Narendra Modi invokes NTR’s legacy – Political Implications

By: Shashi Sekhar
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When the tsunami of emotions after the Indira Gandhi assassination helped Rajiv Gandhi sweep the Lok Sabha polls in 1984 the BJP was down to 2 seats. One of the Lok Sabha seats won by the BJP was in Gujarat. Few know and even fewer remember that the only other seat won by the BJP when hit rock bottom across India was from Hanumakonda in Andhra Pradesh.

When the rest of India was flooded by the wave sympathy for the Congress, it was only Andhra Pradesh that stood firm on the plank of anti-Congressism in that election with the Telugu Desam Party emerging as the largest Opposition Party in the Lok Sabha with 30 seats.


The man behind that anti-Congress shield was popular Telugu Actor and upstart Politician Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao or NTR as he is popularly known. NTR's rise in Andhra Pradesh politics was rooted in a sentiment not too different from what we have witnessed in election after election lately in both Gujarat and Bihar.

"Telugu Pride" and "Telugu Self Respect" provoked by the arrogance of the Nehru-Gandhi led Congress Party saw NTR build a durable anti-Congress plank during that decade at both the state and the national level. It was to that sentiment that Narendra Modi sought to appeal to when he invoked NTR's legacy in his speech in Hyderabad yesterday.

The media has mostly interpreted Narendra Modi's invocation of NTR's legacy as an attempt at building bridges with the Telugu Desam Party for a potential alliance. While there may have been an element of it along the margins, most media analysts have missed the true significance of that invocation.

One needs to understand Narendra Modi's invocation of NTR's legacy at two levels. The first is from an immediate term given the current political climate in Andhra Pradesh. The second is more long term, clues to which can be found in neighboring Karnataka.

At a time when the state of Andhra Pradesh is riven by a political divide that has the BJP on the one hand committed to a state of Telangana while on the other hand compelled to assuage the hurt within Seemandhra, Narendra Modi's invocation of NTR's legacy was an attempt at transcending the political divide and appealing to both regions of the state through a shared history and a shared sentiment.

It took a national leader of the stature of Narendra Modi to come to Hyderabad and to appeal to the fraternal values of either region and to persuade them to hail the sentiment for either region at the end of his speech.

This stands in stark contrast to the national leadership of the Congress Party from its President Sonia Gandhi to its heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi failing to even take the minimal steps of communicating with the people of Andhra Pradesh on a decision over the future taken by a committee sitting in Delhi.

In this sense the invocation of NTR's legacy as a shared sentiment across regions and the appeal to the people of either region went some distance in cooling the political climate in the state. But as an active social media enthusiast realistically summarized on Quora, that it would take much more to calm down the frayed tempers in Seemandhra before a meaningful roadmap can be charted out for the proposed division.

There is another dimension to the invocation of NTR's legacy and its impact will not be apparent in the short term. One has to look for clues in neighboring Karnataka to better understand how this will shape up. If the 1980s saw the banner of anti-Congressism held up by NTR in Andhra Pradesh, it was Ramakrishna Hegde in Karnataka who emerged as that state's first non-Congress Chief Minister.

The erstwhile Janata Party support base that saw R.K. Hegde as Karnataka's Chief Minister between 1983 and 1988 over the years splintered and drifted. While the Deve Gowda led JD-S faction retains a small base in Karnataka, it was the BJP that inherited R K Hegde's constituents over the years as the Lok Shakti, Samata Party and JD-U gradually vanished from Karnataka.

The Telugu Desam Party under Chandrababu Naidu seems to be at similar juncture in its political lifecycle. After two successive terms in the Opposition, the TDP appears to be drifting without a clear position on the issue of statehood to Telangana while it has seen a steady exodus of its leaders from that region since 2004. More recently with the emergence of the YSR Congress Party the TDP has also seen defections in the Seemandhra region even as it has to jostle for the anti-Congress space with YSRCP.

In the intervening years in the Opposition, Naidu himself has not been able to capture the imagination of the people of the state as he once did. His flip-flops on his political positions over the years and the unseemly manner in which the TDP's future has been reduced to an extended family feud has not helped either. The 2014 election may in many ways be a make or break election over the long term durability of the TDP as a political entity.

Narendra Modi's invocation of NTR's legacy must also be seen as a long term move to create an opening for the BJP in Seemandhra that moves into occupy the political space resulting from the long attrition within the TDP thus paving the way for it to inherit the anti-Congress constituency in Seemandhra in a manner similar to Karnataka.

The most significant story from the perspective of 2014 however is the emergency of G. Kishan Reddy as a credible younger leader of the BJP. He and his team put out a fantastic show with a record turnout and interest, unprecedented in recent memory.

He delivered a speech packed with panache that caught the attention of many. The challenge for him and his team is to now carry forward the momentum and goodwill generated by the Narendra Modi visit and to convert it into a clear political roadmap for either region. The BJP during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee wave attracted both lateral talent as well as seats in pockets it had no base.

How far can the BJP under Kishan Reddy in Telangana and Seemandhra go by riding on the Narendra Modi wave ?

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