It was an unforgettable weekend for Andhra Pradesh. Around 6am on Saturday, September 9, former chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, 73, who was on a political tour of Nandyal, was arrested for the first time in his life. He was driven to Vijayawada and when he reached there in the evening the streets teemed with people curious to see the political behemoth.
At the time of Naidu’s arrest, Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy was in London on a personal visit; Governor S. Abdul Nazeer was in coastal Visakhapatnam on an official visit and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was busy with the G20 summit in Delhi. Whether the arrest was well timed or not, it got the complete attention of the people of the two Telugu states. They were glued to their screens till Sunday night, when the Telugu Desam Party president was lodged in Rajahmundry central jail. In many households, live coverage of the arrest had precedence over the India-Pakistan cricket match at the Asia Cup.
Ever since Reddy came to power in the state in 2019, Naidu’s name has cropped up in multiple scams, either through allegations or through investigations ordered by the YSR Congress Party government. This had called into question Naidu’s claim of being untainted by corruption anytime during his three terms as chief minister. Finally, the arrest was made in a Rs370-crore “skill development scam”.
According to the special investigation team of the state police CID, during his last term as chief minister, Naidu deviated from his previous government’s orders and bypassed standard procedures to facilitate “unjustifiable” sanction of funds to a private firm called DesignTech. It partnered with global major Siemens to set up skilling centres across the state. A part of the funds, the police said, was siphoned off to shell companies using fake invoices, converted into cash, and transferred to Naidu and his associates.
A fraud in the project was first detected by the GST intelligence wing in 2017 and then by the Enforcement Directorate, which also made arrests. Reddy informed the legislative assembly that Siemens had, after conducting an internal inquiry, admitted wrongdoing by its senior executives. The CID took up the case in 2021 and, after a two-year investigation, declared Naidu the “prime accused.”
The Anti-Corruption Bureau court in Vijayawada heard the case for more than eight hours before sending Naidu to a 14-day judicial remand. The arrest shocked Naidu’s cadres while Reddy’s burst crackers in jubilation. For the TDP, more disappointment followed as its call for statewide bandh got a lukewarm response. It called the case false, and Naidu’s son Nara Lokesh, who is party general secretary, warned of serious consequences. But, the authorities have already moved on to the Inner Ring Road scam; officers say Naidu was involved in a quid pro quo in the scam.
A puzzling question was: why arrest the leader of the opposition at this juncture―the assembly polls are due in 2024―and risk triggering sympathy among voters? “Sympathy does not operate in a vacuum,” said K. Nageshwar, senior political analyst and former member of the Telangana legislative council. “It should have a political context. For instance, in 2003, Maoists made an attempt on Naidu’s life, yet he lost the election in 2004. Anti-incumbency [overshadowed] the incident. The level of anti-incumbency against Reddy will determine the sympathy for Naidu.” He said the state was completely polarised between two communities and leaders, leaving hardly any sizeable number of swing voters.
One of the first to condemn the arrest was actor Pawan Kalyan, leader of the Jana Sena Party. Kalyan is based in Hyderabad in Telangana. While he may or may not contest in the Telangana assembly polls this December, he supported Naidu without thinking about the risk of losing votes if he were to contest. Two former TDP leaders who are now in Telangana, D. Seethakka of the Congress and M. Krishna Rao of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi, both MLAs, had faced mild criticism from party workers after expressing their sympathies for Naidu. Playing the hero, Kalyan tried to enter Andhra Pradesh, but was restrained at the border, citing law and order issues. He lay down on the road in protest and warned Reddy’s party of consequences once it lost power. Kalyan’s party supported the bandh called by the TDP.
Kalyan, a BJP ally, has been trying to bring the TDP back into the National Democratic Alliance. Naidu, too, had indicated that he was not against the NDA and has kept away from opposition fronts. Naidu not being part of INDIA or NDA also meant that national parties’ reaction to his arrest was delayed. Only West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee promptly came out in support of Naidu. Others joined in eventually. From the NDA, there were no major voices of support, except for BJP state president Daggubati Purandeswari, who happens to be Naidu’s sister-in-law. But, she made it clear that the BJP would not support the bandh.
As a result, there is confusion and distrust of the BJP among cadres of Naidu’s and Kalyan’s parties. There are also suspicions that the BJP had played a role in the arrest. The argument is that the arrest could not have been made without the BJP’s consent as it came during the G20.
“Jagan Mohan Reddy must have informed the BJP government,” said Telakapalli Ravi, senior political analyst. “It has become clear that the BJP is playing political games. This case originated at central agencies and a recent IT notice to Naidu [highlighted] it.” Though invisible, the BJP, he said, played a big role.