Naidu’s foggy future

With the general elections just less than a year away, major political parties are up to their tricks again to prevent each other from gaining an upper hand. Although, as of now, the pollsters are  giving a clear edge in Andhra Pradesh (AP) to the ruling Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) headed by YS Jaganmohan Reddy, his rival, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), led by Nara Chandrababu Naidu, is exploring options to bounce back to power. Naidu, 76, walked out of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) just before the 2019 general elections, which indeed cost him and his party heavily. Better wisdom seems to have dawned on him as his well-wishers might have pointed out the blunder of leaving the coalition, thereby losing power.

As a result, he is making trips to Delhi to meet the BJP’s key leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, to plea for his party’s reentry into the NDA fold. Although he might have been invited to some meetings, the BJP appears to be unconvinced about the political gains such an alliance with Naidu would bring to the NDA in the 2024 polls. The BJP, it   seems, is still weighing the pros and cons as the party is desperate to improve its tally this time from the southern states from a mere 30 of the 130 seats on offer by bagging at least half a dozen more.

And Naidu, who felt jubilant with the BJP leadership’s initial enthusiasm in inviting him to some meetings, was hoping for an NDA alliance so that his party could persuade the Centre to reopen the pending corruption cases against his bête noir and Chief Minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy.

But as an anti-climax, Naidu was slapped with an Income-Tax (I-T) department notice for non-disclosure of transactions running into a few thousand crores. This has pushed him on the back foot. Who might have leaked this incriminating evidence is anyone’s guess. However, it could have been by the ruling party in a bid to checkmate his reentry into the NDA fold as it is also trying hard to get into some discreet understanding with the BJP. And, the YSRCP’s desperation too is understandable.

As a political analyst, I cannot also rule out the possible googly by the BJP to come clean before calling others corrupt. This move appears very calculative ahead of the elections to the assembly and the Lok Sabha polls, which are simultaneously to be held in the state 2024.

Now, the onus is on Naidu to come clean as the accusation directly involves him. According to the information in public domain Naidu, during his Chief Ministership, reportedly received kickbacks from infrastructure companies for awarding multi-crore contracts. The I-T notice claims that Naidu did not disclose receiving Rs 118 crore, which it found routed to him allegedly by Shapoorji Pallonji and L&T. He is liable to explain the origin of such a huge sum of unaccounted money.

There were similar allegations against Naidu as chief minister of undivided AP. Infra major L&T was allegedly instrumental in building a massive party structure as a reward for receiving government contracts.

However, this allegation had made only  in the media rounds and political circles, but none dared to come up with concrete evidence.

But, in the present case, it is clear that Naidu awarded all major work in Amaravati, the new capital of AP, following the bifurcation of the state, to Shapoorji Pallonji and L&T. In return, these majors allegedly paid money in the guise of sub-contract works to companies suggested by Naidu’s secretary Srinivas. This includes Chukkapalli Suresh’s Phoenix Group. These companies, in turn, withdrew cash and handed it over to people in Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Dubai, during the run-up to the 2019 polls. This appears to be only the tip of the iceberg and the total amount may run into thousands of crores, many feel. The I-T department views the case seriously as Naidu allegedly received the money in foreign currency, which is tantamount to money laundering. This is similar to the case of Jaganmohan’s media house, when his father Dr YS Rajasekhar Reddy was the Chief Minister.

Then it was accused that Naidu was conniving with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance at the Centre to prosecute Jaganmohan, though he was the CM’s son. However, the reasons behind the Congress leadership giving nod to the central agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement Directorate to probe charges against Jaganmohan was apparently due to the differences with their chief minister. Rajasekhar Reddy by then emerged as the most popular and strong leader, who could dictate terms even to the party’s high command. This was evident from Rajasekhar Reddy’s confidence in his return yet again in 2009. He had asked the Gandhis – Sonia and Rahul – to keep off the election campaign in the state as he was sure of the party’s smooth sailing! And, he was proved right when the party managed a simple majority, despite Naidu’s effort in joining hands with all and sundry in the Opposition. However, his untimely death in a chopper crash, soon after taking over as the Chief Minister for the second term, while flying to Tirupati, remains a mystery.

Against that backdrop, the latest I-T notice against Naidu is being viewed by many political analysts as not only disastrous for his political journey but also to the party’s future. Having said that, the I-T notice to Naidu may prove advantageous to the BJP, which is trying to find some leg space in the state. Many also feel that the BJP high command’s decision to make the TDP founder and former chief minister N T Rama Rao’s daughter Daggubati Purandeshwari as state president was the long-term plan that the rightist party chalked out for AP. To strengthen this, some news reports also accused the state unit chief of filling up key posts with former TDP leaders.

Does that move by Purandeshwari strengthen her party strategy to further weaken Naidu and his party, if the BJP chooses to have a discreet understanding with the ruling YSRCP as it may feel Jaganmohan may be trustworthy as he did help it in passing crucial Bills, especially in the Rajya Sabha? While maintaining his own regional identity, without any national ambition, young Jaganmohan appears to be laying a strong foundation for his career.

This, despite the danger of the BJP occupying the state’s Opposition space, if it is helped to corner about two dozen seats this time around in the assembly and half a dozen Lok Sabha seats. My sources reveal that the BJP central leadership realized that even if it aligns with the TDP, besides Pavan Kalyan’s Jana Sena, it may not work arithmetically to defeat the YSRCP, which enjoys an envious 46-48 per cent vote share.

Yet, how Jaganmohan lost the 2014 elections though his party polled more votes than the TDP, is a mystery as the latter’s many members could win with a margin of less than 500 votes.

Thus far, the future of Naidu and his party hang in balance!