The question I got more often on social media and fellow Andhra people in the US is “Why is Chandra Babu Naidu so actively meeting all the national leaders? Is he in the PM race?”
Having sources across the state and having visited Andhra multiple times recently, my sense was that Chandrababu Naidu was widely unpopular and was going to lose badly. There was a wide chasm between ground reality and Naidu’s actions and talk. It is natural for a politician to project confidence but Naidu took it to some other level. So, why did he do that? Was he delusional? How can someone who has been in politics for so many years read things so wrong. My sense is that he knew that he was going to lose the state. He was projecting this confidence and hoping for a hung parliament. And that he would have a role there and hence some political relevance. He had no fantasies about becoming a PM like Deve Gowda. All he was looking was for some relevance. He had hoped that all this talk of a national front would mean that people in the state would bless him with may be 8 or 9 MPs. Perhaps, he was not as delusional as his supporters. The scale of defeat though caught many by surprise. He ended up just 23 MLAs and 3 MPs, coincidentally, the same number of MLAs and MPs Naidu had poached from Jagan post the 2014 elections.
Let’s look at some of the potential causes of his defeat and then look at what’s in store for BJP, which got wiped out in Andhra.
- Chandrababu Naidu did not have an opposition he could blame for past failures or force a contrast. Congress is not there in the picture and Jagan was never in power. He was his own competition as far as governance is concerned. And people saw a very different Naidu this time. He seemed out character for most part of the term. Lots of loose statements, signs of panic all the time, peddling crazy conspiracy theories like EVM tampering claims among others made him seem like a different person.
- While Naidu has lost an election while in alliance with BJP, he has never won an election on his own. The 2014 numbers show that without an alliance with BJP and Pawan Kalyan’s support, he would have lost to Jagan. 2014 was a very narrow victory for Naidu
- Too much rhetoric: Naidu doesn’t have any charisma. He won largely on the image of an able administrator. He is not a great orator. This time, he took on Modi and was delivering a lot of speeches. His speeches aren’t exactly rousing. In 2014, for most parts, it looked like Jagan was winning. There was a late swing in Naidu’s favor, largely due to voters wanting to trust an able administrator to steer the state during a difficult time. His actions didn’t sit in line with this expectation
- The new capital: When the state split, Telangana got Hyderabad. Andhra people lost their capital. The sense of loss made a new capital a central issue. So, Naidu made it his main point of governance. Capitals take decades to shape up. Also, the sense of loss diminished quickly and the very people who obsessed about a new capital started complaining that Naidu is obsessed only about the capital
- Nepotism and Corruption. Naidu this time was seen as trying too hard to promote his son, Lokesh. He was made a minister and had a say in both party and the government. Lokesh lacks charisma and made too many gaffes. He quickly earned the title “Andhra’s Pappu”. While Andhra voters never considered corruption as a major issue, several corruption charges against Naidu harmed his image.
- Jagan made many mistakes in the 2014 campaign. It was his election to lose and lose he did. This time, thanks to Prashant Kishore’s advice and some wisdom from the defeat, he stayed on the message. His father, the late YSR, remains a revered figure in the state, in spite of his brazenly corrupt regime, thanks to populist schemes. Jagan always had sympathy of the voters for being denied a CM’s post. If Rajiv Gandhi could be made PM after Indira’s death, why not Jagan?
- Naidu made many U turns. He promised a special status, so did BJP. However BJP winning 282 seats meant Naidu had no leverage. Someone told me that the 2014 result was bitter sweet for Naidu. He was hoping for a situation where BJP needed his support to form the Govt, something even Jagan was praying for in 2019. BJP walked back on the special status promise and offered a special package. Naidu tried to sell special package to the people. There were protests for a special status and he got some of these protestors arrested. He praised Modi during the initial years. He then suddenly made Modi as enemy No.1 and reverted to his original demand for special status. He allied with Congress and was rubbing shoulders with Rahul Gandhi. They say public memory is short, but thanks to internet, media and social media, public memory isn’t that short.
Let’s now look at it from BJP’s point of view. While BJP was always a marginal player in the state, it was also instrumental to Naidu winning elections. It had a 3-5% voter base in the state that predates Modi. In 2019, BJP got less than 1% vote. In fact, NOTA got more votes than BJP. All BJP candidates lost their deposits as many, including myself had predicted In Vizag Lok Sabha constituency, where they won last time, BJP got just 30,000 votes, in spite of a fielding a famous candidate: Purandhareshwari, NTR’s daughter. One of the MLA segments gave her close to 18,000 votes, else going by the state average she would have got around 15,000 votes. So, you might be wondering why look at this from a BJP’s perspective ? It isn’t even present in the state. Simply put, this is a state BJP cannot overlook. In the south, while Karnataka has become a BJP bastion, Telangana is the next in line. With Tamil Nadu and Kerala being distant possibilities, Andhra is the natural choice and presents a medium term (read 2029) opportunity to make a significant impact. The people are generally aspirational and haven’t fallen for the anti-north, anti-Hindi narrative. So, what should BJP do here?
Andhra is a state of binary political formations. It’s not one to vote for coalitions. TDP has lost badly but enjoys a significant vote share and is a cadre based party. For starters, BJP should send out strong signals that it wants to be a player in the state. After the bifurcation, Congress just left the state. Unless Jagan merges his party with Congress, which is highly unlikely, Congress party is a closed chapter in Andhra. The current sense one would have basis the 2019 result is that BJP would do the same. The party needs to change this perception quickly. This would mean several steps
- Overhaul of leadership: BJP brought in an outsider as party president. Caste was a major factor in the choice. The present leadership has not made an impact at all. The state President, Kanna Lakshmi Narayana got 15000 votes as a Lok Sabha candidate. Not just the votes, he failed to make any kind of impact. His social media game is quite poor, nor is he a credible face. There are allegations of financial impropriety against state leaders. The party needs to urgently repair the damage Naidu did and that means a combative leader who is seen on TV and in social media. The other key task of leadership is to protect its cadre, who may be quite disillusioned. This requires some old hand in the party to provide constant reassurance.
- Announce clearly that it is not going to form an alliance. Amit Shah in the victory speech pretty much closed the doors for Naidu by naming him. If not for all the hubris, Naidu could have read the national mood right and stuck to NDA. In spite of a defeat in the state, he could’ve had some relevance.
- The special category issue is dead and buried. From the initial indications, it’s not going to be made an issue by Jagan. BJP should do it’s best to help the state and be seen to be doing it. Naidu slapped his name on all central schemes and made it seem like BJP did nothing for the state.
- BJP needs a central issue to connect with the people. While, it is highly probable that Jagan would run a corrupt regime, it is not an electoral issue in Andhra. While YSR was brazenly corrupt, it was never a factor in swaying voters. Education could a potential central issue. Andhra is probably one of the least urbanized states and therefore, agriculture, farmer issues are potential platforms for BJP. The party needs to take a more data driven approach to identifying the issues.
- YS Jagan will not take a confrontational attitude towards BJP, at least not yet. He has corruption cases to deal with and BJP has a massive mandate. However, there is no reason for BJP to reciprocate. At the state level, it should be a proper opposition.
- One of the concerns Andhra people have with Jagan is that he may not be a great administrator and that he is immature. Appointing 5 Deputy CMs from 5 different communities reeks of confusion and appeasement. He will make mistakes which will lead to events. These offer the best opportunities to opposition. Whether BJP makes good of these remains to be seen
- One clear issue is going to be the rampant conversions being carried out by evangelicals in Andhra. Not that Naidu did anything to control these, but Jagan’s family members are involved in these activities. So Jagan is going the extra mile, visiting temples and seen taking blessings from hindu priests. This is a template set by his father. BJP has not made this an issue so far.
A mistake would be to follow the Telangana template. BJP was always a different party in Telangana, even before bifurcation. A lot of decisions by Venakaih Naidu hurt the party in the long term. One could say, BJP in Telangana suffered more, because they had better leaders and a stronger base than the party had in Andhra. The current situation and the political history of Andhra suggest that BJP needs a rather revolutionary approach to make inroads here. The only sensible strategy would be a high risk strategy.