In the process of implementing the economic reforms, Hyderabad, on the one hand, got visibility at the global level, and on the other, rural distress was aggravated. With the establishment of the International Institute of Information Technology, Hi-Tech City, and the Centre for Good Governance in Hyderabad, Naidu gained attention at both the national and international levels. It was no surprise then that US President Bill Clinton and Bill Gates of Microsoft visited and promised to support the state government. Information technology and the jargon of good governance and global capital spread the image of Naidu to every nook and corner of the country. He also emerged as the architect of coalition politics. His political and reformist activities elevated him as the ‘kingmaker’ at the national level in terms of deciding the candidates for the PM and the President of India.

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However, at the state level, economic and governance reforms could not address the rural and agrarian distress. That resulted in the suicides of rural artisans and farmers, and a rapid increase in unemployment. Therefore, by the beginning of the New Millennium, the rich-poor contradiction emerged in AP. The rich opted for the multifold increase in wealth to become crony capitalists through real estate, IT, communications, making movies, privatisation of health and education and civil and liquor contracts. In this process, certain social groups had accumulated humongous wealth and invested in diversified fields. The process continued even during the YSR regime.

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Bifurcation of AP

The neo-liberal model of development reinforced by Naidu and YSR had generated prosperity for the rich and pauperised the poor, more specifically, in backward regions like Telangana and Rayalaseema. However, the growing crisis in the backward regions like Telangana resulted in the rise of organised protests that led to the political agitation for a separate state. There were other developments too—the floating of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi in 2001 (now Bharat Rashtra Samithi) by K Chandrasekhar Rao, the landmine attack on Naidu by the then People’s War Group (also known as Maoists) at Alipiri of Tirupati and subsequently, the padayatra by YSR. These three events were significant factors in defeating the TDP in the assembly elections in 2004.

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Naidu with N T Rama Rao File Photo
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As a result, Naidu was out of power for 10 years, from 2004 to 2014. During this period, YSR died in a helicopter accident in 2009 and the demand for a separate state of Telangana intensified. The response of the TDP to the Telangana agitation was the ‘Two Eyes’ theory—one Telugu language and two Telugu states. But this strategy proved unsuccessful as the party was uprooted even from Hyderabad. This was also reflected in the defeat of the Congress in the 2018 assembly election, when it contested in alliance with the TDP.

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Fan of SWOT Analysis

I was part of a team, constituted by Naidu and headed by K Srinivasulu Naidu, to select MLA and MP candidates for the 2004 election. I observed closely that Naidu expected the team to look at the profiles of candidates from the perspective of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) to get an objective assessment. From 2004 to 2014, I used to get requests from the TDP office to draft speeches for public meetings, which I did.

In fact, I was one of the academicians who drafted the Backward Classes Sub-Plan just before the 2014 election and submitted it to Naidu. The slogan of ‘100 seats and 10,000/crore budget for the Backward Classes’ was my brainchild and it fetched Naidu a lot of dividends. Of course, during the 10 years of my service, I did not get any return gift from Naidu.

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Naidu in Residual AP

In 2014, elections for the assembly and the Lok Sabha were held at an unusual time—the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had announced the formation of Telangana. While the state’s bifurcation process was going on, Naidu launched a padayatra covering about 2,735 km. During the course of the padayatra, he announced the Backward Classes Sub-Plan and forged an alliance with the BJP and the Jana Sena Party (JSP). The TDP-led alliance won 106 assembly seats with a vote share of 44.43 per cent and formed the government.

From the ideological point of view, Naidu has been flexible and is a pragmatist. Electoral data suggests that without an alliance, the TDP has never won an election.

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From 2014 onwards, Naidu’s priorities had changed—the state was in a financial crisis even as preparations were on, not only to build the new capital that would require more than 30,000 acres of land, but also the construction of the Polavaram irrigation project. Meanwhile, the opposition party leader, Jagan, started a padayatra as part of mobilising the people for the 2019 elections. In this election, the TDP was defeated. Again, it took five years for the TDP to recover. In the 2024 election, by reviving its broken alliance with the BJP and the JSP, the TDP won the state.

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The 2024 election is a boon for the TDP, the BJP and the JSP—winning 164 assembly and 21 Lok Sabha seats with more than 50 per cent vote share. With this victory, Naidu has once again come into the national limelight. With the revival of coalition government in Indian politics, the bargaining power of the TDP has been strengthened.

However, there are a series of challenges before Naidu, such as building of the new capital, Polavaram, four per cent reservation for Muslims, Backward Class Atrocities Act, regional balance in development and the unemployment crisis. But he has become another voice for south India, especially on the issues of delimitation and disproportionate distribution of Central taxes. Therefore, the attention of the country is on Naidu to design the new developmental model, which is supposed to be different from the highly centralised model and must include all social groups. The new model of development of AP and India in general must focus on social welfare and inclusiveness of all segments of society.

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Naidu has experimented with various electoral alliances—with the Left parties, the Centrist parties and the Right-wing parties. Therefore, from the ideological point of view, he has been flexible and is a pragmatist. Electoral data suggests that without an alliance, the TDP has never won an election. The Backward Classes have always been the backbone of Naidu due to NTR’s legacy and his own efforts. Since 2014, Naidu has been grooming his son, Nara Lokesh.

Finally, as a politician, Naidu has been successful for more than four decades—as CM for two terms in composite AP and two terms in residual AP. The success mantra from his longstanding political experience is that one must effectively use the given opportunity and convert every adversity into an advantage.

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(Views expressed are personal)

(This appeared in the print as 'Neo-Liberal Mascot')

E Venkatesu is professor of political science, University Of Hyderabad

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