“We Got Our Math Right But Our Chemistry Wrong”: Nara Lokesh
On April 11, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) which had expected to win for the second consecutive term in a row, got a rude shock.
Key rival YSR Congress, under Jaganmohan Reddy, swept to power with 151 out of 175 seats in the state.
The TDP won a mere 23 seats, despite just a 10% swing in vote share between the two parties.
Former chief minister Chandrababu Naidu won his Kuppam seat. But his son, Nara Lokesh lost his very first election in Mangalagiri to YSRC.
And then began, in Andhra, a series of drastic changes - reversals of decisions taken by the TDP government, stoppage of large projects, attacks on journalists and what seems more and more like the beginnings of an oppressive regime.
The Lede met with Nara Lokesh in Guntur, at the local TDP party office for a detailed discussion on what actually is going on in Andhra politics.
The second and final part of this mildly edited interview focuses on what went wrong for the TDP in the polls and what their plan for the future is.
Q: Why do you think your party lost? You must have done a post-election analysis.
Lokesh: As a political establishment, we did exceptionally well in the math part. If you look at any development index, any welfare index, even green cover of the state, we did exceptionally well. We contributed to India’s growth rate.
Where we missed the bus was the chemistry part, as they call it – caste, religion and region politics. As a political establishment, we have believed that our welfare and our development will bring people to not think about these. But unfortunately the opposition has driven wedges amongst castes.
Q: Can you give me an example?
Lokesh: They have used social media platforms to create fake profiles with a certain community name. They then used this to accuse people from backward communities. And then they created a proxy caste war on social media.
Fan groups of actors belonging to one community criticise the so-called fans of actors of another community.
The third - regions – Jaganmohan Reddy promises that he will shift the capital from Amaravati to Rayalaseema. He drives a wedge.
They never said Chandrababu Naidu has done so much, I will do better. They were always focussed on driving these wedges, dividing castes. We, as Andhraiites, fell prey to it.
Q: Has this been done by Prashant Kishore’s team, would you say?
Lokesh: I don’t know who has done it but they have done it. And they have done it very well. We always thought that people will not bother, because you know per capita income has doubled in Andhra.
If you see today, because of MNREGA we have laid 25,000 km of CC roads – no other state has done it. Rural street lighting - one of the biggest success stories in the country is Andhra. If you look at any measurement – healthcare, education, we are one of the best. Unlike 2004, we balanced both development and welfare this time.
Mr Naidu was a lot more centre. Earlier he was a lot more to the right which was more development, development, development. In fact he was maybe actually a bit to the left this time, not the centre, where welfare took a bigger seat but he believed it was very very important.
It was not only important to create wealth but to ensure equitable distribution of wealth. And that is something we really focussed on. But unfortunately we did not get the chemistry part.
Q: Were you not able to communicate properly?
Lokesh: Absolutely. There is no doubt. We were so busy in developing the state, we did not communicate. Let me give you the context because a lot of people forget what happened.
You know when Andhra got bifurcated, we did not have a capital, we didn’t know where to sit, we were told to be in Hyderabad for 10 years. Andhra’s per capita income was only 7% higher than the national average.
We were not in a position to pay salaries. In fact Mr Naidu operated out of his residence for almost 8-9 months because his office was not ready. All the working, good offices were given to Telangana and all the useless offices were given to Andhra. That was the challenge we started with.
Then we had to get an address, convince the farmers, lay the foundation stone, do the infrastructure, so on and so forth. That is how we have reached here. The per capita income of the state when we exited was 27% higher than the national average.
We have done exceptionally well as a state. But in our quest to do more, we failed to communicate. It was literally only in March that we got into the election cycle.
Q: Was Amaravati too ambitious a project? Hyderabad was one thing but Amaravati is, well, huge!
Lokesh: Amaravati is 35,000 acres. Think about Hyderabad on steroids. Keep in mind that Cyberabad happened in the backdrop of 1995. How big was our economy then? How big were state budgets then? Minuscule, compared to what we have today.
Today district budgets themselves are huge. Under MNREGA, Prakasam district alone got a budget of Rs 1000 crore. The budget of the whole state was not more than Rs 10-12 crore back then. So budgets were low.
The dream of Mr Naidu was that Amaravati should not just be a capital city – a bunch of government buildings with officers like a Naya Raipur. It should be an economic powerhouse that can contribute to the growth of the state. We have done that – we got VIT, SRM, a number of hospitals.
You know, as a youngster, I am sick of hearing - see how China has built this. None of our cities come close to the kind of ecosystem that China has built. Why can India not create one city that can be a model and prove it to ourselves? Then the next 100 cities will be easier. We need a lot more economic cities. All our cities are saturated.
Q: How did you lose Mangalagiri?
Lokesh: Mangalagiri is a seat that TDP has never won after 1985.
Q: But you are Lokesh! You are supposed to win apparently!
Lokesh: Yes, absolutely, I agree to that. I did campaign but I failed to convince my voters and I lost with 5000-odd votes. If you look at the margins with which other seats were lost in the district, this was one of the least.
Q: What is your takeaway from the Mangalagiri defeat?
Lokesh: That yes, having a last name does open doors but it doesn’t mean that you will get the job. What I understood is that I should have had at least a good 180 days.
Though I did try. I extensively campaigned, I went door to door. And I am confident that I will win it next time. I am clear that I do not want to go to a seat that is a TDP bastion – you go, put your nomination and you are done. A lot of second and third generation politicians end up doing that. I said I will fight a tough seat and I will prove that it is winnable.
It is a great lesson for me and I will learn from my mistakes. And I will build back up. I continue to nurture the constituency even today.
Q: You are going to take on more and more of a leadership role going forward. Your party is strong in Andhra Pradesh. What are your plans for Telangana? Your party seems to have given up on Telangana when you could have easily been a natural opposition there.
Lokesh: I wouldn’t say we have given up. But circumstances have pushed us into a corner. Circumstances also mean that we were in power in Andhra Pradesh and we had to really focus on delivering results here. Unfortunately we were unable to give time to Telangana and I also became a minister, which in hindsight I think was one of the bad decisions we have taken.
But that apart, I think we should have spent a lot more time in Telangana. We are now working on building it ground up. If you look at the last election we got a good percentage of votes in the seats that we contested. We got two MLAs winning.
So cadre is there but we have lost our leadership there. This is also now a great opportunity to rebuild. Rebuild with young faces and youngsters. We will build our leadership from scratch in Telangana and we will rejuvenate the party. We have already initiated that process.
Q: What steps are you taking to build the party in Telangana?
Lokesh: From the committee level we are rebooting. We are identifying young leadership. We believe that winnability of TDP is high. There are a lot of youngsters now willing to come and take up leadership roles. We are focusing now on Parliament level and state committees. We are now seen as a vocal opposition on state issues in Telangana also.
Q: Let’s talk about the Hyderabad GHMC (Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation) polls. There are a lot of Andhra settlers in Hyderabad. One would have expected that the TDP would do a lot better than it did in those polls.
Lokesh: We got the second highest number of votes after TDP. However it did not translate into number of seats - that is what we struggled with. However our cadre is still strong and it is a great opportunity now to reboot and we will do that.
Q: Are you still afraid of the ‘note for vote’ case?
Lokesh: What is it? I mean Mr Naidu has no role in it. There is nothing in it.
Q: Mr Naidu, you and your whole family shifted overnight to Vijayawada after the ‘note for vote’ case. At least to us from the outside, since you had shifted out of Hyderabad overnight immediately after it happened, and didn’t return, it looked to us like you were avoiding it.
Lokesh: No it seems like it. But we always believe that we should run our government from our side, not from afar. They have not been able to find even an iota of evidence against Mr Naidu. He has no role in it. Yes, there was a conversation with that MLC but if you notice, he says boss, if you can, you vote for TDP. And he says vote as per your conscience. What is wrong in that, I don’t understand. Are you telling me that no one calls other MLAs to vote? No bribes were offered, nothing was discussed, nothing was there. For no reason all this drama was created.
Q: Do you regret breaking away from the NDA?
Lokesh: I believe that we fought on the issue that was relevant for the state. We did fight for special status earlier then we were told that no state is getting special status so we will give you special package – we agreed to that, we convinced our voters that a special package is good. But even the special package didn’t come.
And the only reason we differed was for Andhra Pradesh. We said you are not giving us special status, you are not giving us special package, how else is the state really going to develop? We need that handout to pull the state up. There needs to be a catalyst for the state to grow initially.
We never had anything personal against any leader or anything. Our agenda was our state.
Q: Would you be open to tying up with the NDA again?
Lokesh: I think the agenda of the state is what is of paramount importance. That is what will decide the future decisions of the TDP.