By Sidhanta Mehra —
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is up for re-election in just over a year. Despite the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) unprecedented majority-win in India’s last election in 2014, Modi’s ability to govern effectively has relied on support from strategic regional partners. One of these regional partners, Andhra Pradesh’s reform-minded chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, has rescinded his party’s support to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). This move creates new obstacles for Modi, only days after covering new ground in the northeast, to enact a robust legislative agenda at the center, and execute programs at the state level.
The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), led by Naidu, has been one of the more ardent — and important — members of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) for two decades. Recently, when the BJP led two major reform campaigns — demonetization and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) — TDP was a key partner in implementing them. The TDP was also critical in supporting the former Vajpayee-led NDA coalition in opening up India’s insurance sector. This was when the BJP did not have a majority government and needed the support of the 29 TDP-held seats in the thirteenth Lok Sabha. Their departure from the NDA leaves the BJP without a strong ally in the south. The TDP turned its departure into a public spectacle, primarily on account of lack of fiscal support from the central government. After the bifurcation of the state in 2014, Andhra Pradesh has been strapped fiscally, having inherited 58.2 percent of the “pre-divided population” but not an equivalent of the estimated revenue division which the center promised to correct. Close to 50 percent of the state’s total fiscal revenue was generated from Hyderabad, the technology center that is now part of the new state, Telangana.
Andhra was also not permitted by the center to increase its fiscal deficit in order to meet its capital expenditure needs in building a new capital region and funding development programs. Instead, Naidu had demanded that Andhra be recognized as a “special category” state allowing it to receive 15 percent more of the central funds for executing centrally-sponsored schemes under the fourteenth finance commission recommendations. While Union Finance Minister Jaitley was willing to offer Andhra a “special package” which would include similar benefits, he held back on assigning it a “special category” state, which became the breaking point for Naidu.
As the BJP expands its political footprint, the party has to make difficult political choices. In large part, the strength of the NDA coalition going back to the times of the Vajpayee government (1998-2004) derived from the fact that the BJP was not dominant in most states where coalition partners were strongest. This has been true in Andhra Pradesh. For its part, the Telugu Desam Party, a long-standing partner in the NDA, realized it would need the support of the national party upon victory to provide resources needed to build its new coastal state. At the same time, it understood its strategic importance to the BJP. Despite its single-party majority in the lower house of Parliament the BJP only controls 58 of 245 seats in the Rajya Sabha (upper house). The TDP commands 6 seats — helpful for the BJP’s ability to enact its legislative agenda.
In addition, the nearly one-quarter of Rajya Sabha seats are up for election next month. Andhra will vote on three seats in the state. The TDP is expected to gain one more seat in these elections, bringing the party total to 7 total seats in the Rajya Sabha. The BJP’s relations with the Maharashtra-based party Shiv Sena have also been tense in recent months. With the BJP’s relative strength in Maharashtra, the BJP sees the Shiv Sena as part-friend, and part-competitor.
Andhra Pradesh and Telangana will hold state elections simultaneously with the national elections next year. Some in the BJP are already predicting victories in these two states. If they really believe they can compete in Andhra, it may seal the fate of the partnership with the TDP. But without the TDP, it must develop a completely new strategy to infiltrate the vote bank in the two states that are loyal to the TDP. The BJP has been insignificant in Andhra elections, winning two seats in the 2004 and 2009 state legislative assembly elections of undivided Andhra Pradesh, nine of 294 seats in Andhra in 2014, and two seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha general elections in Andhra Pradesh.
The Indian National Congress, the main opposition party at the center, is trying to pounce on the rift between the BJP and the TDP. The party has publicly promised Andhra’s people it will fulfill the fiscal and status promises that the BJP could not fulfill. Undivided Andhra was the source of the largest number of Parliament seats for Congress in the 2004 and 2009 elections. Re-establishing a foothold in Andhra Pradesh is critical for the party’s future chances to regain national relevance.
Andhra is a multi-cornered political contest, with both national parties eyeing the state, and two strong local parties, the Telugu Desam Party and YSR Congress. The division between the BJP and TDP, if it holds, opens the door for new alignments as Andhra looks at both state and national elections in early 2019.