: WELL, IT might be easier now to persuade the media that Andhra Pradesh is slightly bigger than Hyderabad. Two months after the polls, the media barely mention Chandrababu Naidu. The most written about Indian politician has vanished from their vision. Post-poll analyses have debated whether the national mandate was against Hindutva or for the reforms. They've been mostly silent on Mr. Naidu. This is more out of embarrassment than introspection. After all, he was the poster boy of the neo-liberal economic reforms.

Still, a look at the myth of Mr. Naidu is key to grasping a lot of things. Including the gigantic crisis crippling Andhra Pradesh today. On most indicators, he ran the worst performing state in the south of India for nearly 10 years. Yet the more damage he did, the more his media standing grew. The gap between his image and his record is stunning.

No other figure in Indian politics got the kind of press that Mr. Naidu did. The `miracle man.' The `GeneratioNext CM,' and, of course, `The CEO of Andhra Pradesh.' A larger than life image held up by huge spending on self-publicity helped this along. Ad-gurus from Mumbai flew in to foster it. Our media lapped it up. And starry-eyed journalists from The New York Times, The Financial Times and heaps of other places, weighed in with their bit.

Take 2002 for instance. Top international journals were scripting the Naidu-namah. Hyderabad was full of their hacks. One of them all but asked the Third World to pray for leaders like Mr. Naidu. That his regime had just chalked up growth of - 17. 06 per cent in agriculture seemed hardly to matter. The image was the thing. When the media dealt with Mr. Naidu, facts were irrelevant. As the founder of Private Eye once said: "Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story." That was the editor of a satirical journal speaking half in jest. Our own editors applied that dictum with real zest and no trace of humour.

Had another Chief Minister taken on an Alyque Padamsee to give him an image makeover, we would never have heard the end of it. The media saw nothing wrong in Mr. Naidu doing this. Wasn't he, after all, the ultimate brand?

It's telling that what passed for critical press scrutiny first appeared after the exit polls suggested he was headed for defeat. Even then, there were those asserting the coast would stand by him in the second round of voting. How could it be otherwise? Hadn't he done such great work?

Mr. Naidu began with much goodwill. (Earned by the public's acceptance of him as N.T. Rama Rao's true successor.) His energy, his attitude towards technology (if not his grasp of it) seemed refreshing at the time. All of this went down well. As did his impatience with bureaucracy. But in the next few years, it became clear that the policies driven by that enthusiasm were disastrous for millions of poor people in his state. However, the more he disconnected from the poor, the more the corporate world loved him. He was now the champion of `the reforms.' The darling of international donors.

Endorsements from the World Bank, Bill Gates, Bill Clinton and assorted other billionaires further puffed his image - that of a selfless CEO slaving through sleepless nights to lead his dumb masses to enlightenment. All the evidence to the contrary seemed not to shake this. A few thousand farmers taking their own lives did fray the image for some. But mostly, as is now painfully clear, the media failed the challenge of that issue. Again, a couple of such stories did make the front pages outside the state - after the exit polls.

Even the stories that did appear were shallow. Most reduced the suicides to solely an outcome of drought. A lazy way of dodging the many factors behind them. On the whole, a sloppy sycophancy affected media across the board.

Keith Bradsher, for instance, is an award-winning investigative journalist. You'd think he would show some scepticism. But no. There was no place for that in the Naidu-namah. You came to this shrine to worship. Take this howler from Mr. Bradsher on Mr. Naidu in The New York Times (Dec. 27, 2002): "The party's hold on power seems secure in Andhra Pradesh, partly because Mr. Naidu and his allies speak Telugu, a language spoken only in this state and by a few people in two adjacent states."

Really? What language do Mr. Naidu's rivals speak? Esperanto? (Never mind that the party's hold on power being secure seems, 18 months later, like famous last words.) The year that report ran was one that saw a rush of farmers' suicides in the state. Mr. Bradsher's piece approves of Mr. Naidu's having "come close to balancing the state budget." It does not say a word about his gigantic borrowings. From the World Bank and other sources, and the effect that it is likely to have on many budgets to come. Mr. Bradsher also wrote that Andhra Pradesh was on its way to being "an international model for certain public policies."

A hard-headed publication like The Financial Times fell in line. (May 2, 2003.) It had no qualms about suggesting: "In a country where lower caste women are locked out of decision-making, the government of Andhra Pradesh is sponsoring a social revolution." This was happening in "thousands of villages" in the state. This, of Andhra Pradesh, where the panchayats were shut out and destroyed by Mr. Naidu's schemes. The FT correspondent even found a village where women "who had for generations stayed indoors without voice or influence, now dominate the village square."

The Wall Street Journal saw him as "a model for fellow state leaders." Time magazine declared him `South Asian of The Year' as early as 1999. Newsweek responded by crediting Mr. Naidu with a Ph.D. he does not have.

In the Indian media, the breathless awe and wonder was over the top. Yelling "IT' and "software" often enough became a substitute for actual performance in those vital fields. Andhra Pradesh did not lead the nation. But media audiences thought it did. The state was not even in the top three. And was slipping in the ranks.

This is also a state whose literacy levels are the worst in the south and lag behind the national average. A glance at the (Tata) Statistical Outline of India would show this: Even Cyberabad's literacy is behind that of Patna, Ranchi, Bhopal, Indore, Jabalpur and Jaipur. And that's the rating of Mr. Naidu's showpiece.

It's a state where millions of children are outside school. A state that has the largest number of child labourers in the country. And one where close to 90 per cent of rural workers are either illiterate or educated only up to the primary level.

Employment growth saw a drastic decline in the Naidu era. In rural Andhra Pradesh, it was 2.40 per cent per annum in the decade before him. It fell to 0.29 per cent during 1994-2000. This was a worse decline than that seen in the rest of India. The rate of growth of real wages in rural areas fell sharply in the 1990s.

What the media fondly called "one of the fastest-growing states" was really stumbling. The growth of GDP was just around 5 per cent for 1994-2001. Lowest among the southern states. Lower than the national average. Lower than what the same state had posted during 1981-91. Economists C. Mahendra Dev and C. Ravi show that "in the 1980s, A.P. was one of the top performing states in terms of Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) growth. Only three states, Rajasthan, Haryana and Maharashtra, showed higher growth than A.P. in the 1980s." However, this rank sank from number four to eight in the next decade. "Seven states showed higher growth than A.P. in the 1990s." The state was overtaken by Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamilnadu and West Bengal.

This was the one state in the south that showed no improvement in its Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) between the first and second National Family Health Surveys. (Those came out in the early and late 1990s.) Indeed, its IMR of 65 is slightly worse than Bihar (62) on this count.

Small farmers did badly everywhere in the country in the 1990s. But it was in Andhra Pradesh that they committed suicide in thousands. The years of hostile policy still take a toll. (The suicides continue in the weeks after Mr. Naidu's exit. And there is a Kafkaesque touch to his standing up in the state Assembly demanding a decent deal for the farmers.)

Through it all, Naidu-worship in the media only grew. With not an iota of scepticism. The media bios of Naidu called him the son of a "poor agriculturist." Or of a "small farmer." Or of a "modest farmer." How the modest farmer and his spouse came to be worth Rs. 21 crores after nine years in power is a mystery no one wants to solve. That's the figure you'll find in his poll-time declaration of assets. But no questions. The king could do no wrong. (Courtesy: The Hindu)