HYDERABAD, INDIA — In India he is all the talk: a startling can-do leader, a new breed of laptop-toting visionary, a kingmaker, and maybe a future king. In the often petty, patronage-larded world of India politics, there are few like him.
While Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is in New York this week sorting out the diplomatic tangles of his government's nuclear tests, the hottest politician in India is in Redmond, Wash., cutting deals with Bill Gates of Microsoft, visiting Mayor Rudolph Giuilani in New York, and selling his up-and-coming region of India to California's Silicon Valley.
His name is Chandrababu Naidu. Pay attention to it. In three years, this chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, a slightly backward state in the center of the country, has put Hyderabad, the once regal capital of India's largest Muslim state, on top of the country's business and quality-of-life map.
If a typical Indian chief minister starts work at 10, Mr. Naidu clocks in at 6. In a country where local pols avoid garbage-laden streets, Naidu seeks them out - once instantly firing an official who lagged in pushing for a cleanup.
Naidu - who has a scruffy beard, clear focus, and a penchant for new-age lingo like "envision" and "let's introspect" - has begun to shift India's top growth industry, high-tech, from India's silicon capital of Bangalore north to "Cyberabad," as Hyderabad is now dubbed.
In March, Naidu talked Microsoft owner Mr. Gates into opening his first R&D center outside the US in Hyderabad. Shortly after, software giant Oracle said it would join Microsoft in a new $850 million 10-story building known as Hi-Tec City, located just outside of town. IBM and Motorola have also signed on.
Hi-Tec City itself has become a symbol of all that is right with Hyderabad and Naidu. It features an open-air atrium the size of a football field. More telling, the independently run project went up in an unheard of 11 months - a testament to Naidu's slogan that it "isn't wealth that is needed, it is vision."
Across the street, by contrast, a state-run project, a fashion institute begun in 1996, sits half-finished, with rickety scaffolding. "Putting up a 10-story center in under a year is nothing less than a miracle in India," says T.H. Chowdary, an information- technology adviser to the government of Andhra Pradesh.
Being in the right place at the right time helps. Pressed to soak up the wealth of graduates from the dozens of engineering schools in the city, Naidu was able to offer a talented pool of employees to newcomer companies. Other Naidu successes have tallied thick and fast. So have enemies. Naidu's policies, and sometimes his imperious edicts, challenge a red-tape wasteland of local-government and wealthy interests.
Tangible signs of progress
Naidu says that even if Indians don't like quick change, they will vote for him based on real results: "Those who perform will win. I am running on a track record of results and a philosophy that there is no substitute for hard work."
This summer Naidu gave voters something to chew on. In July he secured $350 million in World Bank loans for investment in roads and computers. In August, Andhra Pradesh, with a 40 percent literacy rate, was the first Indian state to go online. It is now possible to pay taxes and utility bills electronically instead of waiting in five different offices for pen-wielding clerks to write out a chit.
Hyderabad just outbid four cities, including Bombay and Bangalore, for an $80 million business school - financed by the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern University - that aims to be the finest in South Asia.
The Economic Times of India this month made Naidu its "Businessman of the Year." Pundits now call him the CEO of Andhra Pradesh, the Pentium premier.
"It's not a question of if he becomes prime minister of India, but when," states Sudhakar Reddy, chief of the Economic Times bureau in Hyderabad, and for two years a Naidu critic before changing his mind. "In no third-world countries does a top politician put development at the top of the agenda. Naidu does. He has changed the terms of what it means to be an Indian politician."
A new work ethic
Not surprisingly, the new attention paid to a small regional capital and its prodigy has created a buzz in Hyderabad. With airports and roads expanding, hotels cropping up every day, constant urges to turn Hyderabad into the main stop on the old Silk Road linking Europe and the markets of Singapore and Hong Kong - people are talking about their town in new ways.
"I have been a civil servant for 20 years and I've never seen people work beyond their normal hours," says an engineer in Hyderabad's municipal government. "There's a will to change. People want to be part of something. It isn't seen. But it is felt."
Hyderabad, a city of minarets and bazaars, has long been known for its eccentrics. Among them: Osman Ali Khan, the seventh Nizam and a princely ruler who failed in a revolt to avoid joining India in 1948. The Nizam had dozens of palaces and used the 185-carat Jacob's diamond as a paperweight. He was also a miser famous for smoking the butts of cigarettes dropped by his guests.
Then there was N.T. Rama Rao, who in the 1980s switched from being India's most worshiped film star - he played the gods Krishna and Rama - to being chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. Mr. Rao would campaign in the full costume of Rama. Quoting lines from the epic tales of the Mahabharata, he'd tell voters that his opposition was devilish.
One legacy of Rao was to marry his daughter off to an aspiring politician named Naidu. Naidu came from a tiny village and had no connections; friends say he is more remarkable for having worked his way up.
But even friends now worry about the emergence of Naidu as a one-man show that is not developing a second-tier leadership. Some question why Naidu, who earlier said he was "preparing a generation of voters ... beyond caste and class," joined his party to the new government in Delhi. India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has a history of anti-Muslim sentiment. The alliance is viewed bitterly by much of the 50-percent Muslim population in Hyderabad.
Some here attribute the link to brief riots in the city in June that were put down quickly after police shot 11 people.
Naidu says there is no alternative to the BJP if one is to do politics in India and that his alliance with BJP gives him leverage.
India's 'only '90s politician'
Naidu's moves include getting government offices "wired" and inaugurating a system of issuing certificates of registry - a boon to lower-caste Indians who cannot get government help without them.
Unlike his famous father-in-law, Naidu does not draw crowds or generate waves of emotional appeal. Everything is subordinated to "the vision" of turning Hyderabad into a Hong Kong.
Naidu banned the traditional placing of garlands on him at celebrity events and has taken to avoiding dinners and parties where politics is discussed.
"If you want to discuss development, if you want to talk about reform, he relishes it," says a friend. "If you want to talk about ... political gossip, he will tell you to leave."
"I have been studying history and found that all great leaders have something in common, a vision," Naidu says. "But beyond that, they had a plan. My plan is to learn from Singapore, from Malaysia, from Rudolph Giuliani, and to bring change to our 50-year old country. Most of us would prefer to argue or squabble rather than deal with substance."
Several minutes later Naidu leaves for his radio chat show, "Dial the CM."
As one Indian commentator put it, "He's our only '90s politician."