Lack of an alternative vision

Published : May 07, 2004 00:00 IST

in Hyderabad

OVER the nine years that he has presided over Andhra Pradesh, Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has repeatedly said that all `isms' are redundant expect `tourism', which can contribute to employment and revenue generation.

He has argued that development has no ideology and often quoted the Chinese Communist leader Deng Xiaoping - "It does not matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice" - to rebuke his former allies, the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), when they criticised his policies as "anti-people" and "dictated by the World Bank".

With the money provided by international donor agencies such as the World Bank and the British government's Department for International Development (DFID), the Chandrababu Naidu government initiated many schemes. Some were directed towards ameliorating the condition of the poor and vulnerable sections of society while others were directed at reforming the administrative structure and making it more responsive to the citizens. The government undertook comprehensive reforms in the power and irrigation sectors and set about privatising many public sector enterprises with a view to reforming government finances.

A document titled `Vision 2020', prepared by the international consultants McKinsey, outlines the State government's development strategy, one that has been celebrated by international donor agencies, the media and corporates as a model for all governments to tackle issues of social and economic underdevelopment in a market-friendly manner. Radical reforms in governance earned Chandrababu Naidu the title of `CEO' of Andhra Pradesh.

Given this background, many people were surprised that the the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which he leads, chose to go in for early elections hoping to cash in on the "sympathy factor" at play in the wake of the assassination attempt on him by members of the People's War Naxalite group a few months ago. Development was not an election-winning slogan anymore.

Responding to criticisms of having dumped development as a political slogan, TDP spin doctors argued that fresh elections were necessary to renew the popular mandate for the government's development agenda, which was being thwarted by the Opposition. Chandrababu Naidu accused his opponents - the Naxalites, the Congress(I) and the Left parties - of colluding in an "unholy alliance" to impede the government's development agenda. The murderous attack on him was sought to be portrayed as just another form of opposition attempt to derail the development agenda. Later, the issue of Andhra Pradesh's unity in the face of Telangana separatism became the TDP's central campaign point. Recently, while addressing election rallies, Chandrababu Naidu has been raising Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin as the "main" issue.

Posters of Chandrababu Naidu soaked in blood after escaping the Naxalite attack vie for voters' attention with those showing development-related statistics and appeals to preserve the unity of Andhra Pradesh.

The TDP campaign, surprisingly, lacks focus though the State is scheduled to go to the polls on April 20 and 26. Over the past one month, the TDP has found that it has not evoked the kind of response it expected. For example, in East Godavari district, where the TDP won 20 out of the 21 Assembly seats in the last elections, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had reportedly to wait for two hours before a crowd could be gathered, even after which the meeting venue was half-empty.

Development has become merely one of the tunes being sung in a desperate attempt to try and woo the voter.

A popular witticism doing the rounds is that Chandrababu Naidu has been the best Chief Minister of Hyderabad but not of Andhra Pradesh, a reference to the stupendous urban growth of the State's capital led by the Information Technology sector, in contrast with the crisis in agriculture. It is to address this widespread grievance regarding the neglect of agriculture that the TDP has promised in its manifesto investments totalling Rs.60,000 crores in agriculture. Another Rs.40,000 crores has been promised for rural development. But these have come a little too late.

Ironically, it is the election campaign of the Congress(I) that has brought the development issue to the fore; the party has been focussing solely on the omissions and commissions of the State government. The party has targeted the TDP's alleged corruption, failure to manage the drought, and neglect of irrigation and the high levels of unemployment and poverty in rural areas.

The Congress(I)'s election campaign actually began in May last year when Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, who was then leader of the Congress(I) Legislature Party (CLP), undertook a 1,600-km long padyatra through the State to express solidarity with the people during the third successive year of drought in many parts of the State. The two-month long yatra highlighted the State government's neglect of agriculture and irrigation and drew public attention to the issues of migration and suicides by farmers. It catapulted Rajasekhara Reddy to the position of a mass leader and a "worthy" contender for chief ministership.

It has been relatively easy for the Congress(I) to highlight the shortcomings in the policies of the ruling party. In this the party has been aided in great measure by the regular and detailed critiques put out by the CPI(M), especially on issues such as power, irrigation and administrative reforms and the growing evidence of corruption and misappropriation of welfare funds.

If popular participation in the rallies and public meetings is any indication, the Congress(I)'s criticism of the TDP regime seems to have struck a chord. Reports suggest that Rajasekhara Reddy's impromptu roadside stops draw large crowds. This is in contrast to the attendance, for example, at the well-advertised public meetings of the TDP-BJP alliance in Rajahmundry and Visakhapatnam, which were addressed by Vajpayee and Chandrababu Naidu.

But other than its promise to distribute power free of cost to farmers in drought-affected areas, the Congress(I) has not been able to come out with an alternative policy package for development; a return to "Indramma raj" (Indira Gandhi rule) is used as a substitute. And despite the criticism of the TDP's reform agenda, Rajasekhara Reddy said: "The Congress is not totally against reforms. Some see it as a `Zinda Tilismath' (a cure-all), while others construe it as destructive. Reforms should be taken up in such a way that the ultimate goal, the betterment of the people, is achieved."

Even though the lack of water is the central grievance behind the demand for a separate Telangana State, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi's campaign has been marked by the use of intemperate language and histrionics rather than specific measures to resolve the issue of under-development.

This lack of alternative policies may be the Opposition's undoing. While there is palpable anger against specific policies of the incumbent regime, it may not be sufficient to neutralise the effect of the well-organised cadre of the TDP and the doubts in the voter's mind about the Congress(I)'s ability to deliver.

Asif, an autorickshaw driver in Hyderabad, said: "What can the Congress do different from the TDP? In any case, these Congresswallahs are so hungry after being out of power for nine years that they will eat the very concrete off the roads."

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