Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, N. Chandrababu Naidu. Photo: AFP
Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, N. Chandrababu Naidu. Photo: AFP

For weeks, Telugu Desam Party [TDP] chief Chandrababu Naidu has voiced fears that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led federal government will target his government and Andhra Pradesh state due to “personal vengeance”.

Within Andhra Pradesh, this conspiracy theory is popularly referred to as ‘Operation Garuda’. Garuda is a reference to a bird from Hindu mythology which is the vehicle of  Lord Vishnu — one of the three principal deities in Hinduism. Interestingly, the theory comes not from the state’s intelligence sleuths but from a Telugu actor, Shivaji.

In March this year, Shivaji released a video “explaining” Operation Garuda, and said that a “harmless attack” was being planned against a prominent opposition leader to create a sensation in the state.

At the time, Shivaji’s statements were ridiculed as TDP propaganda. But that changed following a knife attack on Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party [YSRC] president YS Jaganmohan Reddy at Visakhapatnam airport.

Charges and counter-charges have flown thick and fast since the attack. YSRC predictably targeted the TDP, even though the attack occurred within the precincts of the airport, whose security is controlled by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), a central armed police force. Later, the assailant Srinivas Rao’s brother revealed he actually admired Reddy.

The YSRC pointed out, in turn, that Srinivas worked at an airport canteen owned by a TDP supporter and even released his alleged TDP membership card for 2016-18. The party further alleged that the attack was part of Operation Garuda, which is scripted by Naidu himself.

Meanwhile, Naidu flew into the capital New Delhi over the weekend with a two-fold objective.

First was to buttress his anti-NDA credentials. He met opposition politicians like Mayawati, Arvind Kejriwal, Sharad Yadav and Farooq Abdullah under the media glare to position himself as a leader who could fashion an anti-NDA alliance ahead of the 2019 general elections. He even posted more than half a dozen tweets that were critical of the BJP and underlining the need for leaders to come together “to protect the country from a state of anarchy.”

Second, Andhra Pradesh state elections are also scheduled for 2019, and Naidu wanted to project himself as a potential victim since he exited the NDA early this year. The narrative being structured is that the BJP had joined hands with Reddy against Naidu.

What’s on Naidu’s mind?

2019 will be a tough election for Naidu, who is fighting anti-incumbency sentiment in Andhra Pradesh. A lack of funds has adversely affected his grandiose plans to build “the world’s best capital city” in Amaravati. His concentration on Amaravati has also resulted in a feeling of neglect within the state’s more backward regions, especially Rayalaseema and north-coastal Andhra.

Further, Naidu has lost both his partners from 2014 — the BJP and the JanaSena Party — and this is likely to translate into a dip in his votes. The gap in the vote-share of his alliance and the YSRC was less than 2% in the last election, which makes Reddy a formidable opponent.

Naidu’s challenge will be to explain how he changed from the man who rushed to take credit within minutes of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing demonetization in November 2016, to a bitter critic of the PM’s decisions. He will need to explain why he stuck around with the BJP for four years, if he thought its acts were not in the interests of the state or the country. Observers claim that concerns over these could explain why Naidu is constructing an anti-BJP narrative.

For the past seven months, he has criticized the BJP for affording ‘step-motherly’ treatment to Andhra Pradesh without granting it a special category status. He also cited the recent income tax raids on TDP leaders as retaliation by his jilted ally. In addition, he has accused the party of engineering the controversy around precious 16th century ornaments that went missing at Andhra Pradesh’s revered Venkateswara Temple in Tirumala town.

The TDP says the BJP intends to create unrest among Hindu voters. Early this month, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy moved the High court in Hyderabad, demanding the liberation of the world’s richest temple from the Andhra government’s control, as members of the temple’s board are appointed by the state government.

Naidu also says that to ensure the TDP does not return to power, the CBI will be unleashed against his party members, and attempts will be made to engineer a law and order crisis in Andhra Pradesh. The BJP has dismissed Naidu’s allegations as “ludicrous” and “rabid paranoia.”

But it is likely that the federal government will now think twice before ordering any probe against the TDP’s top brass. It will be cagey about Naidu portraying it as the price for opposing the BJP and using it to project himself as a martyr.

In fact, Naidu’s real test won’t be in 2019: it has already begun. He has taken a gamble by agreeing to be the Congress’ junior alliance partner in the neighboring state of Telangana. A victory by their opponents the Telangana Rashtra Samiti in the December assembly election would be a serious setback to Naidu, making it imperative for him to make the alliance count. This is because there is no love lost between TRS chief K Chandrasekhar Rao and Naidu.

If the anti-TRS alliance does not win in Telangana, Naidu knows that Rao will throw his weight behind Reddy and the BJP to ensure a TDP defeat in Andhra Pradesh. Which is why Naidu has not been shy about a relationship with the Congress, despite the party being seen as the villain behind the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh. The Congress has since promised to award special category status to the state.

In the coming months, Naidu is likely to make his presence felt on the national stage. This, his backers hope, will help him amplify his opposition to Modi, while also increasing his stature within Andhra Pradesh. His constant reference to being the “senior-most politician in India”, more senior than Modi, is part of the script.