Andhra potboiler: With Naidu’s arrest, battle for 2024 has begun; but who will benefit?

For now, Pawan Kalyan is backing Naidu. But as more cases taint the TDP chief, the actor-politician may be tempted to go it alone.

ByVasu Gandikota

Published Sep 12, 2023 | 11:56 AMUpdatedSep 12, 2023 | 11:56 AM

Chandrababu Naidu arrest

Has Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy committed a huge political blunder? Will actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan sense an opportunity for his Jana Sena to emerge as an alternative to the ruling YSRCP and the Opposition TDP? Will the BJP go for the kill, back Jagan fully and work towards weakening the TDP?

These and many other questions crop up in the wake of Saturday’s pre-dawn arrest by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the subsequent judicial remand of former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu months ahead of the 2024 elections to the state Assembly.

The “skill development scam” in which Naidu was held pertains to state funds amounting to a few hundred crores being allegedly siphoned off to shell companies in the garb of skilling unemployed youth when the TDP was in power between 2014 and 2019.

Naidu’s woes are unlikely to be over anytime soon, and if one goes by information emanating from the corridors of power, the YSRCP will only get more aggressive as it attempts to demoralise the TDP cadre and weaken the party’s preparedness for the upcoming polls.

Related: Court prima facie found material to establish Naidu’s role in scam

More cases soon

On Monday, 11 September, the CID filed a fresh petition in court seeking to interrogate Naidu in another case relating to alleged irregularities in the laying of Inner Ring Road in Amaravati, even as the government indicated that at least four/five more cases will follow.

Based on the recently issued I-T notice to Naidu, in which he was accused of not accounting for ₹120 crore received from construction firms engaged for building the temporary capital at Amaravati, the CID is expected to further investigate the matter and register another case sooner than later.

The first legal steps have already not gone in Naidu’s favour, with the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) Court remanding him in custody and taking cognizance of 409 IPC (criminal breach of trust).

The YSRCP has apparently gone for the kill having sensed that Naidu no longer enjoys the kind of legal protection he once enjoyed whenever the government opened up investigations into “omissions and commissions” during his regime from 2014 to 2019.

Now that the Supreme Court has vacated the stay imposed by the Andhra Pradesh High Court on multiple probes ordered over two-three years, it gives the government an opportunity to pursue the cases vigorously and pin Naidu down.

Related: Naidu, his party ultimate beneficiaries of scam, says Andhra CID

Political implications

On the political front, what will be the implications for the incumbent, Jagan Mohan Reddy, and his party — as also for the TDP, which is trying to unseat him — whenever elections are held?

On the face of it, there is no great outpouring of sympathy for Naidu, with the AP CID almost having a free ride for over 300 km as they escorted him from Nandyal, where he was arrested, to Vijayawada, where he was questioned and produced in court.

Monday’s bandh called by the TDP was, at best, a partial success. A senior TDP leader is said to have bemoaned the fact that large crowds did not hit the streets over Naidu’s arrest, restrictions imposed by the police notwithstanding.

Back in 2003, Naidu believed that he could milk the “sympathy” following the attack on his life by Naxalites, and advanced the elections to the Assembly — only to be decimated.

There is a distinction, though. He was then in power and people were already frustrated with his rule for a variety of reasons. The Naxals’ act couldn’t save him from losing power.

This time, however, he is in the Opposition and has already faced the wrath of voters in 2019, with his party’s tally being reduced to 23 in the 175-member state Assembly.

Nor will it cut ice if Naidu claims he lived a clean life in his 40-year political career. He is as “clean” as most politicians in power.

Related: AP Opposition condemns Naidu’s ‘illegal’ arrest; YSRCP defends action

Could the arrest backfire?

That does not, however, mean that the decision to arrest Naidu has no political danger.

The YSRCP may not see a severe backlash if people perceive it as justice being done for Naidu’s alleged wrongdoings. But what if they view as a revenge? Precedents in India suggest that holding a predecessor to account never really worked in favour of the party that tried to do it. Almost all politicians are considered corrupt by the voters and cases against them have hardly influenced electoral outcomes.

For all we know, the YSRCP, primarily Jagan, has done all possible calculations before going ahead with what is clearly a political decision, irrespective of the merits of the case.

If insiders are to be believed, the move came amid indications that the graph of the TDP was on the rise in recent months, though the YSRCP still appears to have a slight edge, albeit not a comfortable one. Jagan might have thought this is time to strike and choke the Opposition party in every possible way before it gets too late.

Related: Partial response to AP bandh against Naidu’s arrest, leaders detained

BJP on the fence

What’s the role of BJP in the entire issue? One version is that the arrest happened with the full knowledge of the powers that be in Delhi. Known for its double game, the BJP has always appeared supportive of Jagan while entertaining his rivals too.

There is a view that the BJP leadership could use the cases being piled on Naidu to strike a favourable deal by demanding a chunk of Lok Sabha seats and a good share in Assembly seats. This will be disastrous for Naidu as the alliance is likely to be seen as unholy, benefitting Jagan.

On the contrary, if the BJP-led Union government chooses not to intervene and gives a free run to Jagan to go after Naidu, it’s equally problematic for the three-time chief minister.

Interestingly, the state leaders of the BJP as well as the Communist parties have only been critical over the manner in which Naidu has been arrested, without questioning the merits of the case.

Related: Verdict awaited on Naidu’s petition seeking house custody

Pawan Kalyan factor

Also, with the ACB court holding that prima facie it sees merit in the charges of misappropriation of funds, it gets that much more difficult for the likes of actor-politician Pawan Kalyan of the Jana Sena to have an alliance with Naidu, though for now he has jumped in to support the latter.

He is more than likely to have second thoughts if more evidence comes into the public domain against Naidu.

In fact, there is a buzz that Pawan Kalyan could sense an opportunity for himself post the arrest of Naidu. Having thus far backed Naidu in his fight against an “authoritarian and corrupt” Jagan, he might consider going alone, projecting himself as the “hero with a clean track record”.

That kills hopes entertained by Naidu so far of a TDP-Jana Sena combine trumping Jagan at the hustings.

Will Naidu buckle under the multiple cases likely to be slapped against him and thereby cause a ripple effect of an uncertain future in the minds of party cadre, or will he gather strength to fight back? The answer to these questions could well determine who has the last laugh when the EVMs are opened.