Analysis: Chandrababu Naidu Makes Spectacular Comeback After Jail

Chandrababu Naidu has scripted a remarkable comeback.

Never write off a politician. That is the biggest lesson from the Andhra Pradesh election.

Less than eight months ago, when Chandrababu Naidu went to jail, it looked like the 74-year-old politician and his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) were down and out.

Prospects were looking bleak for the ageing senior politician when he was sent to jail for 52 days as an accused with multiple cases against him, enough to keep him incarcerated for long.

At the time, the ruling YSR Congress Party and Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy were apparently riding high on the back of welfare schemes, and seemed to be almost invincible.

The efforts of Naidu, his son Lokesh and wife Bhuvaneswari to convert the incarceration into sympathy votes for the TDP, did not seem to draw any support or visible crescendo of protests.

For Chandrababu Naidu, a defeat in 2024 could have meant curtains for his 50-year political career. However, the wily politician, as he is often described, has managed a more-than-convincing comeback, once again in an alliance with the BJP, even though he was cold-shouldered multiple times.

The turning point was almost cinematic – when action hero Pawan Kalyan emerged from Rajahmundry Central Jail after meeting Chandrababu Naidu and declared, dramatically, that he and the Jana Sena would fight the elections with Chandrababu Naidu and defeat Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSRCP. It was as though the “power star”, as fans refer to him, had thrown a lifeline to the TDP leader.

You could argue that it was a compulsion for Pawan Kalyan too to stay afloat politically. He had the option of waiting it out, allowing the TDP to be subsumed and using the political vacuum to grow, with the backing of the BJP. But Pawan Kalyan knew well that Naidu was not a hot favourite among BJP leaders in Delhi, given his sharp criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, not once but twice. The first instance was in 2002, when he demanded Narendra Modi’s resignation as Gujarat chief minister after the post-Godhra riots of 2002. The second time was in 2018, when he quit the NDA blaming Modi for not granting special category status to Andhra Pradesh, which would have brought it more funds.

It was Pawan Kalyan’s persistent efforts that made it possible for Chandrababu Naidu to once again find a place in the NDA, and stand alongside Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Pawan Kalyan has admitted that it came at the cost of seats that his own party had to sacrifice.

Alliance done, Chandrababu Naidu knew the biggest challenge would be for the chemistry of the alliance to translate into the transfer of votes between the two parties. Something sorely needed by the BJP, which had less than one per cent vote share in Andhra Pradesh.

Naidu and Pawan Kalyan both worked towards conveying to their cadre and the people that they intended to make the alliance work. They held multiple joint meetings every single week, sharing the dais, working up a healthy chemistry on stage, showing they respected and valued each other mutually, and ironing out any differences backstage.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders too reinforced the TDP-Jana Sena’s narrative of development and progress as opposed to a “corrupt and inefficient” ruling party in Andhra. This, even though Jagan’s YSRCP had been a handy friend-in-need to the BJP at the Centre.

Naidu did not want to take chances. So, his manifesto promised the YSRCP’s welfare programmes and more, to provide jobs and address aspirations. From both sides, there were personal attacks, character assassination, below-the-belt jibes. With an election and a state at stake, each side seemed to think it was fair game.

On World Bicycle Day just a couple of days ago, Chandrababu Naidu had posted his advice to people to get on the bicycle, calling it the best exercise they could get. The people of Andhra Pradesh are definitely buying it.

Interestingly, Chandrababu Naidu started his political career with the Congress, even supporting Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency of 1975-77 as an Indian Youth Congress leader. He became the youngest MLA at 28 and a minister in the T Anjaiah-led Congress cabinet in 1980.

Naidu’s marriage to NT Rama Rao’s daughter Bhuvaneswari brought him to the Telugu Desam Party. He earned his father-in-law’s confidence by helping him defeat a coup by Nadendla Bhaskar Rao in August 1984. Eleven years later though, Chandrababu Naidu himself orchestrated a coup against his father-in-law NTR, and took over the reins of the party.

At 45, he became Chief Minister and served two terms until 2004. In that period, Chandrababu Naidu built Brand Naidu as an economic reformer-politician. He put Brand Hyderabad on the world IT map and even earned the moniker of CEO of Andhra Pradesh for leveraging technology to streamline administration and governance.

Naidu’s role in national politics was first as convenor of the United Front headed by HD Deve Gowda, and later IK Gujral. In 1999, the TDP emerged as the second largest party in NDA, with 29 MPs.

Naidu was back as chief minister again, after 10 years, with Andhra Pradesh now bifurcated, and people quite heartbroken to lose the capital Hyderabad. When he realised he may not win in 2014 without the support of the BJP and Pawan Kalyan, he reached out to both of them to make it happen.

In 2018, however, after once again splitting with the BJP, Chandrababu Naidu faced a humiliating defeat in 2019, winning just 23 assembly and three Lok Sabha seats — the party’s worst showing ever.

But Chandrababu Naidu has scripted a remarkable comeback, using his political sagacity and resilience to overcome all odds.

The election results have once again presented an opportunity to Chandrababu Naidu to play kingmaker, like he did as United Front Convenor. Some say, this could be his best chance to negotiate and even become PM. But those close to him say, he is not going to do that.

Naidu has often been called a political opportunist, and does not really inspire confidence in allies, given his gambles in striking alliances and friendships. This is Naidu’s chance to prove he can be a reliable ally.