New Delhi/Hyderabad: Four years after it walked out of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) is warming up to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) once again.
An array of meetings over the past month — including one with Prime Minister Narendra Modi — has fuelled speculation that TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu is looking to revive his alliance with the BJP with an eye on the 2024 Lok Sabha and Andhra Pradesh assembly elections.
Earlier, in July, the TDP endorsed the NDA’s presidential candidate without the BJP formally seeking its support. The TDP claimed that it backed Droupadi Murmu because she came from the tribal community but many saw it as the party showing its willingness to return to the NDA fold.
Sources in the BJP told ThePrint that the two parties have already held an “initial meeting” aimed at “breaking the ice”, but added that the TDP is still an ally of the Congress in Telangana and Naidu needs to do more if he wants to join hands with the BJP again.
Meetings fuel speculation
On 6 August, Naidu met Modi on the sidelines of the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav National Committee meeting in New Delhi. The prime minister inquired about the TDP chief’s family and health, and offered to meet Naidu whenever he is in the national capital next, sources said.
This is the first time Naidu is known to have met Modi since the TDP walked out of the BJP-led NDA ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. At the time, Naidu had claimed that he made the decision keeping the state’s interests in mind, as the Union government had held back from taking a stand on Andhra Pradesh’s demand for ‘special status’.
And on the very day Naidu spoke to the PM, his son and TDP general secretary Nara Lokesh reportedly met Union home minister Amit Shah in Delhi.
Just last week, Shah met Ramoji Rao — the founder of Ramoji Film City — during his visit to Hyderabad to take stock ahead of the Munugode assembly bypoll. Rao is seen to be close to Naidu, and according to BJP sources, he discussed the possibility of the TDP and the BJP joining forces in Andhra in his meeting with Shah.
During his visit, Shah also met actor Jr NTR, who is the grandson of TDP founder N.T. Rama Rao — and thus, Naidu’s nephew by marriage — and had campaigned for Naidu in 2009.
Sources in the BJP said Shah praised Jr NTR’s latest movie, RRR, and also asked the actor about his “plan for the future and the message he has for the Telugu population” ahead of the 2024 Andhra Pradesh assembly polls.
These meetings, sources said, “indicate that both parties are warming up to each other to revive their alliance in the state, although there are still many issues that need to be worked out”.
But while the BJP high command is still deliberating on whether reviving its alliance with Naidu will give it the momentum it needs in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, local leaders of the party aren’t enthusiastic about tying up with the TDP again.
‘TDP desperate to revive alliance with BJP’
Naidu proved himself a “master of political tactics” when he used his brief meeting with the PM to galvanise the TDP cadre and confuse the ruling YSR Congress Party (YSRCP), said a senior BJP leader from Andhra Pradesh.
However, the leader also said it was Naidu who had “betrayed” Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004 and Narendra Modi in 2018.
“With elections approaching, the TDP is desperate to revive its alliance with the BJP to counter the YSRCP, but the BJP has to do a cost-benefit analysis as we are getting the support of the YSRCP in the Rajya Sabha and at the Centre.
“Will an alliance with the TDP help the BJP expand its footprint in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana — that is the bigger question,” the leader added.
Sunil Deodhar, BJP national secretary and co-in charge of Andhra Pradesh, told ThePrint: “Lord Krishna gave an audience to Duryodhana several times, but it didn’t mean he was in favour of joining hands with him. He ultimately finished Duryodhana.”
Asked about the possibility of Naidu’s return to the NDA, Deodhar said both the YSRCP and the TDP are “dynastic” parties who have “looted people”, adding that the BJP had maintained “equal distance” from both.
“We have an alliance with Pawan Kalyan [Jana Sena Party] and will fight assembly elections only with him,” Deodhar reiterated.
But another BJP leader from Andhra Pradesh claimed that it’s actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan who is “pushing the BJP” to revive its alliance with the TDP.
“The BJP, the TDP and the Jana Sena should put up a joint fight against the YSRCP. Only then will we be able to defeat him [Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy],” the leader said. He added that the BJP wasn’t too enthusiastic about Naidu earlier, but it now seems that the party is “redrawing its strategy”.
“With Naidu on a weak wicket, the BJP needs to push its plan for Andhra Pradesh. Though many of the party’s state leaders are opposed to an alliance with Naidu, the TDP still has a 39 per cent vote share in the assembly polls. However, things can be worked out only if he announces support for the BJP both in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana,” the leader told ThePrint.
‘BJP approached TDP for pre-poll alliance’
TDP leaders said Chandrababu Naidu could soon meet Amit Shah to discuss the way forward.
“Modi had asked Naidu for a 25-year game plan on economy, health, finance — covering all sectors. This report will be prepared by GFST (Global Forum for Sustainable Transformation), an independent organisation founded by Naidu. We did prepare reports during the pandemic and send it to the PM’s office and his teams,” TDP leader Kutumba Rao told ThePrint.
Asked about whether the TDP’s return to the NDA was discussed between the two parties’ top leaders, Rao said that is something only “those two [Modi and Naidu] can tell”.
Rao, who was present during Naidu’s meeting with Modi earlier this month, added: “But our relationship with the BJP has improved a lot; we are on good terms with them now. I have also met senior BJP leaders.”
He added that the TDP is open to the idea of a “combined opposition” to take on the YSRCP in Andhra Pradesh. Rao also said the BJP had approached the TDP for a pre-poll alliance in Telangana ahead of 2023 assembly elections in the state.
The TDP, however, is yet to take a concrete decision on returning to the NDA, he clarified.
“Back in Andhra Pradesh, the BJP is more of a liability to TDP if we align,” Rao said, pointing to BJP’s limited presence in the state with zero MLAs compared to the TDP’s 23.
YSRCP leader Sajjala Ramakrishna Reddy, who is also an advisor to Andhra Pradesh CM YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, said the TDP has been on “ventilator stage” since its defeat in the 2019 assembly polls.
Why BJP needs TDP and vice versa
The BJP’s assembly vote share in the state dropped from 4.13 per cent (united Andhra) in 2014 to 0.8 per cent in 2019 — a decline many attribute to the Centre’s reluctance to grant ‘Special Status’ to Andhra Pradesh. Even the BJP’s alliance partner, the Jana Sena, was only able to secure 5.53 per cent of the total votes polled in the 2019 assembly election.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, NOTA — at 1.5 per cent — fared better than the BJP (0.96 per cent) in Andhra Pradesh. Compared to 2014, when it was allied with the TDP and won three Lok Sabha seats and nine assembly seats in United Andhra Pradesh, the BJP failed to open its account on both fronts in 2019.
Its shrinking vote share, limited ground cadre and lack of emotive issues point to a long road ahead for the BJP in Andhra Pradesh.
As for the TDP, while it suffered a massive defeat in the 2019 assembly polls — winning only 23 seats as against 151 of the YSRCP — it still managed to get 39 per cent of the votes.
TDP leaders admit that “Naidu needs not only support from the central government but Modi’s popularity to corner the YSRCP”.
The TDP’s still-substantial vote share could be beneficial for the BJP in Andhra Pradesh, but it is for the BJP to assess if reviving its alliance with Naidu will help the party push its agenda at the state and national level.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)