N T Rama Rao: The Maverick Who Defeated Indira Gandhi

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    Indira Gandhi had conjured up a stunning comeback after she and her Congress party were steamrolled in the post-Emergency elections of 1977. The comeback was due in great part to the debacle that was the Janata Party government, which quickly lost its bearings. And now a rejuvenated Indira and Congress were riding high, aiming to win back India.

    That strategy extended to Assembly elections, aggressively attempting to either win back or retain a handful of ‘traditional’ Congress strongholds. Andhra Pradesh had stood by her. Indira won the Medak parliamentary constituency in 1980, her party had swept parliamentary polls in the state, and it was hailed as a symbolic step in her ascendancy to reclaim a firm prime-ministership. As she and her party looked towards Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh in 1983, it was in the secure knowledge that the state had never experienced a non-Congress government.

    They hadn’t factored in Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao.

    NTRto most people, the iconic Telugu actor leveraged local sentiments that the Congress and several other national parties had evidently ignored. Supported by some powerful local business and political interests, Rao floated the Telugu Desam Party, or TDP, on March 29th 1982. Riding on Telugu pride, Telugu aspiration and matching it to his personal charisma, in less than a year, NTR went from aspirant to chief minister. In the Assembly elections held in January 1983, the TDP formed the government with an absolute majority.

    In this exclusive excerpt from Maverick Messiah: A Political Biography of N.T. Rama Rao (2021), Ramesh Kandula offers an incisive glimpse into the strategy and the landmark victory that completely changed the political landscape of Andhra Pradesh—a legacy that endures, with regional parties governing Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, which was hived off from Andhra to form a new state, in 2014. NTR-1983 also changed India’s political landscape. In short order, the TDP would emerge as a factor in national-level coalition politics, riding the wave of hairs-breadth alliances and pushing back political centralization with insistent federalism.

    The most awaited election results poured in with a dramatic twist. In a classic case of misdirection, the first result came out in favour of the Congress (I). The party candidate, P. Shankar Rao, won against the TDP candidate, P. Radhakrishna, with a margin of 3003 votes from the Shadnagar (Mahabubnagar District) reserved constituency. This result was out early as the electronic voting machine (EVM) was deployed in this constituency for the first time.

    But NTR, who was confidence personified, was not unduly perturbed. True to his belief, TDP candidates were soon on a winning spree. The party made a clean sweep in the coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions, while making significant inroads in Telangana. It secured more than 46 per cent of votes, setting a record in the electoral history of India. While it needed 148 seats to form the government, the party secured 198 seats in its debut election. Sanjay Vichar Manch, supported by the TDP, got four seats. The Congress, for the first time since AP’s formation, had to be content with sixty seats after managing 33 per cent of the votes.

    It was an electoral tsunami as Indira’s iron grip on her pocket borough was literally washed away under NTR’s mighty spell.

    The oldest party got decimated by an amateur outfit that was formed just nine months ago.

    ‘This was arguably the most spectacular defeat the Congress had suffered,’ historian Ramachandra Guha said, ‘for its previous conquerors, such as the communists, the DMK and the Janata Party, were all led by experienced politicians who had a solid cadre of co-workers to organize their campaigns.’

    India Today exclaimed, ‘The film star-turned-politician’s fantastic victory over a formidable leader with an international reputation like Mrs Gandhi has no precedent in world history.’

    Senior Congress leaders, including several ministers, were left licking their wounds in the aftermath. Some of the stalwarts who lost included fifteen members of the outgoing cabinet, such as N. Janardhana Reddy, Kona Prabhakar Rao and M.A. Aziz, and Assembly Speaker Agarala Eswara Reddy.

    The ‘national’ Opposition parties were on the receiving end in these elections because of the TDP sweep. The Janata Party, which had won sixty seats in 1978, was dismally reduced to one MLA. The Lok Dal was wiped out. The strength of the communists in the assembly got reduced to nine with the CPI (M) securing five and the CPI four seats. It was an even more sobering experience for the Left as the CPI and the CPI (M) had a seat adjustment for the first time after 1964. The BJP, which fielded eighty candidates, managed to keep its three seats. The Congress (J), which contested for eighty seats, got one. The Congress (S) drew a blank. The MIM was the only party which increased its strength from three to five seats, predominantly from the old city of Hyderabad. The honourable exceptions who withstood the NTR onslaught included the Janata Party’s S. Jaipal Reddy and the BJP’s M. Venkaiah Naidu.

    The impressive victory of four of the five candidates fielded by Sanjay Vichar Manch was entirely due to the TDP’s support. This was the largest number of MLAs Maneka’s party, which was soon rebranded as Rashtriya Sanjay Manch (RSM), had ever managed to win in any election.

    There have been a plethora of analyses and commentaries on how and why the historic win happened. The victory is significant because NTR’s feat of capturing power within nine months of founding a political party remains unassailable to this day. No single factor can be attributed to the spectacular change of regime.

    The man and the moment coalesced to bring about a dramatic shift in the course of AP’s history.

    NTR’s ability to project himself as a viable alternative to the Congress (I) was a major reason. The anti-Congress vote was out there for the asking. What was needed was a credible choice. Where all the other Opposition outfits failed, the TDP succeeded because it could mirror people’s aspirations more accurately. The Indian Express in its editorial, while describing ‘the emergence of the Telugu Desam as an avenging fury’, said that NTR ‘captured a mood’ even as his pledge to restore the Telugu ‘self-respect’ struck a responsive chord. The way NTR fine-tuned his ‘self-respect slogan’ without elements of bigotry was surprisingly in tandem with Telugu nationalism historically. As K.C. Suri points out, ‘The Telugu people have exhibited this tendency since the beginning of the twentieth century of finely mixing the Telugu national pride with that of Indian nationalism.’

    NTR’s native imagery and localized idiom, drawn heavily from the traditional and cultural repertoire of Telugus, produced an instant connection for the common man.

    He time and again referred to atma gouravam (self-respect), jati gouravam (honour of the Telugu race), dharma yuddham (the fight for justice) and kurukshetram (the epic war in Mahabharata). All of these were expressions that appealed to people’s cultural instincts.

    Sociologist Ratna Naidu explained how the TDP’s campaign material that included a booklet consisting of seven pictures of NTR in various mythological and historical roles—such as Lord Krishna, Lord Rama, emperor Krishnadevaraya, mystic Veerabhrahmendra Swamy and medieval minister Brahma Naidu—conveyed ‘leftist and radical principles through home-grown imageries and idioms available in the backyard of the nation’.

    NTR’s dramatic speeches in idiomatic Telugu captured the voters’ imagination. For example, on the issue of corruption in the Congress party, he would rhetorically question, ‘Whose father’s money is this?’ To underline the point that the Congress was no longer an honourable party, he would say it was ‘selling rotten fruits in the name of the tree’. Also, the attempt to portray NTR and his party as narrowly regional or separatist did not really gel with people for the same reason. NTR was not a secessionist, and actually used pan-Indian symbolism such as Rama Rajya, the Hindu concept of ideal governance, which was culturally an integral part of the national imagination. As sociologist Ratna Naidu pointed out, the TDP campaign was very different from that of the DMK of Tamil Nadu in its content and tone. NTR’s appeal to Telugu nationalism all through was never antithetical to the idea of national identity.

    The no-holds-barred coverage in Eenadu was widely seen as a major factor in NTR’s debut victory. ‘Who says NTR has won? It is Ramoji Rao who has won,’ Indira Gandhi reportedly said.

    Analysts pointed out the significant change in the social background of the TDP legislators, suggesting it contributed to the party’s astounding victory.

    The TDP brought about an alliance between dominant caste groups and Backward Castes (BCs).

    This contrasted with the Congress (I)’s combination of the upper-caste groups and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. The BCs have since been the backbone of TDP’s electoral support.

    It may be interesting to note that the number of Reddy MLAs in the 1983 assembly was still dominant at sixty-eight, while that of Kammas was fifty-two in the 294-strong House. As many as forty-five Reddy MLAs were elected on the TDP ticket.

    The number of Kamma MLAs elected on the TDP ticket was marginally higher at forty-eight, while only three Kammas made it on the symbol of other parties.127 On the face of it, more Kammas seem to have found their way to the assembly through the TDP.

    But even in 1967, as many as forty-four Kamma legislators were returned to the assembly when there was no TDP around.

    The victory of the TDP as a triumph of regional assertion has also been widely discussed. The argument goes that since Independence, the emerging regional capitalist class was increasingly finding it difficult to defend and promote its interests in the Delhi-centric world of politics. This assertive class, as exemplified by businessman and media baron Ramoji Rao, contributed to the rise of regional parties such as the TDP. Significantly, since the 1980s, the states, especially those ruled by non-Congress parties, began demanding a more meaningful share in the power structure.

    The fact that NTR’s political success was markedly different from that of MGR in Tamil Nadu was noted by several commentators. MGR had a long history of working in politics before he floated his own party and staked a claim to power.

    NTR’s foray was sudden and without a shred of past political involvement. NTR was acutely aware of his own phenomenal success. ‘Comparing what I have achieved this time with the others is not a fair proposition. They have been in politics long before they achieved success. I have done it in nine months,’ NTR protested in an interview to India Today.

    The emergence of the TDP, in a way, put paid to any possibility of a ‘national’ party, including the resurgent BJP, being able to rise to power in the state in the foreseeable future. Even after the bifurcation of the state in 2014, two regional parties, the TDP and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), captured power in AP and Telangana, respectively. In 2019, again the regional parties, the TRS and the YSR Congress, stormed to power in the two Telugu states. The BJP and the Congress remained weak Opposition parties. Inspired by the success of the TDP, several regional outfits sprouted subsequently, with some degree of achievement, but none with the same dramatic impact. Likewise, among all regional parties in the country ranging from the AIADMK (founded in 1972) to the AAP (formed in 2012), NTR’s TDP performed the best among the first-timers in the country.

    Clearly, NTR and his party did not ride to power just on his film glamour. His success was accompanied by a new native ideology and political culture.

    The moment was right for a viable political alternative, and the man rose to fill the void. How this significant political development was more than a filmi affair became evident decades later when another bid was made by another film star, Chiranjeevi, on the same lines, but not with the same result.

    Thanks to the NTR phenomenon which resulted in victory against Indira Gandhi and the well-entrenched Congress, the Telugus certainly gained new-found recognition in the eyes of the rest of the country. One of the perennial complaints of the Telugu people was that they had been subsumed under the ‘Madrasi’ tag in the north Indian consciousness even after the linguistic state was formed. NTR’s arrival on the scene brought about a definite change in the way AP was looked at by politicians and media in Delhi. B.P.R. Vithal, a distinguished civil servant, was serving the African country Sudan as a budget adviser during the dramatic political developments in his home state. Vithal, who later worked as deputy chairman, planning board, in NTR’s government, recalled:

    I saw the swearing in of Sri NT Rama Rao, as the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, in a public ceremony at the Lal Bahadur Stadium in January 1983, live on the Sudanese TV in Khartoum, Sudan. It was the first time that the entire Arab world came to know that an important part of India was Telugu country.

    Till then, even North Indians knew us as only ‘Madrasis’. What we wanted to achieve by having a separate linguistic State was emotionally achieved only then and entirely due to NTR.

    NTR was indeed able to arouse such tremendous curiosity through his historic win in the media that three European television crews—the British, West German and Italian—visited Hyderabad to film him in action. Delhi-based journalists, for the first time in recent years, descended upon Hyderabad to see what was so special about the film actor who trounced Indira Gandhi.

    Excerpted with permission from the book Maverick Messiah: A Political Biography of N.T. Rama Rao by Ramesh Kandula (published by Penguin Random House India).

    This article is part of our special series the 'Making of Modern India' through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India's exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.

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