Byelection blows

Print edition : April 20, 2012

Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee president Botcha Satyanarayana giving 'Ugadi Pachadi' to Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy (left) as actor turned politician K. Chiranjeevi looks on, on March 23.-MOHAMMED YOUSUF Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee president Botcha Satyanarayana giving 'Ugadi Pachadi' to Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy (left) as actor turned politician K. Chiranjeevi looks on, on March 23.

Infighting rears its head in the Congress in Andhra Pradesh as the party draws a blank in the byelections.

The Congress in Andhra Pradesh is going through a phase of bitter infighting in the wake of the severe drubbing it received in the recent byelections in seven Assembly constituencies. The demand that makes itself heard most is the one for the resignation of Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy. He is being blamed for the debacle because he did not take into confidence leaders from the Telangana region in the matter of choosing candidates and in taking other key decisions. His supporters accuse his detractors of having kept away from electioneering for fear of incurring the displeasure of forces supporting statehood for Telangana.

Popular support for the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) being what it is, a drubbing for the Congress was perhaps inevitable. But the infighting also points to discord and disharmony within the Congress. There are many factions in the party, making it a seriously divided house. Telangana leaders constitute one group, while detractors of the Chief Minister, such as Health Minister D.L. Ravindra Reddy and former Ministers P. Shankar Rao and P. Ramachandra Reddy, form another. Both these factions want Kiran Kumar Reddy to go.

Never too happy with the treatment they have received from the Congress bosses, followers of the film star turned politician K. Chiranjeevi have begun flexing their muscles and pointing fingers at their detractors. The Praja Rajyam Party was rewarded for its merger with the Congress with two ministerial berths and a place in the Rajya Sabha for Chiranjeevi. This did not make the group happy. Endowments Minister C. Ramachandraiah accused the Chief Minister and State Congress chief Botcha Satyanarayana of not giving due recognition to the Praja Rajyam cadres. Satyanarayana has been trying to project himself as an alternative power centre in the party, which provides the subtext to the current drama unfolding in the party.

Elections to the State Assembly were held concurrently with the general elections in 2009. Ever since, the Congress has not won a single byelection in the State. Neither did the main opposition, the Telugu Desam Party of N. Chandrababu Naidu, which won 92 Assembly seats three years ago. The failure of these two parties to make an impact on voters after together winning 248 seats three years ago shows how other parties have been able to step in and fill the vacuum. The TRS and the YSR Congress Party have stepped in to fill the space vacated by these two parties because of their inability to take timely decisions and their crises of leadership. Both drew a blank in the March 18 byelections for six Assembly seats in the Telangana region and one in coastal Andhra. The TRS won four (Adilabad, Kamareddy, Station Ghanpur and Kollapur), a TRS-backed independent candidate got the Nagarkurnool seat, and the YSR Congress got the Kovur seat. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was the surprise winner of the Mahabubnagar seat.

Barring the BJP's victory, which was attributed to a division of votes along communal lines, the results went along expected lines. Yet, the leaders of neither the Congress nor the TDP had anticipated the huge margins by which their parties lost. TDP candidates forfeited security deposits in three seats and the Congress stood a poor third in another three.

Six of the seven winners were MLAs who had quit their parent parties and their membership of the Assembly to facilitate their re-election on the ticket of the parties to which they now belong. Thus, the byelections served the limited purpose of legitimising the defections.

As the Kiran Kumar Reddy government was already on the ventilator support given by Chiranjeevi and his band of 16 MLAs, the byelections were not expected to alter the political realities on the ground significantly. The core issue in the elections was the reiteration by the TRS that a strong pro-Telangana sentiment existed in the region.

The YSR Congress and its president, Jaganmohan Reddy, had more than one point to prove though it contested and won only one seat. The foremost was to show that his political influence transcended his native Kadapa district, where he and his mother had scored spectacular electoral victories. It was also crucial for him to project the YSR Congress as being in contention not merely for a few Assembly seats but for power in the next State Assembly elections. For Jaganmohan Reddy, battling a slew of charges of corruption and money laundering framed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), a victory meant some relief.

In stark contrast to the Congress and the TDP, both the TRS and the YSR Congress achieved their respective objectives. The TDP retreated into a mode of silent introspection as it lost in spite of running a well-oiled election machinery. There were post-election ripples, though, when Telangana Telugu Desam Forum convener Errabelli Dayakar Rao threatened to resign from his post, ostensibly on account of the party's debacle but more to exhibit his unhappiness over the selection of another Telangana leader, T. Devender Goud, as the party's nominee for the Rajya Sabha.

The Congress's internal dissensions are in part a reflection of the party leaders' worry over the bigger challenge that lies ahead. With the presidential election scheduled for July, byelections that are due for 17 Assembly seats and the Nellore Lok Sabha constituency will probably be held in May. Barring the Parkal seat in Telangana, all the remaining 16 lie in the Seemandhra region. The vacancies in the Assembly were caused by the disqualification of pro-Jaganmohan Reddy MLAs for defying the party whip during voting on the no-confidence motion against the Kiran Kumar Reddy government.

Given its fragile and fractious leadership and the poor third place it took in Kovur, putting up a credible show against the YSR Congress and the TDP in the forthcoming byelections will be a Herculean task for the Congress. It cannot get away with the defence that it was swept away by a mass public sentiment, as in Telangana. It is a clear political fight against Jaganmohan Reddy, and a setback would only make the dissidents in the party more strident in their demand for a thorough shake-up of the party organisation and the government.

The TRS' victory in the byelections and two suicides within three days in Warangal town by protagonists of a separate State have brought the Telangana issue back to the centre stage of politics in Andhra Pradesh. TRS president K. Chandrasekhar Rao and his partymen maintained a low profile after the Telangana agitation peaked in October and government employees in the region struck work for 42 days. This happened after a major investor in the daily run by his party, Namasthe Telangana, was given the contract for Polavaram, a multi-purpose project in the Andhra region which his party had been steadfastly opposing. The party is now back to organising bandhs and other forms of agitation.

The task before the Congress high command is first to set its house in order and then take the long overdue decision on whether to keep the State united or divide it. The Congress must get its act together if it is to have an outside chance of repeating its performance of 2009 when it won 33 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Andhra Pradesh, contributing the biggest chunk of party MPs to the UPA.

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