Far from playing the role of kingmakers at the Centre, Nara Chandrababu Naidu and K. Chandrasekhar Rao, the Chief Ministers of Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, had to bite the dust in their own States. They anticipated a hung Parliament and an overwhelming mandate in their favour in these States but comprehensively failed to gauge the voters’ mood.
Voters in Andhra Pradesh gave Telugu Desam Party (TDP) president N. Chandrababu Naidu the worst-ever drubbing in his four-decade-long career, preferring a novice such as Jaganmohan Reddy, the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) president, as Chief Minister. The mandate was so unambiguous that YSRCP candidates won in 22 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats 151 of the 175 Assembly seats in the State.
The election result was no less a rude shock for the other old warhorse, Chandrasekhara Rao. Of the 17 Lok Sabha seats in the State, his Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) won nine and conceded one to its ally, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM). The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won four seats and the Congress three. The result has not, however, made Chandrasekhara Rao’s government shaky. He will continue as Telangana’s satrap.
The double whammy for Chandrababu Naidu was not unexpected. A large number of pre-election surveys commissioned by national television channels had predicted that he would lose. But the magnitude of the TDP’s defeat left party leaders gasping. Almost all his Ministers, including his son, Nara Lokesh (Mangalagiri Assembly constituency), and the Assembly Speaker, Kodela Sivaprasada Rao (Sattenapalle), lost even as Chandrababu Naidu himself managed to win from Kuppam constituency by a reduced margin of 30,000 votes. Against three seats now, the TDP had bagged 15 Lok Sabha seats in Andhra Pradesh and, its ally, the BJP two in the previous elections.
His downfall became all the more humiliating because he had criss-crossed the country to mobilise support for an anti-BJP front even after exit polls on May 19 revealed that the TDP was on its way out. A high priest of technology among politicians who prided himself on encouraging global IT companies such as Microsoft, IBM, Dell and Deloitte to move to Hyderabad, Chandrababu Naidu tried but failed to garner support to junk the low-tech Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and the VVPATs (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails).
Chandrababu Naidu could not apparently sense the ground slipping from under his feet after he left the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and made no efforts to woo actor Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party, both of which, as allies, helped him defeat the YSRCP by a thin margin of 1.8 per cent in 2014.
Ten years ago, in 2009, Pawan Kalyan’s elder brother, “megastar” Chiranjeevi, helped the Congress defeat the TDP through his Praja Rajyam Party. He split the anti-Congress vote by polling 16.3 per cent of the votes. Led by the late Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy, the Congress managed to win 156 seats with a vote share of 36.6 per cent in a house of 294 in undivided Andhra Pradesh.
Chandrababu Naidu has none but himself to blame for his debacle. His rightful claim of being one the senior-most politicians in the country was not matched by his actions. His historic blunder in agreeing for the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh is well-documented. What his party may not accept as a blunder that contributed to his downfall was his flip-flop over the special category status issue, which greatly undermined his credibility.
After cosying up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chandrababu Naidu accepted the Centre’s decision that no more States (beyond the existing 11) would be given special category status. This diktat was based on the 14th Finance Commission’s recommendation to do away with the distinction between special category and non-special category States. It instead offered a special package similar to the one given to the northern-eastern States. Chandrababu Naidu accepted the new offer and announced naively that special category status was not a panacea for Andhra Pradesh’s ills. Facing all-round flak and pressure from the YSRCP, Chandrababu Naidu did another volte-face and made a strident pitch for special status.
Modi was firm in his stand that the Centre would not give special status to Andhra Pradesh under any circumstances. The special package, he argued, was a notch better because Andhra Pradesh would get a slew of top-class educational institutions, heavy industries and infrastructure projects. Modi could not oblige Chandrababu Naidu for another reason. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was already pressing the Centre for special status saying that all the natural resources had gone to Jharkhand after the bifurcation of Bihar.
Jagan’s debut on the big stage
Twenty three years younger than Chandrababu Naidu, Yeduguri Sandinti Jaganmohan Reddy was not weighed down by such complications. He was convinced of earning people’s affection by cloning his father’s popular programmes such as Arogyasri, the YSR government’s flagship programme for providing quality medical care to people living below the poverty line, and the ‘108’ emergency ambulance service, which became a role model for the rest of India.
According to Jagan’s election affidavit, 31 criminal cases are pending against him though he has not been convicted in any. These include 11 cases registered by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and seven by the Enforcement Directorate relating to money laundering, quid pro quo investments by individuals for favours they received when YSR was Chief Minister. A number of bureaucrats and top officers spent time in jail in these cases while Jagan himself was incarcerated for 16 months in 2012-13.
Jagan was desperate to become Chief Minister in 2009 immediately after YSR’s death in a helicopter crash so much so that he got a majority of Congress MLAs to sign a memorandum in his favour even before his father was buried. But the then Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, was equally adamant that he was too young and inexperienced to succeed his father. She installed two weak Chief Ministers, K. Rosaiah and N. Kiran Kumar Reddy, in quick succession and denied permission to Jagan to take out a State-wide “Odarpu yatra” (tour to console people who ended their lives after YSR’s death). He soon launched his own party, which spelled doom for the Congress in Andhra Pradesh.
The defeat in 2014 did not dishearten Jagan. He proved himself to be an indefatigable campaigner by undertaking Praja Sankalpa Yatra, a 3,648-km walkathon in a span of 14 months in Andhra Pradesh. During his padayatra, which evoked massive public response, Jagan could directly connect with lakhs of people, understand their problems and point out the government’s lapses on a range of issues—irrigation, subsidies for farmers, education, health and so on.
To Jagan should go the credit of hustling Chandrababu Naidu into committing mistakes over the special category status. By repeatedly taunting him for not pressing the Centre hard enough to give special category status which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had promised on the floor of Parliament, Jagan forced Chandrababu Naidu to perform a series of flip-flops and, in the process, lose his credibility.
Addressing his followers at the victory celebrations outside his residence at Tadepalli near Vijayawada, Jagan said: “This is a new chapter in the annals of Andhra Pradesh as we won 85 per cent of the Assembly seats. I reiterate that I will live up to the people’s expectations.”
The biggest loser in this election is Pawan Kalyan. He lost both the seats he contested, falling to third place in Gajuwaka and managing the second place at Bhimavaram although a candidate of his party won the Razole Assembly seat. His inexperience was evident as in the case of Chiranjeevi; he had not much of an agenda to publicise beyond corruption-free politics. A former CBI Joint Director, V. V. Lakshminarayana, who had relentlessly pursued cases against Jagan, also lost on the Jana Sena ticket from the Visakhapatnam Lok Sabha seat. Pawan Kalyan had banked on the numerically strong Kapu community but people perceived him as the TDP’s ‘B’ team which he indeed was in 2014.
“We practised new-age politics by desisting from distributing liquor and money and by fielding completely new faces. In spite of this defeat, I will continue to remain in public life till my last breath,” said Pawan Kalyan in his post-election statement.
As in Tamil Nadu, the BJP wave stopped at the borders of Andhra Pradesh. The party polled hardly 1 per cent of the votes and almost all its candidates, including State president Kanna Lakshminarayana, forfeited their deposits. Its spin doctors claimed that people were so determined to defeat the ruling TDP that the entire anti-incumbency vote went to the YSRCP.
Former Union Ministers M. M. Pallam Raju (Kakinada) and J. D. Seelam (Bapatla), both of the Congress, and Ashok Gajapathi Raju (Vizianagaram), Kishore Chandra Deo (Araku-ST), and K. Surya Prakash Reddy (Kurnool) of the TDP also lost. The three TDP candidates who won are Galla Jayadev (Guntur), Kesineni Nani (Vijayawada) and K. Rammohan Naidu (Srikakulam).
Chandrasekhara Rao’s calculations
Quite similar to the slogan of Mission 100 he coined for the Assembly election in December 2018, that is winning 100 seats in the 119-member Assembly, Chandrasekhara Rao set his party men the target of winning 16 of the 17 Lok Sabha seats in the State, leaving one to the MIM. This was considered an achievable target against the backdrop of his party winning 88 Assembly seats after restricting the Congress to 19 and the BJP to just one, down from five.
Chandrasekhara Rao’s was a masterstroke last year. After building bridges with Modi, he got the Centre to approve his proposal to dissolve the Telangana Assembly and hold elections along with the Assemblies of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. His realisation that by holding simultaneous elections the focus would turn on Modi rather than on himself paid him rich dividends in December.
An emboldened Rao, who at one time even considered merging his Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) with the Congress as a mark of gratitude for carving out a separate State, now took upon himself the task of finishing off the Congress in the State by encouraging defections. So far, 11 of the 19 Congress MLAs have crossed over to the TRS as a first step towards the merger of the Congress into the TRS! The deed would have been done and dusted, but the general election came in the way. It would be a first in India for a national party to merge into a regional outfit and not the other way round. However deviously, the TRS has managed to cross the promised mark of 100.
National ambitions dashed
More than Chandrababu Naidu, Chandrasekhara Rao nursed national ambitions and mooted a federal front, hired an aircraft and called on leaders of various regional parties, including Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee, Biju Janata Dal president Naveen Panaik and Dravida Munetra Kazhagam chief M. K. Stalin, to seek support for it. As the events unfolded, it became evident that Chandrasekhara Rao had miscalculated the mood of these leaders as some like Stalin had promised to back Rahul Gandhi as Prime Minister while Mamata Banerjee had her own plans and Naveen Patnaik chose to remain neutral. As the exit poll results poured in on May 19, Chandrasekhara Rao’s enthusiasm dampened while Chandrababu Naidu remained hyperactive.
In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, it was never a question whether Chandrasekhara Rao would win a majority of the 17 seats or not but how many. Anything less than 16 would be a loss of face for his party against the backdrop of its boasts. Moreover, his goal of achieving Bangaru Telangana (golden Telangana) was on course, the TDP had been wiped off the State’s political map and the Congress too was being escorted in the same direction.
But voters decided to give Chandrasekhara Rao a huge jolt by restricting his tally to nine. The biggest shock came in the form of his daughter Kalvakuntla Kavitha’s defeat in the Nizamabad Lok Sabha seat at the hands of the BJP’s Dharmapuri Arvind by a margin of 70,875 votes, largely due to unfulfilled promises. The 178 farmers growing turmeric and other crops proved to be her nemesis by securing 94,353 votes together. They were demanding minimum support price for their produce as well as establishment of a turmeric board on the lines of the Spices Board.
Another jolt came in the form of B. Vinod Kumar’s defeat in Karimnagar, lying in the heartland of Telangana. A relative of the Chief Minister and an incumbent MP, he was trounced by the BJP’s Bandi Sanjay by nearly 90,000 votes. Two other BJP candidates, G. Kishan Reddy from Secunderabad, a seat held earlier by former Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya, and Soyam Bapu Rao from Adilabad, also won.
These victories made it evident that the Modi wave had indeed made an impact in Telangana. Six months ago, the BJP could manage to get just one MLA elected. It was equally about the growing dissatisfaction with the TRS government and Chandrasekhara Rao who ran the government with just one Minister for 66 days and kept away his politically powerful nephew, T. Harish Rao, from the corridors of power. Harish Rao was confined to Medak Lok Sabha constituency which the party won by 3.16 lakh votes. It lost the adjoining seats.
The strong anti-incumbency factor can also be gleaned from the fact that voters plumped for any opposition candidate who they thought was capable of defeating the TRS. This explains the victory of Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee president N. Uttam Kumar Reddy from Nalgonda by 25,862 votes; Chandrasekhara Rao’s bete noire and Congress working president A. Revanth Reddy’s victory from Malkajgiri, the biggest constituency in India, often referred to as a cultural pot pourri, by 10,919 votes; and Komatireddy Venkat Reddy’s from Bhongir by 5,219 votes. True to expectations, MIM president Asaduddin Owaisi retained the Hyderabad Parliament seat for the fourth successive term by over 2.82 lakh votes.
A TRS spokesman accused the Congress and the BJP of joining hands to defeat the TRS in Nizamabad, where the Congress candidate, Madhu Yashki Goud, vanished after filing his nomination, and in other constituencies. But this allegation is not borne out by facts. For instance, Konda Vishweshwar Reddy, the richest candidate in the country, lost by a narrow margin from Chevella on the outskirts of Hyderabad mainly because the BJP candidate cut into the anti-TRS vote.
By winning four seats, the BJP is fancying itself as the second biggest party in Telangana. On its part, the Congress has not only shown that it is on the path of revival but has given a resounding slap to the TRS’s nefarious plans to finish off the party. The TRS will have to do a lot of introspection into the loss of seven seats, particularly those of Kavitha and Vinod Kumar who were being projected as aspirants for Cabinet berths in the Central government.