Political theatre

Published : Apr 24, 2009 00:00 IST

in Hyderabad

ELECTIONS 2009 in Andhra Pradesh are likely to go down in history for all the wrong reasons. Casteism, money power and nepotism have reached a new low that they threaten to undermine the voters right to exercise their franchise free from bad influences.

Every election sees illegitimate use of power by parties to influence the verdict, but the benchmarks set this time are without parallel. There are many contractors, big-ticket realtors and businessmen in the fray under the banner of political parties and many of them are tipped as favourites to win. Andhra Pradesh will have simultaneous polls to the State Assembly and Parliament on April 16 and 23. Since the formation of the State in 1956, there have been 14 Chief Ministers, but all except four have been either from the Reddy or the Kamma community.

This speaks volumes on the caste composition of the leadership of the two political parties the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) that have held power in all these 53 years. A film actor, Chiranjeevi, lit up the political firmament in mid-2008 when he announced the launch of a new party, Praja Rajyam. But he did precious little to dispel the notion that his was a party of Kapus, a community that wields wealth and influence in coastal Andhra but is listed as a Backward Class in Telangana.

It is the worst-kept secret that some parties, old as well as new, are demanding money for the ticket. The Election Commission has served Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) president K. Chandrasekhara Rao with a notice to explain Samala Venkat Reddys confession (recorded by TV channels) that he paid Rs.10 crore to get the party ticket for the Secunderabad Lok Sabha seat. Anil Kumar, an evangelist and son-in-law of Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, ran foul of the election authorities when Rs.10.40 lakh, purportedly meant for conducting a meeting of pastors, was recovered from a lodge in Karimnagar. Led by A.K. Mohanty, the new Director General of Police, the authorities have launched a massive crackdown against the transport of money and liquor and have recovered crores of rupees from vehicles on highways. Mohanty, known for his honesty and no-nonsense approach, had replaced S.S.P. Yadav whom the Election Commission shifted after he praised the Chief Minister at a police officers meeting.

Another aspect of this election is dissension in major political parties, which has often degenerated into violence. There were many instances of disgruntled partymen setting afire furniture, pulling down party flags and dousing themselves with kerosene in self-immolation attempts, following the selection of candidates.

In a polity where dynastic succession is not frowned upon, important leaders have utilised fully the opportunity by promoting their offspring, siblings and in-laws, either by giving them the party ticket or entrusting them with important organisational responsibilities.

Leading the pack is the Chief Minister whose son, Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, is the Congress candidate for the Kadapa Lok Sabha seat. Chiranjeevis brother-in-law Allu Aravind is the Lok Sabha candidate in Anakapalle. TDP president N. Chandrababu Naidus brother-in-law N. Balakrishna, his nephew NTR Jr. and other members of the late N.T. Rama Raos clan are thick into electioneering.

The battlelines are clearly drawn Andhra Pradesh will have triangular contests in all the 294 Assembly and 42 Lok Sabha seats. The last time there was a three-cornered contest was in 1978 when the two factions of the Congress led by Indira Gandhi and K. Brahmananda Reddi and the Janata Party were in the fray. This time the three main players are the Congress, the TDP-led grand alliance comprising the TRS, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, besides the Praja Rajyam. The BJP stands totally marginalised.

On the shoulders of Rajasekhara Reddy, or YSR as he is known, lies the burden of not only retaining power in the State but also sending a large contingent of Congress MPs to the Lok Sabha. The Congress leadership would like him to repeat his performance of 2004 when the party, in alliance with the TRS and the Left, won 36 Lok Sabha and 226 Assembly seats.

Around this time last year, the Congress high commands hopes would not have been without basis. YSR was saying that good rains for four consecutive years had kept farmers happy, free power supply to the agriculture sector was in place, rice was being distributed to the poor at Rs.2 a kilo, the Indiramma housing scheme was running well, old-age pensions were being paid liberally, and loans were made available to self-help groups at 3 per cent interest. Above all, the government had launched the Rajiv Arogyasri insurance scheme to enable the poor get treatment in corporate hospitals. Even the cost of heart surgery for this section of society, which is Rs.1.5 lakh at the minimum, was reimbursed to the hospitals by the government.

The buzzword was saturation total coverage of everyone below the poverty line (BPL). Consider that white BPL ration cards have been distributed to 1.82 crore households in a population of eight crore.

But, there was a big problem. YSR was under pressure from his partys ally, the TRS, which had quit the Central and State Cabinets to pressure the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre, to carve out a separate Telangana State. To make things difficult for him, many Congress leaders from Telangana formed a ginger group and supported this demand. With steadfast backing from his party high command, YSR stood his ground and refused to budge.

The TDP and the Praja Rajyam seized this opportunity. Reeling under dissent from within and defections to the Praja Rajyam over the Telangana issue, Chandrababu Naidu reversed the partys stand by supporting the separate Telangana State. Chiranjeevi declared he was not averse to the creation of a new State if people wanted it.

Although Chandrababu Naidus volte-face undermined the primary mission of TDP founder N.T. Rama Rao to unite all Telugus, it helped to end the exodus of leaders from his party and, more importantly, laid the foundation for an alliance with his bete noire, Chandrasekhara Rao. Before long, an anti-Congress front, Mahakootami, a grand alliance of four parties the TDP, the TRS, the CPI(M) and the CPI became a reality. The CPI(M), which had been consistently opposing YSRs policies on land-related issues besides the displacement of people from irrigation project sites, and special economic zones, was at the forefront of this initiative.

Suddenly, the grand alliance was seen as a powerful force in the Telangana region, which accounts for 119 Assembly and 17 Lok Sabha seats. With the Congress allies switching sides, the arithmetic was clearly against the party. In the 2004 elections, the Congress polled 38.56 per cent of the votes and its ally, the TRS, 6.68 per cent, but the TDP was not far behind with 37.59 per cent. Considering also the vote share of the Left (3.37 per cent), Telangana may turn out to be the Congress partys Achilles heel.

The grand alliance partners accused the Chief Minister of misusing his position to make money and favour his son Jagan Mohan Reddys firms. They said mining and industrial licences were issued and government lands and special economic zones allotted in return for favours from big investors. These favours included investments in Jagans newspaper, Sakshi, and other firms or making him a major stakeholder in their companies, such as the Rs.3,500-crore Raghuram Cements and the Rs.10,000-crore Brahmani Steels. The latter is owned by Gali Janardhan Reddy, a Minister in the BJP government in Karnataka and YSRs friend.

The grand alliance sent out a strong signal that it was united in its endeavour to unseat the YSR government. But the TRS put a spoke in the wheel at the time of seat-sharing. Much to the chagrin of the TDP and the CPI(M), it fielded candidates in constituencies it was not allotted. Chandrababu Naidu forced Chandrasekhara Rao to retrace his steps by fielding his own party candidates in TRS seats.

From day one of his campaign, Chiranjeevi has drawn huge crowds. He reserved his best for the East and West Godavari districts where he is perceived to be the strongest, not merely because of film-crazed youth in this region, but because Kapus are a dominant community here. His slogan of social justice has appealed to Kapus in a region known for caste-based political rivalry.

The Congress will thus have to factor in the Praja Rajyams challenge in several parts of coastal Andhra (which accounts for 124 Assembly and 17 Lok Sabha seats) and the grand alliances in Telangana though it is strong in the Rayalaseema region (52 Assembly and eight Lok Sabha seats).

There is no dispute that the Congress strength has gone down considerably since 2004. Also, the Mahakootami is stronger than the sum total of the strength of its individual constituents. The Praja Rajyam is poised to spring huge surprises. Whether this will mean a government with a slim majority or even an unclear verdict is anybodys guess.

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