For a younger generation flabbergasted by the appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a new political biography of former chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh N.T. Rama Rao, or NTR, offers some historical context.
Ramesh Kandula’s Maverick Messiah: A Political Biography of N.T. Rama Rao is a reminder that populism rules Indian politics, both in the national and regional arenas. A maverick messiah is loved by the masses not in spite of who he is, but because of who he is—and because of who we are.
Written in five acts, Kandula, a senior journalist, details the life of the superstar Telugu actor who reinvented himself as an iconic politician at the age of 60. Apart from interviews with key people in NTR’s life, Kadula draws on newspaper reports and editorials going back to the 1980s, academic research papers and memoirs in Telugu to construct the story of a regional leader whose influence ran till the Centre and recast local politics.
Kadula’s book is among a new crop bringing the stories of regional politicians into the mainstream. For years, most of these biographies have been in local languages, and remained inaccessible to a wider, younger audience. Writers are now undertaking research on previously underreported areas of contemporary Indian history.
Nandamuri Taraka Rama, born in 1923, lived a life that reads a bit like a script from one of his films. After making a debut with a small role as a police officer in Mana Desam (1949), his career took off two years later with the folk film, Pathala Bhairavi. He carved himself a niche, playing a host of gods from the Hindu pantheon, and is best remembered for his roles as Krishna.
Along with mythological sagas, films with social messages and folk themes established NTR as a hero of the masses, and a household name in the Telugu-speaking world, much like what MGR was in Tamil Nadu. And then, in 1982, he made a rock-star entry into politics. It started, Kandula writes, when a film journalist asked him: “As you are going to celebrate your shashtipoorthi, would you consider doing something lasting for the public?”
The similarities in the political ascendancy of Modi and NTR are many. Both were sexagenarians with a larger-than-life image; both seen as outsiders to the place they staked power. NTR lived in Madras, now Chennai, the hub for the film industry in the south, till 1982. Both decimated the Congress, their main opposition, causing a fundamental reordering of Indian politics. Just as Modi unleashed a lightning campaign ahead of the 2014 Parliamentary polls, NTR roared through the hinterlands of Andhra Pradesh, covering more than 75,000 km, on his Chaithanya Ratham, a refurbished Chevrolet van, during his first election campaign in 1983. Those journeys—where he’d ride on the roof of the van with his actor-son at the wheel—were a heady mix of cinema, politics and religion, and won him a massive and loyal vote bank.
Since the state’s formation in 1956, the Congress had been in power in undivided Andhra Pradesh, a state that had often served as its life jacket, keeping the party afloat when it was losing elsewhere. Even in 1977, when the Congress under Indira Gandhi was at its most unpopular post-Emergency, the party was elected in all except one seat in the state. This was the party that NTR took on.
Both Modi and NTR understood the nuances of populism and effective political communication. If Modi’s ‘New India’ pitch began with choosing Varanasi as his seat, NTR chose the temple town of Tirupati for his debut in the 1983 assembly polls after founding the Telugu Desam Party.
During his campaign, NTR appealed to regional self-pride, and pointed to the many shortcomings of the Congress, its corruption and its complacency. But while he hurled the choicest of abuses at Congress leaders, he never named them, Kandula writes. “Even while making evocative speeches about Telugu cultural nationalism, NTR came up with a string of promises that strengthened the party’s image as a ‘party of the poor’. The most important of these was the ‘ ₹2 per kg’ rice scheme,” he adds.
The Left and the Congress dismissed NTR as a rookie in 1983 as did most of the media. “Showmanship has no place in politics,” the book quotes Indira Gandhi as having said in her last speech on the 1983 campaign trail. Soon after this speech, half of her audience left to see NTR’s Chaitanya Ratham rolling into town.
The next day, on the eve of the election, Indira Gandhi went to inaugurate the Indian Science Congress in Tirupati, while NTR got his head tonsured and worshipped at the Balaji temple. When the ballots opened, NTR’s barely nine-month-old TDP stormed to power in Andhra Pradesh.
NTR became the state’s first non-Congress chief minister. After the general elections in 1984, the TDP went on to become the main opposition to the Congress in the Lok Sabha, among the first regional parties to do so. The most important political legacy of the actor-turned-politician, Kandula notes, was his role as the “only leader who brought the antagonistic Left and the BJP on the same platform in pursuit of a single goal”, paving the way for a united opposition against the Congress at the Centre. When the National Front was formed in 1989, NTR was unanimously elected as chairman and V.P. Singh its convenor.
NTR’s opponents nicknamed him ‘Drama Rao’ but the actor-politician understood the power of grand gesture and theatrics to win love, fealty and power. His fans and voters cut across class and religion. It was his game-plan that resulted in the resignation of 106 opposition members from 12 parties in the Lok Sabha in July 1989 when Rajiv Gandhi refused to step down following the Bofors scandal. The Congress, called an early election to both the Lok Sabha and Andhra Pradesh assembly in November 1989. NTR was decimated in both polls and lost a chance to become deputy prime minister in the National Front headed by V.P. Singh, Kandula observes.
Today, NTR retains a demigod status, but his 14 years in power were spent staving off attacks from within and outside his party. After the first seven years when the party gained strength, NTR spent most of his time trying to retain his base. Though known for his schemes for social welfare and property rights, the economy and industry suffered during his time. Farmers migrated and the police were given a free rein to counter naxals, which often meant poor citizens were caught in the crossfire.
“The whimsical attitude he had displayed and the political excesses that he had committed were too many by this time to rescue him from imminent disaster,” notes Kandula. The attention to detail that policy and governance demand was not his strength. Narendra Luther, an IAS officer, tells the author: “NTR was used to solving problems in three hours—the average length of a Telugu movie.”
By the 1990s, NTR’s health was failing, and in 1993, at the age of 70, he married Lakshmi Parvati, 38. His second wife’s ascent within the party distanced NTR, not only from his 11 children but also from his political allies in the Left and the Janata Dal.
NTR’s son-in-law and current chief of TDP, Chandrababu Naidu, who’d been waiting in the wings to lead the party, felt the insecurity most keenly. When NTR was asleep one night, Naidu, along with others in the family, orchestrated a palace coup never seen before, or since, in India’s political history.
This chapter in the life of NTR is a cracker of a read. It gives a blow-by-blow account of what transpired on that night of 24 August 1995. The operation included airlifting the assembly speaker to Hyderabad, anointing Naidu as the party leader, innovating upon the now-famous ‘resort politics’ that NTR had invented, and racing against time to call on the Governor before the NTR team to effect the power transfer—all before the crack of the dawn.
It is a story that intercuts between the man and the myth that is NTR, and the emergence of another fantastical political tale—that of Chandrababu Naidu. Like NTR, he rode high on populism once, and has now been side-lined by the younger Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy. Like a good Telugu film, there is never a dull moment in the state’s politics.
Nidheesh MK is a journalist and analyst with a keen interest in politics and society of southern India.