In the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections, Chandrababu Naidu sprang a surprise by aligning with the BJP and accepting the leadership of Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate in the "larger interest of the nation". He then called their alliance as a "lucky combination" and predicted that the NDA would record a "landslide" victory and he was not wrong.
Naidu joining hands with Modi was big news then. He was taken as a sincere, mature and influential leader who could turn the tide in Andhra Pradesh and also send a message across the nation that allies were coming to Modi's fold, irrespective of the communal vitriol latter's rivals had unleashed against him.
File image of Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu. AP
By deciding to remove two of its ministers from the Union Council of Ministers, Naidu has now delivered another surprise. Though the 2019 parliamentary election and Andhra Pradesh Assembly election are over one year away the political positioning has certainly started.
By pulling out his ministers and targeting the Centre for "betrayal" of promise to designate Andhra Pradesh as "special category status" state, Naidu is trying to whip up popular passions in the state against the BJP and the Modi government. He would like to build an impression that the Central government led by the BJP is acting as a villain, not giving it enough financial grant to let the state, which was bifurcated four years ago develop to its potential. It means that whatever good works are seen in Andhra Pradesh is due to his governance and whatever bad, which people could perceive in the state was because of the noncooperation from the Central government. That way he would be able to shift the anti-incumbency against him and his party"TDP"to somewhere else. In this case, it's the BJP.
Whether that's a smart political strategy or is counterproductive would be known in due course.
But Naidu is not alone in politics of raising a fallacious demand of 'special category status' state. His rival YSR Congress chief Jaganmohan Reddy too is in the fray raising the same cause, perhaps slightly more vociferously.
A three-time chief minister and an important player in the United Front government, as also in NDA 1 (led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee) and NDA 2 (led by Narendra Modi) Naidu very well knows that there is no way that the Centre could give Andhra Pradesh status of special category state because no such category exists after the 14th Finance Commission. A senior official pointed out to Firstpost, "Special category status was a nomenclature coined by erstwhile Planning Commission and since the Planning Commission ceased to exist to give way to NITI Aayog that category too ceased to exit." Planning Commission too had modified that categorisation. The official went on detailing how Finance Commission worked out new formulas for additional grants to states and how special benefits were reserved only for northeastern states and three hill states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttrakhand and Jammu and Kashmir.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has explained on multiple occasions that post-14th Finance Commission there was no such thing as special category status state but the Centre was committed to providing all those benefits including 90:10 grant in Central schemes (90 percent by Central government and 10 percent by state in contrast to other states where the Centre would provide 60 percent and states would provide 40 percent). He gave vent to his frustration with ally TDP by saying "sentiments do not decide the quantum of funds".
Way back in September 2016 Naidu had "welcomed" similar announcement made by Jaitley " Centre providing monetary benefits to the state equivalent to special category status " and admitting that there was no other alternative.
The question is why Naidu being fully aware of the actual situation, both legal and political, continues to make an unrealistic demand of special category and appears to be an errant ally.
A central BJP leader who belongs to Andhra Pradesh said, "He has fallen victim of competitive politics and walked into the trap laid by Jaganmohan Reddy. Jaganmohan has nothing to lose by raising these demands and take it all to a highly emotive pitch but Naidu is chief minister and an ally at the Centre. His stakes are far higher than a leader in the state but he now has gone to a point from where he would find his return to be very difficult."
Another BJP leader from the same state was blunt in his response. "We are fed up with Chandrababu's tantrums. We have given more than promised and are committed to doing more. The party is not going to take it lying down. We are going to go to the people and highlight what all the Centre has done and how the chief minister has failed them. He imprudent decision may come to us as an opportunity in expanding our base and focus on coming elections on our own," he said.
He claimed that out of Rs 7 lakh crore spent on national highways in the entire nation Rs 1 lakh crore was spent in Andhra Pradesh, a petrochemical hub with an expenditure of Rs 1.4 lakh crore was being set up in the state, all national institutions IIT, AIIMS, IIM, NIIT have been opened there, out of Rs 20 lakh crore spent for Pradhan Pamntri Awas Yojna for urban poor in the nation, Rs 7 lakh crore have been spent in Andhra Pradesh. He continued with this list.
Naidu is apparently following the trajectory of another on-off-on BJP ally from the north, Nitish Kumar. In the latter part of 2012, Nitish had begun charting separate ground from the BJP by raising special category status demand for Bihar. Nitish could never get special status for Bihar because Planning Commission had changed norms. It's a different matter though that he dumped BJP in 2013 in protest of Modi becoming the prime ministerial candidate, only to join hands with Modi and BJP again in 2017.
It's a fact that in the Modi regime Naidu does not wield the same clout as he used to do during the Vajpayee regime in NDA 1 " primarily because unlike Vajpayee regime, Modi regime is not dependant on Naidu's support.
In 2004 Naidu had made a mistake by calling an early election, as Vajpayee-Advani had done for the parliamentary election. Naidu had fought that election as an ally of the BJP and had hoped that an assassination bid on him would generate sympathy factor for him in elections. He lost badly in elections.
About one-and-half decade later he trying a different path " separate from BJP and create an emotive pitch for self and TDP on the issue of special category state. Is he making a mistake? Or has just pulled a political ace?