By Aman Basha
Remembering the man who changed the history and cinema of a state and left an impact on a nation
May 28 this year marks a special event for the Telugu states. What has been till now, an annual celebration for the Telugu Desam Party and their cadre, promises to be the grand culmination of successive events held across the world to celebrate the centenary of a man, a film star who not only ruled the film industry for 30 years defining mythology for the 20th century generation but also transformed the destiny and place of his native state and people as their most popular leader.
NT Rama Rao is known for all this and more, but amidst these centenary celebrations, what is little discussed is Rama Rao’s national legacy. This is by design in today’s times, as NTR’s legacy in some ways undermines the prime national parties, both BJP and Congress in different ways.
When he first entered politics at the age of 60 after quitting cinema and starting a new political outfit, all of NTR’s fierce fury was reserved for the Indira Gandhi led Congress, the political hegemony in India and even more so in Andhra Pradesh, where they had not lost a single election.
This political monopoly stunted the state, which ranked low on many indices yet was also prone to frequent political instability as with the frequent change of CM under the High Command.
Taking inspiration from both the DMK and ADMK in Tamil Nadu, NT Rama Rao launched a campaign to reclaim and restore Telugu pride. The charisma of Indira Gandhi, especially more so in Telugu land, fell short in front of the matinee idol who delivered every speech like a movie dialogue in that brass baritone.
The people of Andhra Pradesh were swept in euphoria when their beloved movie star came to every nook of the state atop an old Chevrolet automobile dubbed “Chaitanya Ratham”, traversing nearly 35,000 km. It was also the first time that a political party in India took out such a large mass contact programme to the people with such success.
Some observers also contend that after Gandhi, Rama Rao was the first politician to use the padayatra concept. Countless politicians across the ideological spectrum since have padayatra-ed their way to power.
As Rajinikanth memorably said, people jumped out of their seats in shock when the 1982 election results were announced and a 9 month old TDP swept to power in a landslide and NTR was sworn in as Chief Minister.
Unlike MGR whose party base comprised the erstwhile Tamil Nadu Congress and often acted as a Congress junior partner, supporting the Emergency, Rama Rao took his fight to the Centre, organizing the first pan India opposition summits in Vijayawada after the Janata debacle. His anti Congress politics made him stand with both the BJP and the Communists on the same stage, though his heart leaned in one direction so much that he once described Lords Rama and Krishna as leftists by thought.
Rattled by this upstart’s tendency to punch above his weight, the Congress set about taking steps to pull Rama Rao down from power in a situation eerily reminiscent of another major state today, where an ill Chief Minister temporarily relinquishes power to recuperate and his crafty deputy conspires with the party at the Centre to engineer enough MLA defections to collapse the government all with the center appointed Governor’s immoral blessings.
What was even worse about the Rama Rao coup was that the defected MLAs were not enough to make the incumbent lose his majority. As a still ailing Rama Rao gathered his flock and waited to prove his majority, all sorts of bizarre tricks were used to break them. Rama Rao and his MLAs were escorted from the Governor’s house in police vans when they stood out to prove their majority. Meanwhile the Governor swore in a new government.
Realizing that Hyderabad was now a stalemate, NTR pulled a masterstroke of shifting the action to Delhi. Parading his MLAs while on a wheelchair pushed Indira Gandhi on the defensive in the public eye and he was finally granted the opportunity to officially prove his majority in the Assembly.
Hyderabad was turned into a ghost city as NTR arrived. Communal riots had broken up, alleged to be engineered by Congress leaders in their old methods of pulling down governments and now intimidate the TDP.
The Assembly was even worse, with the treasury benches filled with Congressmen disrupting the session in every way possible, going to the extent of insulting Rama Rao in an attempt to provoke him and conveniently get their speaker of choice Owaisi Sr to suspend him, As Arun Shourie (invited by NTR as an observer) later said, few politicians showed the restraint that NTR displayed that day. His restraint paid off and he was reinstated to his rightful place.
Amidst this battle, Rama Rao faced the greatest loss with his wife Basavatarakam succumbing to cancer. Basavatarakam stood with her husband through thick and thin, even as he pledged sanyas while taking office. In her memory, the Basavatarakam Indo American Cancer Hospital was built in Hyderabad helping countless poor cancer patients to this day.
These events only hardened NT Rama Rao’s resolve to partake in national politics, taking the Chaitanya Ratham to Assam and even Haryana, campaigning against the Congress across the nation.
The coup against NTR also brought the role of the governor under the scanner and the Sarkaria Commission was formed, with the TDP co-operating extensively. After successive governments, the Sarkaria report is still unimplemented.
Much before 2014, the vision of a Congress Mukt Bharat was already articulated by a regional heavyweight. This same heavyweight also stoked controversy when he suggested that the Centre was mithya, non-existent in the Constitution as India is described as a Union of States. 40 years after Rama Rao’s statement was condemned by Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi uttered these same words in Parliament.
Post the Janata Party, NTR succeeded in forming another umbrella coalition of non Congress parties, taking the post of coalition president and his confidant Upendra as General Secretary. In fact, after the Rajiv landslide of 1984, the TDP was the main opposition party in the Lok Sabha. The dramatic resignation of Opposition MPs in protest of Bofors was also the film star’s brainchild.
NTR’s attempts at projecting himself as a national leader took a bizarre turn in 1989 when he started the Hindi-Telugu bilingual Brahmarishi Vishwamitra, acting in and directing while still Chief Minister. Amidst state wide turmoil, images of costumed NTR signing and reviewing official documents projected the same unease that pervaded leaders of the national opposition as they awkwardly watched the inaugural shot of Viswamitra and Menaka in romance.
While the National Front stormed to power in 1989, NTR was defeated in a stunning upset pushed away by a Telugu populace tired of the constant bickering between Centre and State. Despite his initial pan Telugu appeal and attempt to go pan India, NTR’s TDP was branded a party of the Kammas after caste riots and the death of Vangaveeti Ranga. Much of NTR’s policy too was caught between either the court or the governor.
The founder and president of the National Front, thus had to sit out of his own government. Yet Rama Rao still dreamt of a role in national politics, even in face of all sorts of gossip and hearsay published about him in the national media. He was no doubt eccentric (carrying his mother’s ashes in a locket), but marrying a 13 year old to become PM or practicing necromancy was extreme.
Much of these rumors were propagated by the Encounter magazine and picked up by national media. The TDP alleged that the team behind Encounter and against NTR were part of a Brahminical conspiracy to damage the radical policy the new government offered. The editor was later stabbed dead by unknown assassins.
The elite opposition to NTR though had a ring of truth; right from his 70s movies, Rama Rao was increasingly influenced by Dravidian ideology and Tripuraneni’s radical framework in depicting upper castes.
The TDP vote bank consisted of the Backward Castes and Rama Rao saw himself as their messiah, dressing himself as Swami Vivekananda to announce BC reservations. The furious government employees stormed NTR’s office and abused him in protest, this unparalleled incident just an example of the animus against the new CM.
This was not the only time he butted heads with bureaucracy; the earliest support for the coup against NTR came from the officers who were peeved over the reduction in retirement age. This and the terror that the Lokayuta unleashed against corrupt officers tightened the screws on them considerably. In an administration where the CM actively took part in stinging his own ministers with bribes, everyone had to be on their toes.
Even his detractors could not help but admit that he ran one of the cleanest and least corrupt administrations in the country. There could be no other way to implement the ambitious welfare schemes Rama Rao envisioned for Andhra Pradesh. There was of course the mid day meal scheme inspired from Tamil Nadu, but the most famous was the promise to sell 1 kg rice at Rs.2 to the poor.
This revolutionary welfarist initiative was successfully implemented by a politician taking power for the first time and transformed the culinary habits of his state. Of course, this decision too can be criticized from the prism of caste, that NTR was deliberately procuring such a massive quantity of rice as it was grown in the Krishna Godavari delta, benefiting his own caste, who were the main landholders there.
Today, some form of this subsidized rice scheme is implemented in almost every part of India, either at the state or central level.
All this welfarism could pigeonhole the NTR administration as one whose achievements were the now pejorative “revadi culture”. This was far from the truth. P Sainath notes that Andhra’s GSDP grew much faster under NTR than under Chandrababu. Much of Hyderabad’s infrastructure today was built in this term, from the Gandhi Bus Station, then India’s largest bus station to much of the public spaces around Hussain Sagar and of course, the iconic Buddha statue in the middle of Hussain Sagar.
Not just Hyderabad, even Chennai owes some to its erstwhile resident who fast tracked the Telugu Ganga irrigation supplying water to then Madras.
The Telugu States today are well known across the world for its large engineer population, now settled all across the world with Telugites like Satya Nadella becoming CEOs of MNCs. Incidentally, Nadella’s father and father-in-law both worked closely with NTR as bureaucrats and were in charge of the Rs 2 rice scheme.
The NTR administration introduced the Common Entrance Test for universities and expanded education facilities across the state, especially for women, a core NTR vote bank. Rama Rao was not the women’s favorite star, that was the softer ANR, but in politics, few leaders commanded the female following he did. In return, he worked to amend Hindu succession laws and give women equal inheritance rights for the first time in India, and introduced reservations for women in local bodies.His second term from 1994 didn’t last long, but even here he still wanted to go national, planning to rename Telugu Desam as Bharata Desam and trying to recruit Rajinikanth to spearhead the Tamil Nadu wing.
Accustomed to NTR’s proclivity to play multiple roles, the Telugu populace was open to Rama Rao’s sartorial shifts, this was after all the man who played the Buddha, Adi Shankara, Ramanuja and Vemana in the same film. One day, he’d dress like Vivekananda and the other wearing an elaborate arrangement of ear rings. This extravagant fashion sense was mocked, quite unlike a certain someone today, yet NTR was unfazed reportedly even demonstrating the difference of wearing a dhoti when one is rajarshi, as he called himself versus being a sanyasi.
NTR’s saffron clothing and divine image was no barrier to his fight against orthodoxy. He held onto his opposition and contempt for godmen, including the famous Sathya Sai Baba even during office and raked major controversy when he attempted to bring the Tirupati Temple’s funds under the Government.
It was also under Rama Rao that Hyderabad saw a major break from the frequent communal riots that broke out under the Congress. He also nearly broke the MIM by engineering a split within them against Owaisi.
All this should have endeared him to the BJP, who were his electoral allies at a point. Yet the much lobbied Bharat Ratna is yet to be bestowed. This unease with Rama Rao may have something to do with the image below, of a saffron robe clad NTR reading the namaz.
NTR was religious in a way few others were, but he also called himself staunchly secular. Few within the National Front were as against Advani’s Rath Yatra as he was, even blaming it for the fall of VP Singh’s government. He also swore to never ally with the BJP again, a position he stuck to till the end.
This stand perhaps helps explain why the TDP was perhaps the only BJP ally to still garner nearly 40% of the muslim vote. Rama Rao was also the earliest leader to condemn Operation Bluestar and Hyderabad, along with Kolkata, were some of the few cities that did not witness anti Sikh violence after Indira Gandhi’s death.
Despite calling himself a leftist and using the left hand as abhaya hasta while playing Lord Krishna, Rama Rao’s action against the naxalites, his inherent religiosity and encouragement of private enterprise did not make him close to the communists. While wearing saffron robes in office and playing God for decades, his secular personality and radical outlook that challenged religious orthodoxy was no fit for the Hindutva right.
Yet as his centenary is celebrated across the world and his beloved Telugu States, the richest tributes came from Venkaiah Naidu of the BJP and Sitaram Yechury of the CPM. For an actor who could play Duryodhana, Karna and Krishna in one shot, ideological flexibility came easily. His legacy pervades both Andhra and Telangana politics today, the TDP as the main opposition in Andhra and the rising star minister of Telangana, KTR named in his honour.
NTR may not have received his due from the nation, but his role in national politics remains underrated to this day. Like his star role of Lord Krishna, he steered the way for the welfarist, federal India, hewing closer to the ideals in the Constitution, a text Rama Rao held as dearly to his heart as he did the Gita.
- https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/ntr-was-a-trendsetter-in-implementing-pro-people-reforms/article65654587.ece (Venkaiah Naidu)
- https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/cover-story/story/19941215-narasimha-rao-has-mortgaged-the-country-to-the-foreigners-says-nt-rama-rao-810023-1994-12-14 (NTR interview, note how the heart patient septugenerian calls the Congress leaders lifeless)