Chandrababu Naidu : A Questionable Legacy

Chandrababu Naidu

Former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu was arrested on corruption charges on September 9th by the state Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in a Skill Development scam that dates back to 2014 wherein it is alleged that he siphoned off Rs. 371 crores from the public exchequer in the garb of shell companies. He has thus joined a long list of politicians thrown behind the bars on similar charges. More importantly, he has now earned infamy for the same reason that his bête noir and sitting Chief Minister Jaganmohan Reddy is often criticized for, namely being in jail for charges pertaining to misuse of power leading to amassing wealth and disproportionate assets. While it remains to be seen what course the ensuing legal battle will take, this is a huge dent to his carefully crafted media image of a tech-savvy, pro-“development” guru with an “unblemished” record thus far. Although a litany of corruption allegations were levelled against him pertaining to his tenure as Chief Minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh between 1995-2004, none of them went this far owing to multiple reasons including courts quashing them and some being withdrawn by his political opponents themselves due to effective maneuvering by Mr Chandrababu Naidu. He holds the distinction of allying with every kind of political party both at the center and in the state at varying times since he took over the reins of Telugu Desam Party (TDP) after dethroning his father-in-law Mr. N.T.Rama Rao in 1995. Be it the United Front in 1996, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 1999, Grand alliance with Communist parties and erstwhile Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in Andhra Pradesh in 2009, back to BJP-led NDA in 2014, then the alliance with Congress and the communists in 2018 Telangana assembly elections against the TRS – Mr Naidu mastered the art of changing political partners swiftly and often to his advantage. This willy-nilly deal-making has certainly helped him fend off previous corruption cases. However, this time the tide seems to have turned. Only a rich and powerful Chief Minister (Mr Jaganmohan Reddy being India’s richest Chief Minister on record) could bring a rich and powerful former Chief Minister Mr Chandrababu Naidu (according to his wife’s assertion following his arrest, just 2% of market value of their family business Heritage foods is worth Rs 400 crores) to the ramparts of criminal justice system.

While financial crimes are pursued by political opponents in a game of one-upmanship, crimes committed against the hapless and often nameless individuals by the rich and powerful politicians are left to the wayside and worse yet, erased from our collective memory. In this context, it is pertinent to revisit these following 4 instances that happened at disparate times during Mr Chandrababu Naidu’s political tenure that shed a light on his questionable legacy that is a topic of hot debate now in Andhra Pradesh following his recent arrest. In all these incidents, the buck stops with Mr Naidu where avoidable deaths could have been prevented and the same political expediency that he is known for was lacking when it came to the lives of the disadvantaged.

Basheer Bagh police firing:

In the year 2000, as the reforms juggernaut kept rolling and Mr Naidu was riding high on his Bill Clinton-hugging globalist image, household electricity charges in Andhra Pradesh were steeply hiked leading to power bills that were several fold higher than what average people were used to. That led to a massive people’s agitation that culminated in a protest march in the state capital Hyderabad. On August 28, 2000, protesters led predominantly by Communist parties and to a lesser degree the Congress party attempted to walk towards the State Assembly that was in session. This act of defiance was met with brute police force under the aegis of Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu. The police were given shooting orders that led to the deaths of three people – Ramakrishna, Balaswamy and Vishnuvardhan Reddy. The ensuing chaos resulted in grievous injuries to scores of people and police personnel. Ghastly visuals of that episode continue to haunt the memory of Telugu states to this day. That event subsequently became a galvanizing point in opposition to Naidu’s rule and played a crucial role in his defeat in 2004 state Assembly elections as he remained fervently intent on his full throttle reforms agenda with utter disregard to working people’s aspirations that were trampled in the name of “development”. However, the Basheer Bagh template of thwarting people’s protests with the use of deadly state machinery has been replicated several times by many other governments across the country since then. The same communist parties that led the Basheer Bagh agitation on that day did an about-face when they gleefully allied with Naidu in subsequent elections in 2009 conveniently ignoring their comrades that laid their lives.

Extrajudicial killing of woodcutters:

In the aftermath of creation of separate Telangana in 2014, Chandrababu Naidu once again became Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh albeit much smaller in size than the erstwhile undivided state. Less than a year in to his third tenure, on April 7, 2015, forest officials gunned down 20 woodcutters in the Seshachalam forests of Chittoor district (Naidu’s home district) mostly tribals, OBCs and dalits hailing from Tamil Nadu. These killings were dubbed as retaliatory “encounters” while most victims were shot in their backs and at close-range. Labeled as “smugglers”, even news reports failed to identify them by names. The government headed by Naidu acted with such impunity that there was no remorse expressed and rather these extrajudicial killings were propagandized as a crackdown on Red Sanders smuggling. This brazen massacre of poor woodcutters remains touted as the incident with highest body-count in the history of such forest raids in the state while it did nothing to nab the intricate political nexus behind the illegal trade of Red Sanders.

Godavari Pushkaralu stampede:

Also in 2015, Chandrababu Naidu took up the supposedly holy event of Godavari pushkaralu with pomp and bluster. Never to let go of any opportunity to flaunt his self-declared administrative skills, he personally oversaw the arrangements for the event in Rajahmundry. On July 14, 2015, he took a holy dip in the River Godavari himself along with his family members in a choreographed event thronged by tens of thousands of pilgrims that was video graphed by a commercial Telugu film director Mr Boyapati Seenu known for his unearthly film stunts and over the top histrionics. Shortly after Naidu left the premises, cacophony ensued resulting in a stampede that took the lives of 29 people, mostly women. This was despite his government claiming to have spent Rs. 1500 crores for smooth and organized conduct of this 12-day ritual where pilgrims take dips in the river water supposedly for its divine power. While he always clamors for credit for any development work or relief activity under his rule, Naidu did not take any moral responsibility for the 29 innocent lives that were lost in a ritualistic event magnified and promulgated by a constitutionally elected state government.

Stampedes in campaign rallies in 2022-23:

After miserably losing power in 2019 and being reduced to a mere 23 seats in the 175-seat state legislative assembly, Naidu donned the role of opposition leader. As part of his campaign against the state government, he embarked on roadshows in the latter part of 2022. On December 29, 2022, at a roadshow in Kandukur in Nellore district, 8 people were crushed to death in a stampede triggered by mass gathering of large numbers of people in to crowded by lanes of a small town unaccustomed to such events. While this certainly was an unplanned mishap, a seasoned politician and administrator should have known better than to have surging crowds in shanty places. What is worse is that he did not consider putting his campaign on hold to review public safety before proceeding with his program but rather rolled on to other districts as planned prior. Resultantly, another similar stampede incident took the lives of 3 innocent people this time in Guntur at a Naidu event on January 2, 2023, a mere 4 days later. People apparently were congregated at the venue at the behest of TDP leaders’ promise of distribution of free clothes and ration kits. These two successive events within such a short span illustrate how poor people’s lives became cannon fodder for political purposes.

In essence, these four instances that took place at varying time points in Naidu’s long career both as a Chief Minister and Opposition leader demonstrate how disposable certain lives are when it comes to advancing his own agenda be it in enforcing “reforms” at the expense of skyrocketing utility bills, in crafting a tough guy image by murdering woodcutters in the name of smugglers, in enamoring gullible pilgrims with holy dips that become death traps and in alluring masses to literal political pitfalls that usurp their lives. A thorough soul-searching while behind the bars will hopefully prevent more of these losses of lives in future.

G Naveen has been writing articles pertaining to social Justice for 20 years on various platforms. He is a physician by profession

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