On the face of it, Chandrababu Naidu's decision to quit the NDA was because it was unwilling to accord special category status to Andhra Pradesh. But while it may seem that Naidu has dumped the BJP, is there more than what meets the eye?
At the heart of the BJP-TDP alliance of mistrust is an uneasy relationship between Narendra Modi and Naidu. To know where it all began, rewind to 2002, soon after the riots in Gujarat when Modi and Naidu were chief ministers. Naidu, despite being a key member of the NDA, publicly took an anti-Modi position.
In April that year, the TDP politburo called for Modi's resignation stating that "the leadership in Gujarat has lost its moral authority to govern". It even held out a veiled threat to the Vajpayee government, pointing out that "secularism is a fundamental principle for the TDP and strict adherence to it is one of the basic conditions for our support to the NDA".
File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu. PTI
Naidu had perhaps calculated that after Vajpayee's rajdharma snub to Modi, the BJP will show the Gujarat chief minister the door. This would have enabled Naidu to score brownie points with the Muslim community in Andhra Pradesh and also enhance his image as a leader who called a spade a spade. But with the BJP National Executive in Goa backing Modi, Naidu's gameplan came unstuck. Modi, reportedly, was not amused at a non-BJP chief minister interfering with whom BJP should choose as a chief minister.
In 2004, when Naidu lost the elections, instead of blaming his lack of attention on agrarian distress and over emphasis on his personal brand building as the CEO of AP Inc, he faulted the lack of action taken by the BJP after the Gujarat riots. He believed the TDP lost the Muslim vote and the elections because it stayed on in NDA despite the Gujarat riots.
According to those in the know of things in the BJP and the TDP, Modi never forgot the twin snubs.
In 2013, however, after back channel confabulations resulted in a meeting between Naidu and Modi in New Delhi, a decision was taken to fight the elections together in the then united Andhra Pradesh. After a decade in the Opposition, Naidu was desperate to return to power and Modi, whose star was on the ascent, was clearly the side to be on. Actor Pawan Kalyan too was roped in and the 2 percent vote difference helped Naidu edge out Jaganmohan Reddy to the chief minister's chair.
The first two years of the NDA regime were fairly smooth, with the TDP getting representation in the Union cabinet and BJP MLAs getting ministries in Naidu's government. But things started going downhill once the Centre made it clear that no special category status will be given to Andhra Pradesh, despite promises made by BJP leaders during the campaign. Naidu had no option but to agree to a special package and he tried to market it, explaining only the nomenclature was a tad different.
The real twist in the BJP-Naidu relationship came in August 2017 when Venkaiah Naidu moved from being in the government to the vice-president's office. What it did was to remove Venkaiah Naidu from the Andhra Pradesh political theatre. The Naidu-Naidu jugalbandi was one of the reasons why the pact took place for the 2014 polls but the BJP top leadership also felt it was preventing the state unit from growing. Venkaiah Naidu was Chandrababu's go-to man in New Delhi and the Andhra chief minister's clout in the corridors of power dipped after Venkaiah's exit.
Friday's decision makes one suspect things have gone just as the BJP top leadership planned.
There were other irritants too, fuelled mainly by loudmouths in the TDP camp in Delhi. There were frequent references made to how Naidu could have become prime minister in 1996 if he so wished, trying to put him on a pedestal as high as Modi. Naidu himself would brag about how he ensured APJ Abdul Kalam became president in 2002. A few months back, some of the TDP MPs began spreading the word in Delhi that their boss would be kingmaker in 2019. Naidu ticked them off when he heard about it.
Then, there was a serious trust deficit, with some of the taunts even getting personal. If the BJP camp thought someone like Naidu, who had overthrown his own father-in-law, could not be trusted, the TDP hit back by talking hush-hush about how Modi had treated his mentor LK Advani shabbily after becoming prime minister.
The fissures deepened in 2017 as Naidu did not get an appointment with the prime minister for an entire year. The TDP felt Modi rubbed it in by giving time to Jagan in May that year. Finance minister Arun Jaitley's taunt that sentiments cannot decide the quantum of funds irked Naidu. Pawan Kalyan's charges of corruption against Naidu's son Nara Lokesh, that the TDP suspects was scripted by the BJP, proved to be the last straw.
With the exit, things have turned worse. While the TDP accuses Delhi of betrayal, BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao tweeted the Andhra party "is resorting to lies to cover up its inept and inert governance".
The fallout between Naidu and Modi is all the more stark because both are similar in many ways. Both are tech-savvy, tend to get excited about gadgetry, are 24x7 politicians and workaholics.
An old video clip of Modi pulling Naidu by the hand and forcing him to sit on the special chair meant for him on the dais has been doing the rounds on social media for the last one week since Naidu withdrew his two ministers. That feel-good moment was at a public meeting during the election campaign in 2014 and made the audience feel the bitterness of Gujarat was a thing of the past.
Four years later, the chill has returned to the Modi-Naidu relationship.