For the last few days, Chandrababu Naidu has bid goodbye to his formal black shoes. Dudmax, an international brand along with Reebok socks, now adorn his feet, and will do so for 117 days starting Tuesday.
"I wanted to get used to them, lest I have issues with shoe bite,'' said Naidu, before embarking on `Vastunannu Mee Kosam' (I am coming for you) padyatra, starting from Hindupur in Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh. He will call it a day on January 26 in Srikakulam.
A senior Telugu Desam leader from Guntur district, who has been with the party since 1983, describes the padyatra as Naidu's brahmastra. ``It has to be fired because the party is having its back to the wall. We are pinning our hopes on this padyatra to bring us back to power in 2014,'' he said.
The comparisons with YS Rajasekhara Reddy's padyatra of the summer of 2003 are inevitable and Naidu knows it too. He pulls out stats to show how he is one better. Naidu points out how his yatra will cover 2320 km while YSR's Ranga Reddy district to Srikakulam clocked just 1500 km. And YSR didn't cover the entire state, something Naidu plans to do.
But Naidu's such a long journey will be in many senses more tough than YSR. The latter walked at a time when Naidu's anti-farmer policies and CEO of AP Inc fetish had disconnected him from the rural folk. YSR capitalised on the anti-incumbency sentiment building up against Naidu and gained electorally when polls were held in April 2004.
Naidu, however, is not involved in a direct fight against the Congress. He is also fighting battles against the Telangana Rashtra Samiti, the sub-regional party that has pushed both the Congress and the TDP behind in the Telangana region. And in the rest of Andhra Pradesh, Jaganmohan Reddy's fortunes seem to be on the rise, despite his status as an undertrial in Hyderabad central prison.
The biggest challenge Naidu will face during the padyatra will be himself. Hand him a mike and he gets into speech mode immediately. And worse, focusses on 1995 to 2004. Reminding the farmers of his rule is hardly going to help. It is this 'I, me, myself' mode that Naidu slips into, that could cost the TDP dear. What Andhra Pradesh would want to know from him is whether he has turned a new leaf, and if yes, what different will he offer to the people now.
Knowing Naidu's penchant to give long sermons, colleagues have been gingerly advising him to watch his body language. An MLA from Chittoor district has advised him to put his arm around people while chatting, to give a sense of empathy. Telugu filmmakers have sat on brainstorming sessions with Naidu to work out finer details of how the yatra ought to be showcased, given that it will be tailormade for regional news television. Already songs composed by Tollywood music directors have a very upbeat feel to them and the TDP expects them to galvanise its cadre.
Naidu's problem is that he shoots arrows in all directions, without targeting his political rivals one by one. Kiran Kumar Reddy, Jagan, KCR, Chiranjeevi, YSR, he spares nobody. He talks of corruption, inefficiency, nepotism, opportunism, all in the same breath, leaving his audience breathless. He offers himself as the sole ray of hope in the state, leaving everyone wondering if he isn't patting himself on the back a bit too much.
Will the Andhra Pradesh voter get swayed by Chandrababu marketing Naidu? "It is unlikely to help Naidu given that the present political situation is bad for the TDP,'' says K Nageshwar, political analyst. The reference is to the ambivalent stand on the contentious Telangana issue. Since 2009, Naidu has seen his political base in Telangana eroding because of sitting on the fence on the question of statehood. During this yatra could come the now or never moment.
TDP leaders say the reception he faces in Telangana cannot be worse than what he has faced in the recent past. They are banking on him to establish a connect with people, vexed with problems like erratic power supply and shortage of seeds and fertilizers.
The wily politician that he is, Naidu realises he cannot afford to lose a third time. The problem with the TDP is that barring Naidu, there is no leader who has a pan-Andhra Pradesh appeal. Naidu, to ensure no leader grew in stature, restricted most second-rung TDP leaders to their districts. Among the NTR family, actor Junior NTR and his father Harikrishna no longer have a very good equation with Naidu and only actor Balakrishna, who is also Naidu's brother-in-law is by his side. Naidu's son Lokesh is married to Balakrishna's daughter. There is considerable speculation over when Lokesh will take a plunge into active politics. Not one to reveal his mind, Naidu says, "I only want to make him one of the best citizens." But TDP sources indicate there could be a son-rise during the padyatra.During his stint as chief minister, `hi-tech' Naidu introduced video-conferencing from the secretariat to the districts and had a penchant for heli-hopping into the districts. As he now embarks on the road less travelled, there is no dearth of sceptics. As an intelligence official of the Andhra Pradesh police says, "I just hope he does not convey the impression of a man running away from the problem.''