Nara Chandrababu Naidu’s body language changes the moment you mention the United Front. He breaks into a half smile and his gait turns more lively as he tells you — with a degree of pride — how he refused the offer to be India’s prime minister not once, but twice within a year, between 1996 and 1997. Naidu instead chose to be the convenor of the United Front, a ragtag coalition of non-Congress, non-BJP parties that cobbled together a rickety government supported by the Congress and the CPM from the outside.
In effect, there was nothing united about the group, despite the front they tried to put up.
Naidu’s comrade-in-arms during the birth of the United Front was HD Deve Gowda. Out of the blue, the chief minister of Karnataka was pitchforked into the top job in the country after Jyoti Basu’s party did not allow the West Bengal CM to move to New Delhi.
It wasn’t easy to lead such a group where every regional chieftain liked to flex his or her muscles but Gowda managed by trying to keep the Congress MPs happy so that they ensured party president Sitaram Kesri did not pull the plug. But even though he took Hindi tuition in the hope that his stay at 7, Race Course Road will be long, he behaved more like the prime minister of Karnataka, and did not let his successor in Bangalore, JH Patel, work in peace. Gowda’s tendency to keep his eyes shut most of the time meant he was a photographer’s delight as newspapers went to town projecting him as the PM who sleeps at public functions.
Finally, when Sitaram Kesri decided to declare Gowda’s innings, the prime minister went out all guns blazing, his political oratory stunning just about everyone. His farewell speech in the Lok Sabha was full of vitriol against Kesri as he vowed to rise like a phoenix from the ashes.
While it seemed the end of the road for Gowda, for Naidu, the time spent dabbling in national politics was an opportunity to wipe off the unsavoury reputation he had gained after having dethroned his father-in- law NT Rama Rao in a palace coup in August 1995.
Today, as there is once again talk of the possibility of a Third Front emerging, both these players are in silent mode. Both Chandrababu Naidu and Deve Gowda are no more than regional players who do not have the capacity to play political football in the maidans of Delhi.
Naidu is facing what can easily be described as the biggest challenge in his political career. A third defeat in a row in the Assembly polls next year is something he just cannot afford because that will put a huge question mark over his ability to lead the Telugu Desam (TDP). The TDP is no longer a formidable presence at the national level since the number of MPs it has sent to the Lok Sabha in 2004 and 2009 did not cross single digits.
Which is why the 62-year-old Naidu is not enthusiastic about Mulayam Singh Yadav’s talk of cobbling together a Third Front. He knows that unless he is able to capture Andhra Pradesh — both at the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls — he will be a political persona non grata in Delhi. He is aware that if his political rival YS Jaganmohan Reddy does better than him, Mulayam and Akhilesh Yadav would lose no time in co-opting Jagan into the Third Front fold, leaving Naidu out in the cold. Which is why Naidu would much rather prefer to speak after the elections.
Naidu is also wiser from experience. In 2009, convinced that the TDP was making a comeback in Hyderabad, he spent a lot of time in the familiar company of Prakash Karat, AB Bardhan and Mulayam Singh Yadav, announcing that the Third Front will form the next government in Delhi. The results showed him his place. Not only did he have to remain content as the Leader of Opposition in Andhra Pradesh, his tally in the Lok Sabha did nothing to significantly alter the arithmetic of the Lower House of Parliament.
In most constituencies of the coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions, Naidu’s TDP will be pitted against the YSR Congress and opinion polls indicate that despite Jagan being behind bars, his party has an edge. Naidu is walking the extra mile, literally, to cover the distance.
On 2 October 2012, he embarked on a padyatra from Anantapur district in the Rayalaseema region and and will end his walkathon in the end of April in north coastal Andhra Pradesh. But the jury is still out on whether his personal connect will translate into votes for his party. Naidu’s main problem is himself, as nine years of being in the Opposition has made him turn his back on most things he espoused as chief minister.
This crisis of credibility coupled with his standing in Telangana, where he is not seen as someone who is fully in favour of statehood to the region, has eroded his party’s strength in the state.
When he was CM, Naidu had ambitiously floated Vision 2020, with a long-term objective of what Andhra Pradesh will be in 2020. He firmly believed he would rule the state till then. Indeed, if 2004 and YS Rajasekhara Reddy had not happened, Naidu would have certainly entertained thoughts of moving to Delhi, propelled by a Narendra Modi-like PR and social media machinery, talking of a modern India. Instead, Naidu is on the road, embracing the real world, while junking the virtual.
In Comparison, Deve Gowda seems to be in semi-retirement mode. His party, the Janata Dal(Secular) is run by his son HD Kumaraswamy, who is also the face of the party in Karnataka. Despite having produced a PM, the party has nothing to crow about beyond Karnataka’s borders. Political analyst SA Hemantha Kumar describes Gowda’s party as “a national political party in form but a regional party in content”.
To be fair to Gowda, the 79-year-old leader has ensured his farmer constituency in Karnataka stays with him. Even for the Assembly election on 5 May, he has been trying to build an emotional pitch around Cauvery waters. In a state whose politics has always been dominated by the Vokkaligas and Lingayats, he has remained the tallest Vokkaliga leader, with no one in the Congress who can match him. Not even a retired-hurt SM Krishna.
But just like in the case of Naidu, Gowda faces a huge trust deficit that has kept his party away from the throne. Kumaraswamy dumped the Congress to join hands with BS Yeddyurappa to become chief minister in 2006 but when the turn came to hand over the reign to the BJP after 20 months, he did not keep his word.
Though Deve Gowda said his son’s alliance with the BJP did not have his blessings, very few bought his talk. He is one of the most shrewd minds in Indian politics, who will go the extra mile if he smells political advantage.
The Multicornered contest in the Assembly election offers Gowda his best chance to make a comeback in Karnataka politics. Marginalised in the 2008 Assembly polls, this time the JD(S)would hope to gain from the anti-BJP sentiment in the state. Given that his pockets of influence are limited, Gowda knows while he cannot be king, he can certainly be kingmaker.
The grapevine in Bangalore suggests Kumaraswamy has a line open with the BJP and the two could join hands if both put together get the numbers to form the government. Alternately, Gowda could offer the hand of friendship to the Congress as well, in case the party finds itself short of numbers.
His training as a civil engineer allows Deve Gowda the luxury to build castles in the air. So even while he plans a good showing in the Vidhana Soudha, many believe Gowda is also thinking of Race Course Road. He thinks neither the Congress nor the BJP will get enough numbers to form the next government in Delhi. And in a fluid situation, Gowda can be expected to throw his hat into the ring. “He could present a quid pro quo deal to pitch himself for the top job with either party in return for supporting either of them in Bangalore. He is keeping his options open. He is keen to play a dominant role at the Centre,” says Hemantha Kumar.
Most pundits have been trying to guess who could be the Deve Gowda of 2014, in the event of a hung Parliament. Deve Gowda would like no one else to play that role. And if Naidu does manage a decent showing next year, the two principal characters in those fading images of 1996-98 could make a comeback. Just a bit more grey.