Who is the face of Indian politics in the west? A few years ago, I happened to be at the world economic forum meeting in Davos. On the podium were a galaxy of world politicians, stretching from Bill Clinton to Tony Blair. The Indian face on the high table was Chandrababu Naidu. The Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister had prepared a power point presentation on why Hyderabad would soon be the country's info-tech capital. To see an Indian politician making use of modern gadgetry and showcasing a hi-tech India to the world was impressive. "Babu" appeared a far cry from the pan-chewing politicians whose vision didn't seem to extend beyond the caste politics of their mohalla.
Little wonder then that Naidu was immediately embraced by the country's business elite. In 1999, he was selected by Asiaweek as one of the leaders for the millennium. The pink newspapers voted him as the "Businessperson of the year". Businessweek magazine chose him as among the 50 leaders of Asia. Glowing tributes were paid to his persistence and commitment to the concept of e-governance. Lengthy profiles discussed how Naidu had made the internet his calling card. He was no longer just another chief minister of another southern state, but he was the CEO of Andhra Pradesh.
When he was re-elected in 1999, Naidu appeared to have defeated the dreaded anti-incumbency factor. Here, at last, was a chief minister who was being rewarded for making a difference on the ground. When he became an ally of the Vajpayee government at the Centre, he was transformed into a kingmaker. His Telugu Desam was the party, which could make or break the Centre. No politician it seemed mattered as much as the Andhra Chief Minister.
And then, Gujarat happened this year. On first analysis, it would seem that Gujarat should not have affected Naidu's image in any way. After all, law and order in Gujarat was Narendra Modi's business, why should the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh worry if hundreds of people are killed in a state some distance away? This could be one reason why Naidu did not think it necessary to even consider making a strong statement of condemnation against the violence in the initial phase.
Unfortunately, for Naidu, Gujarat soon ceased to remain an issue that was limited to the confines of the state. As the violence persisted, Naidu realised that his silence was being seen as a sign of his political weakness. Andhra Pradesh has a large Muslim population, and Naidu eventually realised that keeping quiet could only hurt in his electoral constituency. So, he spoke out, more than a month after the violence broke out in Ahmedabad, first calling for Narendra Modi's resignation, then asking his MPs to walk out of the Parliament debate on Gujarat, and then withdrawing his party from the post of Lok Sabha speakership. Unfortunately, it was a case of too little, too late. For once, no one, not even the BJP, reacted to Naidu's finger-wagging. For when push came to shove, the Centre knew that Naidu would choose his enmity towards the Congress over any abiding commitment to secularism. So, while Modi remains in place, the Andhra Chief Minister's credibility is on the line.
As a result, the myth that Naidu can break the central government has now been buried. Until now, he was using the clout of 29 MPs to ensure that every demand he made, whether for subsidised rice or additional funds for his state, was met by an ever-grateful Centre. The standing joke in Delhi's political circles is that every time there is a crisis in Delhi, Naidu hikes his market rate. He may well still get his subsidised rice, but he must now know that the political marketplace has less space for those who cry wolf far too often.
Another myth that has been shattered is that Naidu is at the vanguard of secularism within the NDA. Secularism is not like a used shirt, which can be brought out of the cupboard every time a politician needs to wear it. The Congress lost the battle for the secular space the day it tried to engage in opportunistic politics. Naidu too, finds himself in a similar predicament. From breaking with his father-in-law NT Rama Rao, to ditching the United Front, to breaking bread with the BJP, Naidu's career has been littered with classic political acrobatics. On Gujarat though, the tightrope walk that Naidu appeared to have perfected has finally led to his fall. You can't weigh human lives on the basis of what the balance sheet will be in terms of votes. Naidu attempted to do just that, and there lies the reason for his failure.
A third myth has been shattered, a myth that was fostered in meetings like Davos. Naidu's image as Andhra's CEO was based on the ability of his spin doctors and media managers to hardsell him as a politician with a difference. While his style was refreshingly different to the rest, after Gujarat, its now clear that Naidu in substance is no different to the Mamtas and the Samtas: politicians who only pay lip-service to principles in public life. Itís equally clear that the myth of Andhra Pradesh being India's economic tiger was being sustained largely by the beautification of Hyderabad. Step outside Naidu's info-city, and the rest of Andhra Pradesh seems no better, and in many instances, much worse than other parts of the country. The recent state-wise human development report, for example, shows that Andhra still remains well below most other states on several important social and economic indices. While Naidu has made the effort to turn things around, the fact is that concepts like e-governance alone can't work unless they are backed up with a long-term agenda for change.
The problem with Naidu, like so many of our other politicians, is that they can't seem to look beyond the next day. Every action is measured only in terms of what immediate dividend it will yield, not on whether it will provide the basis for a more durable equation between the leader and his constituents. Naidu may still be invited to global economic fora, and he can still make power point presentations to corporate houses. But politician with a difference? Forget it.
Published in NDTV