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Both Chandrababu Naidu, Nitish Kumar Will Likely Bargain Hard

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Over the next five years, Vijayawada and Patna may play a huge role in the power equations in New Delhi. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Andhra Pradesh’s Chief Minister-in-waiting, N Chandrababu Naidu, both are veterans of coalition politics that ended in 2014. Both are astute at bargaining and negotiating complex coalition equations.

INDIA bloc members have already reached out to Naidu, but will he respond? Naidu was the convenor of the United Front in 1996 and played a crucial role in the NDA until 2004. He returned to the NDA in 2014, won a bifurcated Andhra Pradesh, but left it in 2018. He lost power and rejoined the NDA after he was jailed in Andhra Pradesh by the YSRCP government. The BJP drove a tough bargain, made him wait and eventually finalised a deal, extracting its pound of flesh in terms of seats – it snagged six of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in Andhra despite its negligible vote share in the state.

In fact, during the 2014 election campaign, the TDP even insisted that NaMo stands for Naidu and Modi (instead of Narendra Modi).

Naidu will extract his pound of flesh from New Delhi. He is a most strategic negotiator, patient and calibrated. Given the numbers – around 238 seats for the BJP, the single largest party, and 100 for runner-up Congress – it would seem difficult for the INDIA bloc to cobble numbers. Even if it does, it would be a highly unstable government.

Naidu is acutely aware of this, but keeping the INDIA bloc option in play only increases his bargaining power with the NDA. And he is expected to drive a very tough bargain.

Special status for Andhra Pradesh is already a major demand, but Naidu is more likely to focus on sustained economic benefits for his state. He was the architect of the Hyderabad IT dream, but it was cut short by a series of political disasters. First, the successive losses in 2004 and 2009, and then the bifurcation of the state.

In 1999, Naidu stayed out of the cabinet and ensured the TDP got the Speaker’s post in parliament. He may follow a similar strategy this time, which will put Modi’s negotiating skills to test. Prime Minister Modi has never led a coalition and negotiating with Naidu could be a challenge. Over the last 10 years, the BJP has also lost a lot of the Vajpayee-era coalition builders, and for the hard and aggressive new lot, it will be a skill to learn.

Given the numbers and the fact that he had a pre-poll alliance with the BJP, Naidu is more likely to stay with the NDA. Coalition politics, however, is an uncertain beast and it will be interesting to watch how the line between Vijayawada and Delhi evolves over the next few days and years.

Nitish Kumar, too, is a veteran of coalition politics and had a stint in the NDA cabinet under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee until he became Chief Minister of Bihar in 2004. He has played all sides and has switched alliances with ease. He was one of the original architects of the INDIA alliance, but walked over to the BJP months before polls. He, too, will demand his pound of flesh, but he is a coalition partner with the BJP in the state as well and may not want to upset the apple cart easily.

His ultimate dream is the PM’s post and if that is on the table, he could go anywhere. That is a long shot with just 14 seats. For now, he could leverage his numbers for cabinet berths as well as finances for Bihar.

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