A shrewd campaign fetches the Congress a landslide victory in the municipal elections in Andhra Pradesh.S. NAGESH KUMAR in Hyderabad
URBAN voters in Andhra Pradesh gave a resounding mandate in favour of the 16-month-old Congress government in the State and sent an equally loud message to the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) that it could not take their support for granted. In the elections held in 96 municipalities and 10 municipal corporations on September 24, the voters also laid to rest the pretensions of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) that its slogan of separatism enjoyed overwhelming support in the region. They dashed the Bharatiya Janata Party's hopes of garnering votes on its own steam.
In the end, the Congress could win the posts of chairpersons in 82 out of 95 municipalities and mayors in all the nine corporations at the time of writing. But these indirect elections were marred by defiance of whips, defections and opportunistic alliances by the major political players - the Congress, the TDP, the TRS and the BJP.
The Congress faced infighting at many places; it entered into tie-ups with the BJP in Pithapuram and Sircilla. The TDP had to remain content with a tally of eight chairpersons, followed by the TRS with two and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) with one and independents with two. The BJP and the CPI drew a blank. Exploiting a loophole in the law, the Rajasekhara Reddy government gave representatives of the legislative bodies the right to vote in municipalities in their capacity as co-opted members. His action attracted widespread criticism as having diluted the spirit of the 74th Amendment to the Constitution introduced by Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister.
The elections effectively dashed the TDP's hopes of hitting the comeback trail. It won a simple majority in just six municipalities and emerged as the single largest party only in the Nellore Municipal Corporation. Its performance in all three regions of the State - coastal Andhra, Rayalaseema and Telangana - was uniformly poor and put paid to the argument that it still enjoyed the confidence of urban voters.
In Chittoor, Cuddapah, Kurnool, Guntur, Srikakulam and Prakasam districts, the Congress and its pre-poll allies won all the municipalities. In Tuni, the TDP lost all 30 wards to the Congress, a clean sweep that befuddled former Finance Minister Y. Ramakrishnudu, who represents the Assembly constituency of the same name.
Once considered a role model for tackling initiatives in the Information Technology sector, TDP president N. Chandrababu Naidu, apparently failed to read the people's pulse once again. His campaign focussed on the alleged corruption of the Congress government in awarding contracts worth thousands of crores for irrigation projects, and he tried to project Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy as a "factionalist" and as a person determined to annihilate TDP cadre.
Notwithstanding his vigorous campaign, these issues appeared stale to the voters who gave more importance to local issues such as poor sanitation, traffic congestion and lack of drinking water. Large crowds turned up at several places for Chandrababu Naidu's meetings, but he found to his dismay that they did not vote for him.
Rajasekhara Reddy, on the other hand, laid a solid foundation for the electoral battle through the `Rajiv Nagara Baata', an ingenious government programme involving a comprehensive tour of all municipalities. He focussed on just five issues: improvement of drainage and sanitation, issue of ration cards, housing for the weaker sections of the population, and providing drinking water connections to the poor on payment of just Rs.1,200 (compared with Rs.7,000 when the TDP was in power).
WHEN the election campaign began, the Congress already had something to show in the form of ongoing and completed schemes. Another programme with mass appeal was `Praja Patham', which also helped improve the ruling party's stock. Congress MLAs effectively tackled the drinking water shortage, a major issue every summer, during this drive.
Under the `Rajiv Nagara Baata', the government machinery, aided enthusiastically by local Congress leaders, went into overdrive. It issued ration cards to below-poverty-line families despite complaints that the number of beneficiaries exceeded the number of voters in some places. The strategy paid off as this section of the population felt that it had received a raw deal at the hands of the previous government led by Chandrababu Naidu.
Another strategic move of the government was to declare 5 per cent reservation for Muslims in education and employment. The swing in Muslim votes in the Congress' favour was evident.
Refusing to come to terms with the verdict, Chandrababu Naidu attributed his party's rout to rigging and "goondaism" by the ruling Congress as well as ignorance among urban voters in using electronic voting machines. But this did not detract from the fact that the Congress had scored the biggest ever victory in the municipal elections since the TDP's landslide win in 1983.
As much as the election results were a blow to the TDP, they gave a ruder jolt to the TRS. In the run-up to the municipal elections, the TRS had unleashed a shrill campaign against the Congress. More specifically, it targeted the Chief Minister for speaking against the "vivisection of States" and for his reported statement, which he denied, that the TRS had links with the Maoists. TRS leader and Union Minister of State for Rural Development A. Narendra, even talked about shedding blood and ended up facing a spate of legal notices.
Having quit the State Cabinet, the over-confident TRS decided against allying with the Congress. This bravado did not yield results. The party's vote share plummeted from 6.7 per cent to 3.4 per cent. The TRS ended up as the largest single party in just two out of 31 municipalities and bagged only 84 out of the 1,085 civic constituencies in Telangana. Narendra drew heavy flak from party MLAs for antagonising the voters with his inflammatory language.
Dumped by the TDP, the BJP also fought the election without an alliance. It could win only 86 seats out of a total of 3,500 in the State. The BJP's best performance was nine out of 23 wards in Narayanpet municipality in Mahabubnagar district. In the process, whatever illusions the TRS and the BJP had about their major alliance partners having benefited from any association with them in the previous elections were shattered.