The Telugu Desam Party loses ground to the Congress(I), the Left parties and the newly formed Telengana Rashtra Samithi in the elections to Mandal and Zilla Parishads in Andhra Pradesh.
THE aura of invincibility that the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) had created for itself as against a weak and faction-ridden Congress(I) in Andhra Pradesh has faded in the Mandal and Zilla Parishad elections held in July. Belying expectations that it would ride high on the crest of the second-generation economic reforms initiated by Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and improve upon its performance in the Assembly elections, the TDP yielded ground to the Congress(I) even in the coastal Andhra region, considered its home turf.
Initially the TDP had seemed unshakable, for it had secured a clear mandate in the 1999 Assembly elections by winning, along with its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, 192 of the 294 seats. It had also won two Assembly byelections, in Badvel and Giddalur, earlier this year. Moreover, its government had weathered the storm that was set off by the steep hike in electricity tariffs in 2000 and the way it handled the protests against it.
The setback in the local bodies elections came as a shock to the TDP as it had campaigned as aggressively as it would in a round of general elections. Of the 1,094 Zilla Parishad territorial constituencies (ZPTCs), the TDP won 514 and the Congress(I) 444. Making an impressive debut within 70 days of its launch, the Telengana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) won 84 seats. However, its performance did not match its claim that it would wrest the majority of the 441 seats in the Telengana region.
An analysis of the performance of the TRS shows that it won most of the seats in an area comprising the four North Telengana districts of Nizamabad, Karimnagar, Warangal and Medak, where the naxalite People's War Group (PWG) has considerable influence. It drew a blank in Khammam, a stronghold of the Communist parties, won two seats in Mahabubnagar and one seat in Ranga Reddy district.
The BJP put up a dismal performance - it won just 13 ZPTCs and seven Mandal Parishads. Party leaders attributed the debacle to the confusion among the party's rank and file about the alliance with the TDP in about 40 seats and 'friendly contests' in 140 others. Although the Communist parties together won only 24 ZPTCs, they improved upon their performance in the Assembly elections, in which the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had won two seats and the Communist Party of India none.
THE indirect elections to the 22 posts of Zilla Parishad chairpersons witnessed horse-trading and the use of money power to encourage defections. The ZPTC members elect the chairpersons by a show of hands and the quorum for holding elections is 50 per cent of the members.
The TDP won 12 Zilla Parishads (Srikakulam, East Godavari, West Godavari, Krishna, Guntur, Prakasam, Anantapur, Kurnool, Mahabubnagar, Warangal, Adilabad and Ranga Reddy), the Congress(I) eight (Vizianagaram, Visakhapatnam, Nellore, Chittoor, Cuddappah, Khammam, Medak and Nalgonda) and the TRS two (Nizamabad and Karimnagar).
The most glaring examples of political skulduggery were provided by the elections in Ranga Reddy, Warangal, Karimnagar and Medak districts. In Ranga Reddy district, two Congress(I) ZPTC members stayed away from the elections and helped the TDP-BJP combine capture power. In Warangal district, where the TDP did not enjoy a majority, manipulations ensured the presence of three Congress(I) members to make up the quorum and help it capture the chairman's post. In Karimnagar district, all the five ZPTC members of the BJP and one of Congress(I) defied their party leadership and helped the TRS win the chairmanship.
The results gave a shot in the arm to the Congress(I) which had virtually thrown in the towel even before the fight began. The party was in bad shape on the eve of the elections. Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee president M. Satyanarayana Rao was functioning without an executive committee, and the 90-member Congress(I) Legislature Party was divided with 41 members supporting the demand for a separate Telengana state.
The party's policy of decentralising the process of choosing candidates - the "select and elect" process, as Satyanarayana Rao termed it - seemed to have paid off. However, the policy was dictated more by convenience than by conviction, since the Congress(I) did not have the organisational machinery to select about 1,100 candidates.
In contrast, the TDP launched an elaborate, high-profile exercise of deputing observers to assess the party's strength, holding district- and Assembly constituency-level meetings to shortlist prospective candidates, and naming the chosen ones from Hyderabad. Taking no chances, Chandrababu Naidu travelled by helicopter across the State and addressed 69 meetings. K. Chandrasekhar Rao, the TRS chief, who was earlier part of the TDP's think tank, too hired a helicopter for his campaign.
The Congress(I) attributed its good performance to the agitations it had organised on several issues, such as the hike in power tariffs, suicides by weavers and the plight of farmers.
CHANDRABABU NAIDU was, as usual, circumspect while commenting about the reasons for his party's poor performance. He said that the results fell short of the TDP's expectations. Asserting that the economic reforms would continue, he refused to accept arguments such as that there existed an anti-establishment sentiment among the people or that it was a vote for a separate Telengana.
The Chief Minister said that the government could not effectively publicise its development programmes and that the verdict was a mixed bag as several local factors influenced the electorate. An analysis of the results shows that the TDP performed well in a backward district like Adilabad in Telengana, where it won 36 out of 52 ZPTC seats. However, the party did not win any seat in the constituencies of eight Ministers and several MLAs belonging to the TDP. Party leaders conceded that the power tariff hike and related developments did have some bearing on voter preferences.
Confirming the fears of the Congress(I), the results in Telengana showed that the TRS affected its prospects more than those of the TDP. The TRS won 19.27 per cent of the votes polled. It caused an erosion of 9.74 per cent in the Congress(I) vote and 5.91 per cent in the TDP vote.
Although the TDP would have preferred to fight the polls on local issues, the campaign was dominated by larger political and economic issues. The party's manifesto spoke mainly about transferring power in all the 29 areas laid down in the 73rd Constitution Amendment to panchayats, empowerment of women through four lakh DWCRA (Development of Women and Children in Rural Area) groups, the Janmabhoomi programme and water conservation efforts (Neeru-Meeru programme).
The Congress(I) set an altogether different agenda by reiterating its promise to supply power free of cost to farmers. Rejecting the Congress(I)'s proposition, the TDP has demanded a national debate on the issue of supply of free electricity to farmers. It has alleged that the Congress is indulging in doublespeak depending upon whether it is in power or not. Leaders of the TDP say that the average charge paid by farmers worked out to 23 paise a unit of power. Opposing any further concession to farmers, they said that the government is already spending about Rs.2,100 crores by way of subsidies to the agriculture sector.
Another issue that dented the TDP's prospects was the question of remunerative prices for farmers. Chandrababu Naidu used his clout with the Centre to persuade it to lift 70 lakh tonnes of rice from Andhra Pradesh. However, by the time the relief arrived, many farmers had sold their stocks to middlemen or rice millers at rates lower than the minimum support price. The Congress(I), on the other hand, successfully highlighted the farmers' case by organising demonstrations and protests.
The Andhra Pradesh unit of the CPI(M) said that it was a verdict against the TDP's governance. State secretary B.V. Raghavulu said that the TDP had alienated almost all sections of people. "The large gap between the publicity hype and practice undermined the government's credibility," he said.
Raghavulu said that the negative effects of the economic reforms had become evident after five years. People were unhappy with the high power tariffs, wrong billing and the food coupons introduced at the behest of the World Bank for drawing rations from fair price shops. "The poorer sections felt possessive about the ration card as it gave them a feeling of security. Now there is scope for the misuse of coupons," Raghavulu said.
Thousands of workers lost their means of livelihood when earth excavating machines were used on a large-scale for the Neeru-Meeru programme. This issue also played a role in the elections. The increase in the number of the nouveau-riche in villages, mainly contractors who benefited from the Rs.3,000-crore World Bank-aided Andhra Pradesh Economic Restructuring Project to build primary health centres, to undertake Janmabhoomi works and to deepen waterbodies, have given credence to the widespread belief that corruption is rampant.
Soon after the results were declared, faction feuds started within the Congress(I). The first salvo was fired by Satyanarayana Rao after the party lost the Ranga Reddy Zilla Parishad chairman's post to the TDP. He accused some 'big leaders' of sabotaging the party's prospects in Ranga Reddy and Kurnool districts and apprised All India Congress Committee (AICC) president Sonia Gandhi about it. Apparently, his target was former Congress Working Committee (CWC) member K. Vijayabhaskara Reddy.
The anti-Vijayabhaskara Reddy group staged a demonstration in front of Gandhi Bhavan, the APCC headquarters, when AICC general secretary R.K. Dhawan was addressing a meeting. The demonstrators demanded disciplinary action against Vijayabhaskara Reddy and his son and District Congress Committee(I) president K. Suryaprakash Reddy. Vijayabhaskara Reddy's followers, including several MLAs, hit back at Satyanarayana Rao and CLP leader Dr. Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy by demanding action against them for encouraging a "crowd" to stage a demonstration against a senior party leader.
Meanwhile, as the Congress(I) is busy tackling its internal problems, other parties are bracing themselves for the elections to the 21,000 gram panchayats and the Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad, which are scheduled for August.