Father, son-in-law & holy ghost

Chandrababu Naidu turned out to be the proverbial Trojan horse for NTR. Today he is selling the NTR myth yet again to capture power

Srinivas Parsa Hyderabad

It is an irony that Telugu Desam Party (TDP) president, N Chandrababu Naidu, should be fighting his battle for political survival under the banner of matinee idol-turned-political icon, NT Rama Rao, 13 years after his death, and 14 years after Naidu overthrew his father-in-law in a coup stage-managed in Hotel President in Hyderabad.

Naidu, who had been idolised by the national and international media from 1995 to 2004 as the CEO of Andhra Pradesh and the poster-boy of economic reforms, has suddenly found that he has neither the political charisma nor acumen to win an election on his own steam. This time round, he is not just pitted against Congress and its chief minister, YS Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR), but also matinee idol-turned-politician  Chiranjeevi, another charismatic leader in the mould of, but not of the same stature as, NTR.

Reddy has won many brownie points through his rural welfare schemes and irrigation projects in his five years in office despite the wide perception of rampant corruption in the corridors of power. There is no anti-incumbency mood against the Congress government as such. The man who threatens to storm the political Bastille in Andhra Pradesh is therefore Chiranjeevi, the newcomer, who is being described by political pundits as a greenhorn who can at most win a few seats and play the spoiler to both the Congress and the TDP.

Naidu is using the NTR card in more ways than one. He has pressed into the campaign the son of NTR, Balakrishna, who is a popular film actor in his own right, and NTR's grandson, known as NTR Jr, who has an uncanny resemblance to his grandfather's looks and mannerisms. He is also resorting to the populism, which marked out NTR as the magical mass leader. Naidu has promised colour television sets and cash transfers to people. These are the kind of schemes he frowned upon with utter contempt in the days he became the chief minister of the state through the back door. He also famously dismissed talk about charisma soon after the coup in 1995, saying that if you stay long enough in power like CPM's Jyoti Basu in West Bengal, you will automatically become charismatic. Naidu found the bitter truth - either you have charisma or you don't have it - in the crushing 2004 electoral defeat after nine years in power.

The resurgence of the ghost of NTR within the Naidu-led TDP is only part of the story. Chiranjeevi and his Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) is directly fired by NTR's meteoric political rise. Chiranjeevi grudgingly admits that NTR is an inspiring figure, and his party followers find it difficult to acknowledge NTR because of the silly fear that it might undermine their own hero's aura. But it is clear that it is NTR's political success that serves as a precedent and example for the political daring of Chiranjeevi and the PRP.

The populist politics of NTR has been resurrected in the state and national levels as well. Both the Congress and the BJP, in their manifestos, have included schemes for selling 25 kg of rice and wheat at Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kg to the poor people. It was NTR who launched the Rs 2 a kg rice scheme in 1983. And every political and economic expert worth his salt dismissed it as a hare-brained populist idea that would bankrupt the treasury. But NTR persisted with the idea and had to transfer many a senior bureaucrat before he found people who found ways of implementing it. The first thing that Naidu did when he overthrew NTR was to scrap the cheap rice scheme.

It was NTR again who focused on irrigation schemes. YSR and the Congress opposed NTR's Telugu Ganga irrigation project, which promised water in the arid Rayalaseema region. Congress leaders in the state, at the Centre and in neighbouring Maharashtra did all they could to obstruct the implementation of the Telugu Ganga project. Congress leaders claimed that Telugu Ganga was their idea. The truth is that they wanted to create a pipeline to pump the Krishna river water to the city of Chennai, but there was no irrigation component to it.

These are mere details. The real issue is how are NTR's image and ideas still resonating in the political arena? The cheap rice scheme did not begin with NTR. C Annadurai, the charismatic leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), first introduced it when his party first came to power in the then Madras state (which the party rechristened as Tamil Nadu) in 1967. Annadurai promised and implemented Re 1 a kg rice scheme. Fifteen years later, NTR adapted it successfully.

The coalition era that India has been witness to in the last 13 years is indirectly linked to NTR's efforts. He organised several conclaves between 1983 and 1989 of all the non-Congress political parties, and out of this emerged the National Front (NF) that defeated the Congress in the 1989 Lok Sabha election. NTR was the chairman of the NF, VP Singh became the prime minister of a NF government, which was the first coalition government at the national level.

Even as NF won the Parliament election, NTR had lost the assembly election. There is room for speculation that had he won the assembly election, he could have perhaps become the prime ministerial candidate of the NF. He will, however, figure in the list of those who could have - but did not - become the prime minister of India, along with Jagjivan Ram and Jyoti Basu.

The man who undermined NTR over a period time was Chandrababu Naidu himself. Before he joined the TDP, he was a junior minister in the first jumbo Congress cabinet of T Anjaiah in 1980. When NTR formed the TDP in May 1982, Naidu threw down the gauntlet that he would contest against his father-in-law. Later, he entered the party and was straightaway made the general-secretary. Naidu turned out to be the proverbial Trojan horse for NTR.

When NTR died in January 1996, he was a lonely man, without power, and abandoned by his family - his sons and daughters. He was also alone between 1989 and 1994, again deserted by his family members. It was then that Lakshmi Parvathi attended on him. It was in 1994 at an election rally in Tirupati that NTR proposed marriage to Lakshmi Parvathi and married her. And the crowd gave a roaring approval.

He was that kind of a populist. He very much resembles the Shakespearean hero, King Lear, who trusted his family members - in this case especially, his son-in-law Naidu - and he was decisively betrayed. It is the same Naidu and his sons who are now waving the banner of NTR to gain political victory. Something he might not have approved of after the bitter drama of the 1995 betrayal.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2009