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S U B C O N T I N E N T A L   D R I F T
South Asian of the Year: Chandrababu Naidu
A provincial politician from southern India became a beacon of hope for us all
By APARISIM GHOSH

December 31, 1999
Web posted at 5 a.m. Hong Kong time, 4 p.m. EDT


When I first met Chandrababu Naidu, in the summer of 1986, he didn't make much of an impression. He was then the consummate backroom politician, pulling strings in the Telugu Desam Party led by his father-in-law, the former movie star N.T. Rama Rao. Naidu then had a reputation for Machiavellian scheming, using more stick than carrot to keep TDP legislators from bolting to the rival Congress Party. If he had any grand vision for his home state, Andhra Pradesh, he certainly kept it well hidden.

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And look at him now: he's the subcontinent's most visionary politician. In just five years, he has turned an impoverished, rural backwater into India's new information-technology hub (Bye-bye Bangalore, Hello Hyderabad!). More than that, he has shaken up the state's moribund administration into the most efficient civil service in South Asia.

TIME has reported previously on Naidu's astonishing remodeling of Andhra Pradesh. I'll confine myself to his most important achievement in 1999: being reelected. In October, voters returned his TDP for another five-year term. Despite running a pork-free election campaign (while his rival Congress Party was promising voters free electricity), Naidu won by a landslide.

That victory was a watershed in South Asian politics: it proved that economic reforms are not ballot-box poison. Weaning a people away from a 50-year diet of socialism and populism can be a painful business, and many politicians are reluctant to administer the bitter medicine of reform for fear that voters might turn against them. Naidu's victory was a reassuring message to other would-be reformers: and it could not have been delivered at a more opportune time. In the same election, two of the men responsible for kick-starting India's reforms in the early 1990s -- former finance ministers Manmohan Singh and Palaniappan Chidambaram -- were rejected by voters. The man who encouraged them to think out of the socialistic box, former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, now languishes in political limbo.

Just as important, Naidu gave all South Asians hope that even a thoroughly discredited political establishment can, on occasion, produce leaders with vision and vigor. This, too, was a timely message: subcontinental politics has sunk to new lows in recent years, encouraging many people to wonder if their destiny might not be more secure in the hands of military dictators. Naidu reminded us that we're best served by people who depend on our approval.

Oh, and another thing: Naidu taught me not to blindly follow my first impressions.

For all those reasons, Subcontinental Drift declares Chandrababu Naidu as (cue fanfare) the South Asian of the Year, 1999.

Now, over to the man himself. Since Naidu is known as India's first information-age politician, we thought it would be appropriate to interview him over e-mail. Excerpts:

TIME: Your reelection in Andhra Pradesh was seen as proof that economic reform, as painful as it is, can be a vote-winner in India. To what extent do you attribute your success to your reforms?
Naidu: I attribute my success to the performance of the TDP government in addressing the genuine needs and aspirations of the people of Andhra Pradesh. I firmly believe that reforms in all facets of governance are essential if we are to achieve a position of leadership and excellence in times to come. We cannot accelerate the pace of our development and eradicate poverty without undertaking broad-based reforms covering the wide canvas of economic, social and political systems. However, the process of reforms has to be moderated in a manner that addresses the human concerns of people likely to be affected by the reform process. I have consciously tried to focus on the human aspects of the reform process in order to ensure that the transition from the past to the future is smooth and least disruptive of peoples' lives. Each reform taken up by us has been preceded by a protracted process of active consultation with all sections of the people so as to evolve a consensus on the necessity of undertaking the reforms. It is for this reason, that there has been little resistance from the public against the decisions that government has been required to take up in the best interests of the state.

I feel that one critical element of good governance is consensus building. Consequently, there is a need for building consensus through transparency and generation of public awareness while going through any radical program of reforms. I attribute my success primarily to being able to communicate with the people the true nature and purpose of reforms. It has been easy to succeed in the elections once people have been convinced about the necessity of the steps being taken by government to usher in reforms.

TIME: You've become a star, which is rare for a politician in India. Most Indians seem to admire and trust you -- which is even rarer. How does this make you feel?
Naidu: The trust and affection that I have earned from the people of my state casts a heavy burden on me to meet the high expectations from the public at large. I also feel humble, as ultimately I cannot succeed without the support and commitment of a large number of people in the state. It is of course very inspiring and motivating to have public support and encouragement for my endeavors.

TIME: After your election victory, many commentators predicted that other chief ministers would be inspired by your example and pursue economic reforms in their states. Is this happening? Do you get calls from other CMs, asking for advice and guidance?
Naidu: I strongly believe that once we succeed in making Andhra Pradesh a role model, other states will certainly emulate our example just as we would be very happy to adopt policies and strategies that have been successful in other states. There have been a number of Chief Ministers who have announced publicly that they would like to follow the Andhra Pradesh example.

TIME: What is your vision for Andhra Pradesh: what kind of state will it be, say, 20 years from now?
Naidu: Our vision of Andhra Pradesh is a state where poverty is totally eradicated; where every man, woman and child has access to not just the basic minimum needs, but to all the opportunities to lead a happy and fulfilling life; a knowledge and learning society built on the values of hard work, honesty, discipline and a collective sense of purpose.

TIME: The BJP-led coalition government in Delhi needs your support to stay in power. This gives you enormous (if indirect) clout in the governing of the country. How do you intend to use this power?
Naidu: I personally feel that an overemphasis on the politics of power can prove counterproductive in our efforts to achieve development. The people of Andhra Pradesh have given me a clear mandate based on performance. Our work is clearly cut out for us and we cannot afford to waste even a moment in trying to realize our goal of Swarna (Golden) Andhra Pradesh. I am confident that our success in transforming Andhra Pradesh will motivate other states to emulate our policies and programs. Once we achieve success in Andhra Pradesh, pressures will build up in other parts of the country to achieve higher levels of efficiency and performance.

TIME: What are your expectations from the BJP-led government? What policies, specifically, would you like New Delhi to implement or change?
Naidu: Our expectations from the BJP-led government are essentially focused on accelerating the country's development on a wide range of parameters. Most significantly, we expect major reforms which will enable India to participate in the emerging information economy. India is a country with a large reservoir of skills and expertise and a rich endowment of natural resources. The government has to provide the right ambiance and the proper environment to enable Indians to realize their true potential. Indians have been doing extremely well in other countries. However, restrictive government policies and lack of a forward looking mindset have been major obstacles toward higher levels of performance within the country. It is high time that the government starts seriously strategizing about the future in order to ensure that India occupies its rightful place in the comity of nations.

I have been urging the government of India to bring about major changes in policies relating to information technology. I believe that the most important parameters that will determine success of nations in times to come will be bandwidth per capita and percentage of GNP spent on education. It is therefore these areas that deserve to be addressed in all earnestness so that we can benefit from the window of opportunity, which the emerging information economy will offer. The telecommunications sector needs to be deregulated quickly and massive investments on telecommunications infrastructure need to be made so that the country can benefit from the opportunities, for example, in IT-related services as also from programs like distance education.

TIME: How long do you plan to concentrate on Andhra Pradesh politics? Do you intend to move to Delhi at some point?
Naidu: I have no ambitions of moving to Delhi. My basic commitment is to make a difference to the lives of the common people of Andhra Pradesh. I am sure that if I succeed in achieving my goal of transforming the state of Andhra Pradesh other states in the country will follow.

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