N Chandrababu Naidu's re-emergence on the national scene could be the best thing that has happened in recent months to the cause of opposition unity, an issue that had attracted plenty of jibes and jeers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP.
Without doubt, 68-year-old Naidu’s entry is a boost for the anti-Modi forces that have been looking for a catalyst to help hasten the cobbling up of a united front against the government -- a task that has seen various twists and turns the past few months.
A known coalition maker at the national level, Naidu isn't just a friend-turned-foe of Modi and the BJP, but one ready to work tirelessly towards his ouster. His involvement must be understood from the events in 2004, when a host of opposition stalwarts such as Harkishen Singh Surjeet, V P Singh and M Karunanidhi worked behind the scenes to help Sonia Gandhi oust the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA from power.
Naidu’s role in the precarious work of uniting opposition parties hasn't come a day too soon. With the political clock ticking fast, the virtual boast of the ruling dispensation has been that Rahul Gandhi and other opposition leaders ‘dekhate rah jayenge’ (would be left stunned) as the Modi juggernaut would again walk away with an overwhelming majority in the 2019 elections. The refrain was that BJP's detractors would fail to put up a united fight and the ruling party could get this time anywhere between 315 and 350 seats in a House of 543.
The impression got further bolstered over a month back, as Congress failed to stitch up an alliance with Mayawati’s BSP in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh and in Chhattisgarh, her party shocked the grand old party by going in for a tie-up with Ajit Jogi’s newly-floated Chhattisgarh Janata Congress, even as it was in the middle of talks with Congress over seat sharing.
Samajwadi Party went its own way in Madhya Pradesh, with party chief Akhilesh Yadav squarely blaming the Congress for making it wait too long, indicating that it was nothing short of humiliation for his political set-up.
This had happened despite the fact that the grand old party had made it clear that it was not averse to doing business with parties like BSP in the Assembly polls and had even started negotiations.
The projection of a united opposition at the swearing-in of Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy at Bengaluru some five months back, showing the bonhomie between the ‘who’s who’ of the anti-BJP forces, had proved to be a just a photo-op by subsequent developments.
But with his two visits to the National Capital last week, the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and TDP chief has trumpeted his ‘arrival’ with a series of parleys with the top brass in the opposition, including Congress President Rahul Gandhi, who were more than listening.
And the reason is not too far to seek. Naidu is a pastmaster in the game of forging alliances, having played kingmaker in the formation of the United Front and its government more than 20 years ago. “Democratic compulsions” was the reason he offered for abandoning his three-decade-old politics of anti-Congressism and reaching out to its leader in the larger cause of opposition unity.
What he has left unsaid in his message to all the opposition parties was that if they failed to understand the nature of the challenge posed by the Modi-led BJP, they would have themselves to blame. Naidu should know. He was a part of the BJP-led NDA till some eight months back and left the alliance in a huff. In fact, he was a pillar of NDA-I, as the support of his 27 MPs was crucial for Vajpayee to remain Prime Minister.
Besides, the ugly drama in the CBI-vs-CBI affair that has been unfolding the past month has made the opposition acutely aware as to the nature of challenges they could be facing if they failed to get their act together.
DMK chief M K Stalin’s open praise for Naidu’s efforts during his meeting with Gandhi was a sign that the task of opposition unity has begun in right earnest. The talk in opposition circles is that Naidu would be especially focusing on Uttar Pradesh to get the alliance right there, much to BJP's disadvantage.
If the opposition gets its act together in Uttar Pradesh with a grand alliance of BSP, SP, RLD and Congress, then the task for the next Lok Sabha polls is half done, as BJP is deriving much of its strength from the Hindi heartland. Things are yet to stabilise in Bihar despite the announcement over the seat sharing by BJP with allies.
With the meeting with Rahul, history has virtually turned full circle for Naidu, who started his political career in the Congress in the seventies and was active in the Youth Congress led by the late Sanjay Gandhi. In fact, he was a Minister in charge of Cinematography, among other things, in the T Anjaiah Ministry in Andhra Pradesh which brought him closer to his future father-in-law, the legendary N T Rama Rao. A film start-turned-politician, Rao floated the Telugu Desam on the plank of regional pride and there was no looking back for Naidu since then.
Observers of Naidu back home have been accusing him of being a chronic political opportunist. But they grudgingly admit that the trait has worked wonders for him in over four decades of his political career. Naidu saw through the Modi-Shah gameplan of creeping up to his arch detractor Jaganmohan Reddy of the YSR Congress Party. He countered the move by making the best use of the issue of Special Category Status for Andhra Pradesh to get back at the ruling party at the Centre.
At a time when the chips are down for the Modi dispensation and nothing is going right for the BJP and the government it leads, what the opposition needs is earnest efforts and a sound strategy for a united fight. It is a test for opposition leaders, including Naidu. Only time will tell whether Naidu would become the new great unifier.