In November last year, with six months left to go for the simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly polls in Andhra Pradesh, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief N Chandrababu Naidu appeared at a rally in Kurnool, where he made an emotional appeal to the people. “If you send me (and my party) to the Assembly, only then will Andhra Pradesh see development. Else, this will be my last election,” he said.

Many saw in the appeal, which came at the end of a tumultuous five years for Naidu and his party, the desperation of a man who was down and out and at 73, possibly staring at the end of his political career.

Naidu had been trounced by the Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) in the previous elections — the TDP had gone down to 23 seats in the Assembly and three in the Lok Sabha — and just when it seemed he was clawing his way back, Naidu was arrested in the AP Skill Development case.

Chandrababu Naidu After the NCP and other opposition party leaders press conference, Chandrababu Naidu, then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh at YB Chavan Center in Mumbai. (Express File Photo by Pradip Das. 23.04.2019)

Yet, six months later, Naidu has managed to effect a stunning turnaround of fortunes, winning 136 of the 144 seats to come back as CM for the fourth time, while his allies — Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party (JSP) and BJP — have added 29 more seats, reducing the YSRCP to 12. In the Lok Sabha elections, the TDP ended up with 16 seats, elevating the party to the second largest in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and earning Naidu a key place in the coalition high table.

The turnaround

TDP leaders insist that even after the crushing defeat of 2019, Naidu was down, but never out. “Yes, the cadre was demotivated and it is only natural. But, we are emotionally connected with the cadre and even in our heaviest defeat, in 2019, we managed a vote share of 40%, which means around 1.5 crore people voted for us. We had to keep going for these 1.5 crore people. Mr Naidu ensured he and the party were emotionally connected with the cadre through regular meetings and assurances,” TDP general secretary and Naidu’s son Nara Lokesh said in an interview to The Indian Express.

Festive offer

Just after the 2019 defeat, the leaders say, Naidu went into a huddle with his advisors and came up with a three-pronged fightback strategy that was “cadre-centric, party-centric and leader-centric”.

Lokesh said that soon after losing power, Naidu was presented with a “golden chance” when Jagan ordered the demolition of the Praja Vedika, a cluster of 50-odd buildings along the banks of the Krishna river in Guntur district, and scrapped the Amaravati capital development project.

Chandrababu Naidu Chandrababu Naidu at his room in the Parliament. (Express Photo by Renuka Puri)

“Our leader grabbed the opportunity and went to the people. The incident showed that if a former CM could be attacked, the common man would not be spared,” said senior TDP leader Jyothsna Tirunagari.

A TDP leader said the run-up to the February 2023 Legislative Council elections, which the TDP won 4-0, recharged the cadre. “The CM was instrumental in motivating the cadre. In one of the meetings before these polls, he made it clear that a victory in the MLC polls is the best way to infuse energy into the cadre,” the leader said.

Brand Naidu

Months into the Jagan regime, the TDP joined hands with a political consultancy, ShowTime Consulting (STC), which would prove to be a vital cog in his comeback plan.

“Under Naidu’s guidance, STC got down to work and began restructuring the party by establishing communication channels with the cadre and the second-run leadership. We also focussed on bringing back the 6,000-odd panchayat-level leaders who had defected or were forced to defect to the YSRCP during the 2019 elections,” says STC Director Shantanu Singh.

Chandrababu Naidu Then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu along with a delegation called on the former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao in New Delhi on 31.10.1995. (Express archive photo)

Naidu drew from his own experience — he was master strategist for TDP founder and his father-in-law Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao’s (NTR) in the 1980s — to ideate and lead from the front. Until March 2023, he held daily review meetings with his leaders and the STC team, after which the frequency of these sessions went up. “We met twice or even thrice a day. Once the campaign began, his lunch break turned into a review meeting,” says Singh.

A senior TDP leader said Naidu’s hands-on approach helped him sense the anger among people towards the YSRCP government. The ‘Entra Mana Karma’ (what’s our fate) campaign, which targeted Jagan on his alleged atrocities, was reportedly Naidu’s brainchild. “So was the selfie campaign, when he posted a picture of him taking a selfie at a long-pending, under-construction bridge,” the leader said.

The campaigns, Singh says, gave the party ammunition to attack the Jagan government over “unfulfilled promises, lack of employment and lack of investments” in the state. “The battle for Andhra had transformed into a Jagan versus everybody, including the people of the state,” said Robin Sharma, another director at STC.

The party took a page out of Jagan’s textbook by setting off on yatras across the state — first, the ‘Yuva Galam Yatra’ or Voice of the Youth, a mass contact program by Lokesh, and later Naidu’s own Praja Galam Yatra.

For the next few months, Naidu and the TDP seemed to be on the rise. The May 2023 Mahanadu at Rajahmundry, where Naidu unveiled his Super 6 schemes (six guarantees, including jobs for the youth and free bus travel for women), and the “Babu surety, bhavishyathuku guarantee (Babu’s surety, future’s guarantee)” campaign, further instilled confidence in the cadre.

A setback

However, it all seemed to come crashing down for the former CM and the party when, on September 9 last year, Naidu was arrested in the alleged AP Skill Development scam. The TDP now stared at the prospect of going back to where it started in 2019.

“Definitely, there was anger among the cadre, even disappointment, but people refused to believe Naidu was corrupt. I was stopped midway while I was going to meet him in Vijayawada. This only exposed Jagan’s high-handedness,” said Lokesh.

Chandrababu Naidu TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu. (Express archive photo)

While some believed it was the end of the road for the TDP, Naidu ran the party from jail. As Lokesh visited his father in jail and took his “guidance”, Bhuvaneswari held daily meetings and rallies to ensure that the TDP’s campaign was not derailed.

“He read every word of the papers related to the case filed against him and constantly gave us inputs and guidance on the party’s next course of action. While it was initially challenging for my mother to be in the spotlight, she knew it was important… His time in jail was tough for the family, but it built ‘Brand Naidu’,” said Lokesh.

Days after Naidu’s arrest, JSP’s Pawan Kalyan, who was hoping to meet Naidu but was denied entry by Jagan into Andhra, announced a tie-up with the TDP. A highly placed source close to Naidu said talks with the JSP had been going on since early 2022.

On October 31, 53-days after being arrested, Naidu walked out on bail but in a new avatar. “Jail time gave him the space to prepare a strategy. Not once did he try to gain sympathy by crying foul over his arrest. Instead, he continued to attack Jagan with renewed vigor over issues such as debt, welfare disbursement and other people-related issues. The message that went out was that Naidu was firmly behind the people while Jagan was using them for votes,” the source says.

Chandrababu Naidu Former Andhra Pradesh CM Chandrababu Naidu addressing a press conference at Andhra Bhawan on 5th Feb. 1996. (Express photo)

By February 2024, sources said, the TDP had set up a central command center in Hyderabad with a 200-strong workforce that worked round-the-clock. “The command center was operational within two months of Naidu’s meeting with poll strategist Prashant Kishor. He used the center to communicate with the cadre, second-run leadership and candidates. By early March, we had an 11-member war-room in each Assembly segment,” the source said.

In the last push before the May 13 polls, Naidu took it upon himself and addressed rallies, held roadshows and events in support of the TDP as well as JSP and BJP candidates.

Four years after it started “rebuilding” the TDP, the STC, meanwhile, was left with the task of “promoting a good product”. “Naidu’s experience as a proven administrator and his knack of raising the right issues at the right time meant that by the final leg of campaigning, we were only left with the easy job of promoting him on social media,” Singh said.

As campaigning drew to a close, TDP sources said internally, they believed they would win around 140 seats. “The numbers on result day (164 seats in the Assembly) were staggering and beyond expectations. It just showed how much anger people had against the Jagan government,” Lokesh said.

What next for Naidu?

Speaking at the NDA meeting on June 7, Naidu, while congratulating Narendra Modi, said, “Balancing regional aspirations and national interests must run parallel while ensuring holistic development for all strata of society.”

Naidu’s message showed that he was already beginning to underline his demands, and is expected to be more aggressive going ahead.

Naidu’s immediate challenges as the next Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh will include securing Special Status for the state, ensuring his welfare schemes are implemented and creating more employment opportunities, all of which require funds and the Centre’s backing. And Naidu will almost certainly drive a hard bargain. As his record in earlier versions of the NDA shows, Naidu has never been an easy coalition partner.

Following the Gujarat riots of 2002, Naidu demanded the resignation of then CM Narendra Modi, saying adherence to secularism was one of his basic conditions for supporting the NDA.

Although he stayed on then, he parted ways with the NDA in 2004 after his loss to the Congress in the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls of united Andhra Pradesh that year.

He joined the NDA again ahead of the 2014 elections and four years later, asked his two ministers at the Center — P Ashok Gajapati Raju and Y Satyanarayana Chowdary — to resign over the BJP not granting Andhra Pradesh special status. His party also moved a no-confidence motion against Modi, which was defeated.

But this time around, as he enters the NDA a decade since he walked out, this could be a new Naidu, say those close to him.

Tatikonda MLA Tenali Sravan Kumar said, “It is true that he had demanded Modi’s resignation after Godhra, but this time, it is unlikely that he will be the hard bargainer that he was since he has the state’s interests on priority. It is unlikely that the TDP will cause any instability to the NDA.”