In the 1970s, Muppavarapu Venkaiah Naidu was a rare politician in Andhra Pradesh politics. He was a member of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the earlier avatar of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), when in southern India the Jana Sangh was perceived as primarily north India based, a Brahmin-Baniya party with no rural roots and a party that talked of Hindi’s superiority over other regional languages. But most of all, Jana Sangh was seen as a party that derided non-vegetarianism.
A young Naidu was convinced that much of the criticism of Jana Sangh stemmed from lack of awareness about the party. However, Naidu loved his food and it troubled him when the party’s wall writings would be defaced by its rivals. In Andhra Pradesh, rivals would prefix a ‘bho’ with Jana Sangh’s ‘jana’ to mock its apparent belief in ‘bhojana’, or vegetarianism.
When a senior politician he respected also brought it up to convince the firebrand student leader to quit Jana Sangh, Naidu checked with his Sangh Parivar mentor. He was told vegetarianism, as practiced in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates, was primarily utilitarian, since it was cheaper. The Sangh Parivar then had shoestring budgets and preparing for non-vegetarians meant cooking two dishes instead of one.
With his doubts allayed, Naidu stuck with the Jana Sangh. He had been a swayamsevak in his younger days. He was a student leader of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the RSS’ students wing, took part in the anti-Emergency ‘JP movement’ and was imprisoned during the Emergency years. In 1978, Naidu was elected a Janata Party legislator. He joined BJP when it was founded in April 1980, rising to be the youngest national president of the party at the age of 52 in 2002.
“I couldn’t believe when I sat on the dais between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani. I had grown up idolising the two and there was a time when I would up paste their posters on the walls,” Naidu recently told people. He also doesn’t tire of pointing out that he, a son of a humble farmer, could rise to become a top leader because the BJP is a rare party with internal democracy.
Apart from two stints as a legislator from Udaygiri constituency in Nellore in 1978 and 1983, Naidu is a four-term Rajya Sabha member. He was the rural development minister in the Vajpayee government. Naidu was the parliamentary affairs minister in the first two years of the Modi government, before being moved to the Information and Broadcasting portfolio, while continuing to keep the Urban Development portfolio.
It is this nearly 40-year long legislative experience, with friendships that he has struck with leaders of all hues, that should help Naidu conduct Rajya Sabha proceedings, where BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is in minority and unlikely to cross the halfway mark until 2022. The Vice President is also the chairperson of the Rajya Sabha. But Naidu considers the loyalty to his party the leitmotif of his political career.
Naidu lost his mother when he was barely 18-months old. She was gored by a buffalo. He was raised by his relatives, but says he considered his party his mother and devoted all his waking hours to party work. He has a son and a daughter and several grandchildren. Neither of his two children are in politics, according to a pact between the father and them that they would stay away as long as he is in active politics. So rare were his visits home as party president that one of his grandchildren would refer to him as “TV dada”, since she got to see him more often on television.
Naidu’s organisational skills were noticed early in the party when he came to New Delhi in the early-1990s as its general secretary, and started spring cleaning the party offices and introduced younger blood in the party hierarchy. A non-Hindi speaker, a tip from senior leader Murli Manohar Joshi that he should use alliterations and witticisms helped Naidu become fluent in Hindi and standout as an effective orator.
Naidu is also somebody who has kept pace with the times. He is fond of recalling how as part of the Jai Andhra movement of 1972, his activist friends and he would search for Hindi signboards in their district to paint these black to mark their protest. There were few, barely two – at the post office and the railway station. While opposed to imposition of Hindi, Naidu is known to ask youngsters joining politics or professions that involve public dealing to learn Hindi if they want to be accepted across India.
There was also a time when Naidu and others would campaign against technology and machines. “Automation anti-nation” was the slogan. “But political parties and ideologies have to be dynamic and respond to the times,” Naidu often says, pointing to how his Marxist friends have failed to adapt.
In the past three years, Naidu has emerged as one of the foremost admirers of the PM and has coined the phrase “MODI: Making of Developed India”. This eulogy aside, Naidu is known to be indefatigable and affable, two qualities that should help him meet the challenge that his party would continue to face in Rajya Sabha. The good news, however, is that Rajya Sabha proceedings might just become funnier. Five years of Venkaiah-isms, alliterations and witticisms await 245 members of the Upper House and all of us.