Late on Friday, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed his response to the no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha, Vijayawada MP Kesineni Nani got up to speak. He began by praising Modi's oratory skills and said it made him feel as though he was watching a blockbuster Bollywood movie. Nani twisted the knife further moments later when he said there would be no better actor in the world than Modi. Tired but not retired for the day, the treasury benches rose to protest.
But the tinsel town-inspired Nani had a point. With the power of his speech, Modi " clearly the hero of the ruling party " had sought to make a villain out of Nani's boss, Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu, whose Telugu Desam Party (TDP) triggered the debate on the no-confidence motion in Parliament on Friday.
Modispeak would have hurt Naidu, someone who takes great pride in his administrative skills. The prime minister reduced the Andhra Pradesh chief minister to a squabbler whose Telugu Desam Party (TDP), he claimed, constantly fights with the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti in the state, forcing the governor, home minister and sometimes Modi himself to intervene. Sprinkling salt on Naidu's wounds, Modi then praised Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, saying he was sagacious enough to focus on development instead of quarrels. Nothing could have riled Naidu more.
But Modi was not finished. Making public his private conversation with Naidu after the TDP withdrew from the National Democratic Alliance in March, Modi told the House that he had impressed upon the Andhra Pradesh chief minister that he had walked into the trap set by the YSR Congress. Modi was, in effect, reducing Naidu's stature to that of a small regional party boss who focused on settling petty scores in his backyard while projecting himself as a statesman who saw the larger picture.
Modi's pointers in the Lok Sabha reinforced one point " that his friendship with Naidu is a thing of the past. Despite home minister Rajnath Singh insisting that Naidu remains a pal, it is obvious that the TDP supremo's break with the BJP is deeply personal. While Naidu is personally pleasant with the likes of Singh as well as Union ministers Nitin Gadkari and Prakash Javadekar, his chemistry with Modi and BJP president Amit Shah " the two men who matter the most in the BJP " has become an equation gone horribly wrong.
Naidu called Modi "arrogant" in his first reaction to the prime minister's reply, but the fact of the matter is that the TDP has lost this battle for special category status for Andhra Pradesh. The chief minister cannot deny that he took a U-turn on the special status demand because it is a matter of record that his government had accepted the special financial package in 2016-17. Not only that, Naidu had even made the Andhra Pradesh Assembly move a resolution in March 2017 profusely thanking the Centre for the package, claiming that barring the nomenclature, there was nothing to distinguish it from special category status. His spin doctors at that time had gone to great lengths to project obtaining the special package as a victory for Naidu.
In fact, Jaydev Galla, the TDP's lead speaker during the debate on the no-confidence motion, had said in March 2017 that the "special package is far better than special category status". The Guntur MP now saying that "special status is everything to me" is a textbook example of duplicity.
Modi takes cover under the Finance Commission's recommendation against granting special category status to states, barring those in the North East and hilly regions. Naidu says talk of such a recommendation is a falsehood. The reality is that the Centre could not have ignored objections from neighbouring states such as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Telangana, who feared losing potential investment to Andhra Pradesh if it was able to make a better pitch to investors.
The BJP's game plan is clearly to keep up the pressure on Naidu. Its allies in the cause are the YSR Congress and Pawan Kalyan. The actor-turned-politician, in particular, has been scathing in his criticism of Naidu, making the TDP suspect that he is doing a hatchet job for the BJP.
Andhra Pradesh's political theatre will see the YSR Congress, BJP and Kalyan's Jana Sena come together against Naidu. The only way the TDP can win is if the three split the anti-Naidu vote, but an understanding among them could spell trouble for Naidu and his party. On the other hand, the TDP cannot move close to the bifurcation-tainted Congress, even though the latter has promised special category status to Andhra Pradesh if voted to power in Delhi in the 2019 General Elections.
But Modi demolishing Naidu's claims is only half the story. The prime minister's subtle praise of KCR is a story with 2019 on the radar. Modi has bought an insurance policy for himself, in case the BJP falls short of the 272 mark next year. And what better way to please KCR than by making him feel superior to his bete noire Naidu.