Kingmaker sweepstakes: Naidu outfoxes KCR

While Chandrababu Naidu is an established kingmaker, K Chandrasekhar Rao is the new kid on the block.

The elections are not yet over and there are still ten days left for counting but kingmakers are already on the go. Some kingmakers fancy themselves as the 'king' if the number game throws up surprises. Interestingly, the two hyperactive kingmakers are from Telugu country – Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu and his Telangana counterpart K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR), who share a history of bitter political rivalry of over two decades. And both are trying to outsmart each other in the snake and ladder game that is currently on.

While Naidu is an established kingmaker having been a key national player since 1996 as the convener of then United Front led by Deve Gowda and part of the power structure during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s rein, KCR is the new kid on the block. Naidu has more credibility and edge over his Telangana rival in Lutyens' Delhi for various reasons.

What is mystifying is the motive of KCR and the talk of an impractical non-BJP, non-Congress ‘Federal Front’ to form the next government in Delhi. Both Naidu and Congress leaders have accused him of playing Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) games. After all, Telangana sends only 17 MPs to Parliament and even if Biju Janata Dal and YSR Congress join hands, the three parties at the most, may have a bloc of only 40-45 MPs.

Also read: KCR banking on uncertain verdict

On May 6, after the fifth round of polling, KCR rushed to Kerala to meet Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to discuss formation of the Federal Front and he had telephonic talk with Karnataka CM HD Kumaraswamy and sought a meeting with Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) chief Stalin who, though reluctant initially, is now understood to have agreed to meet him on May 13.

An alert Naidu acted with great alacrity to stymie KCR’s bid to steal the national limelight. Within 24 hours the Andhra CM rushed to Delhi and held a closed-door meeting with Congress President Rahul Gandhi, had a telephonic talk with Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and a day later flew to Kolkata to meet Mamata Banerjee. In Kolkata, he outsourced kingmaker-ship to Banerjee. Praising the Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief as a “Bengal tigress”, Naidu claimed she “would act as a kingmaker in the formation of the next government” at the Centre. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief also announced a meeting of 22 Opposition parties in Delhi, likely on May 23 to discuss government formation. Not to be outdone on Sunday (May12) KCR stepped up his efforts to meet Stalin and Kumaraswamy on Monday (May 13).

As the two warring Telugu garus compete for public space, the proposed Federal Front looks nebulous for many reasons. First and foremost, there are question marks over KCR’s credibility. Hitherto he had a cosy relationship with the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the midst of the Telangana Assembly elections last year KCR badmouthed Rahul Gandhi calling him a “buffoon” and his daughter K Kavitha, a Lok Sabha MP, subsequently endorsed her father’s comment. However, midway through the Lok Sabha elections and amidst speculation of BJP not faring as well at the hustings, KCR started distancing from it while trying to cosy up to regional, secular parties.

KCR had kept aloof from Opposition gatherings in the past whether it was Mamata Banerjee’s January 19 Opposition meeting in Kolkata or Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in Bangalore in 2018. He was also not part of Naidu-initiated all-party meetings with the Election Commission to flag Opposition concerns over faulty EVMs.

Moreover, the Telangana CM maintained a tacit silence over the controversial demonetisation move and the GST law while the entire Opposition attacked the Modi government. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi also did not support the TDP-sponsored no confidence motion against the Modi government. As far as the BJP and Modi go, the latter refrained from attacking KCR (and Jagan) when naming a list of regional parties across India that were following Congress-type dynastic politics.

So what do KCR’s moves add up to? Although this can be said with any measure of clarity only after results day, what is clear now is that Naidu may not have forgotten the “slights” and it looks certain that he will try to outmanoeuvre KCR. Addressing a road show in Narsipatnam on March 22, Naidu alleged that the Telangana government was trying to establish its indirect rule on AP to stall development. He said people of Visakhapatnam district should teach a lesson to Modi, KCR and Jagan by defeating the YSR Congress party.

Questions are also being asked why KCR is keen to enlist the support of Congress allies like DMK and Janata Dal (Secular). Ideally, he should have first tried to bring on board regional parties Janata Dal (United), Asom Gana Parishad and Akali Dal, who were all once partners of erstwhile secular fronts. He also should have met other key players like Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Akilesh Yadav and Sharad Pawar instead of soft targets in Bengaluru and Chennai. DMK chief Stalin was the first to go public proposing Rahul Gandhi as the next prime minister. And why is KCR not meeting Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury who is a national player vis-a-vis Pinarayi Vijayan? Was KCR trying to exploit the fault lines in the CPM – anti-Congress in Kerala and not so in West Bengal and elsewhere?

While KCR remained diplomatic during the election, Naidu went to West Bengal to attack the BJP and Modi and canvass support for TMC among the Telugus there. Sources say Banerjee is also in touch with Stalin and both DMK and TMC are together expecting a tally of 70 in the Lok Sabha. In an interview to ABP Ananda recently, Banerjee had said: “Regional parties would get together to form the government, backed by the Congress.” She, however, remained mum on who should be the next PM.

(Kay Benedict is a New-Delhi based independent journalist)

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