Back to the basics

Print edition : June 20, 2003

An eroding rural support base and an increasingly vocal demand for a separate Telengana State force the TDP to think of a strategy with its thrust on Telugu "pride", development and welfare.

in Tirupati

Party president and Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and other TDP leaders taking the oath at the mahanadu that the Tirupati declaration will be implemented.-PICTURES: P.V. SIVAKUMAR

TELUGU Desam Party (TDP) President and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu believes that holding on to ideological positions is bound to affect governance; he claims that the development of Andhra Pradesh during his seven years' rule was possible only because he refused to get tied down by any ideology. His hold on the party organisation is intact and his wishes are held as the party's policy. But then, Chandrababu Naidu takes care to present his wishes in such a fashion that the party cadre are convinced that their future is tied firmly to that of the party. Anyone who differs with this prescription has the freedom, in the TDP supremo's scheme of things, to leave the party.

"Mahanadus", or annual conferences, are integral to the party's way of functioning. They are important events because Chandrababu Naidu uses such occasions to spell out his wishes. For three days from May 27, about 7,000 leaders of the party, chosen through an elaborate process of internal elections, assembled in Tirupati to discuss the reality that faces the party on the ground and evolve a strategy to retain power in the next Assembly elections. Elections are due in September 2004, but there was a pervasive feeling that the leader planned to go in for early polls and that the party would be expected to get into the poll mode soon after the session. In the event, Chandrababu Naidu ruled out early elections.

With large parts of the State reeling under severe drought conditions for the second year in a row, the large crowds that Congress(I) leader Y.S. Rajashekar Reddy has been drawing in the course of his padayatra across the State and the aggressive campaign for a separate Telengana State by Chandrashekar Rao of the Telengana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) had rattled the TDP rank and file in recent times. Early elections, in their view, could spell disaster to the party.

The TDP president was also aware of the adverse effects of his fascination for high technology. Even while he conveyed to the delegates his joy on being recognised as the Chief Minister of the "fastest moving" State, thanks to his efforts that had converted Hyderabad into an investment destination for hi-tech enterprises, he was apparently not convinced that such accomplishments alone would get him votes. In a State where agriculture remains the mainstay of the economy and both the rabi and khariff crops depend on the monsoons, the government has to focus on ameliorating the condition of the rural population at least in times of monsoon failure. In fact, the government's obvious stress on the concerns of the urban population in the past three years had alienated the rural masses from the TDP.

The hike in power charges effected in 2000, notwithstanding massive protests by the Left parties and the Congress(I), had rendered the TDP unpopular, particularly in the urban centres. Measures taken in the area of water resources management in the agrarian sector, which left the small and marginal farmers at the mercy of rich peasantry, too had led to an erosion of the party's support base.

Although such measures undertaken by the Chandrababu Naidu government after its second tenure began in 1999 endeared the TDP chief to the promoters of the reforms agenda suggested by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a lot of TDP supporters were alienated from the party. Add to this the consequences of the failure of the government to ameliorate the sufferings of the farming community in the past couple of years when most of the State reeled under a drought. The inequitous land ownership pattern that successive regimes had sustained had forced marginal farmers and landless agricultural workers to migrate to towns and cities within and outside Andhra Pradesh, leaving behind their old and infirm family members.

Chandrababu Naidu may want to deny the failures of his dispensation. But the fact is that starvation deaths occur across the State, particularly in Mahboobnagar and Anantapur districts.

APART from district mahanadus, where such issues are deliberated in a free and frank manner, there is the TDP organisational structure, with a lot of professionals at various levels, to inform Chandrababu Naidu of the realities that the party is faced with. This legacy, left behind by TDP founder and former Chief Minister N.T. Rama Rao, has been kept going by the present leader. The various resolutions presented at the mahanadu had been placed before the party organisation in the couple of months before the event. The resolutions, 29 in all and concerning almost all aspects of governance, were debated by the party's ranks and their views were obtained by the president well ahead of the mahanadu. In this sense, the three-day session was not just another ritual.

It was only natural that at the mahanadu problems facing the agrarian sector, including the drought and the absence of an effective irrigation network, were the focus of attention. The fact that the TDP's membership consists largely of middle and the marginal farmers rendered the mahanadu an occasion to chart out a plan to stop the party's slide in the countryside. It was imperative for Chandrababu Naidu and his colleagues to realise that the party's claims to providing "good governance" and protecting the interests of Telugu-speaking people and their self-respect and its strident anti-Congressism alone would not yield electoral dividends and that the concerns of the middle and the marginal farmers had to be addressed.

Hence even while attacking the Congress(I) and reminding the delegates of the manner in which Congress(I) leaders in the State had allowed the pride of Telugu-speaking people to be trampled by their leaders in New Delhi, the speakers at the mahanadu were clear that such rhetoric alone would not win votes. Party leaders, including Chandrababu Naidu, did appear rattled by the people's response to the padayatra led by Rajashekar Reddy. They are also alarmed by the surge of support for the demand for a separate Telengana State. However, the party's strategy in this regard seemed to be a return to "the pride of Telugu-speaking people".

Chandrababu Naidu said: "The progress made in the State was possible because the TDP represented the collective will and aspirations of the Telugu-speaking people and any attempt to divide the people will only retard the course charted after the TDP was formed." The fact that the TRS had eroded the party's base in the Telengana region was evident from the manner in which Chandrababu Naidu reeled out figures pertaining to the development of the region after 1994, when the TDP returned to power. Of the Rs.17,500 lakhs spent on power subsidy, 95 per cent went to the Telengana region. Such a measure, according to party spokespersons, has been taken only during the TDP's tenure. Pointing to the experience of the northeastern States and the recent developments in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttaranchal, the Chief Minister tried to convince the delegates that small States remained largely under-developed.

A section of the delegates at the mahanadu.-

Even as Chandrababu Naidu extolled his cadre to carry these facts to the people of Telengana, the party's influential leaders from the region continued to be rattled by the popular response to the TRS-led campaign. The resolutions on "development of backward regions" and "agricultural policy" reflected the concerns of the party in this regard. The resolution on agricultural policy announced a package involving grants and subsidies to the tune of over Rs.400 crores and also the party's commitment to ensure that the Central government instructed nationalised banks to waive the interest on all farm loans. Chandrababu Naidu also announced schemes to provide houses for the urban poor and bicycles to at least two lakh girls belonging to the Scheduled Castes who continued their education beyond the upper primary stage. Another scheme promised insurance cover for women who are part of the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA), with the State government paying 50 per cent of the premium. These measures would cost the government Rs.300 crores.

The special package for the agrarian sector includes insurance cover for farmers, with the State government contributing 40 per cent of the premium, the Centre making a matching contribution, and the remaining amount coming from insurance companies. Chandrababu Naidu announced the decision to release immediately Rs.100 crores towards this scheme. The mahanadu also resolved to evolve a micro-credit scheme for small and marginal farmers on the lines of the self-help groups (SHGs) among women and promised Rs.20,000 as State government grant for each such group.

THE focus on development and the stress on welfare, according to a senior party functionary, were the results of the elaborate discussions that were carried out at the district-level conferences. "The party was facing the same situation that prevailed in 1989 and a mid-course correction had become imperative," said a senior leader. He recalled that the TDP had lost the 1989 Assembly elections to the Congress(I) at a time when the latter suffered losses all over the country.

The Tirupati declaration reflected this sentiment. The six-point charter that Chandrababu Naidu read out towards the end of the session was guided by these concerns and was intended to commit local leaders to an agenda of welfarism and "good governance" and to countering the demand for a partition of Andhra Pradesh. In a context where local leaders are convinced that their future, both political and economic, is closely tied to the electoral prospects of the party, the Tirupati mahanadu seemed to be significant. Chandrababu Naidu is now convinced of the need to focus on welfare measures in the countryside and in that sense move away from the idea of technology-driven growth in the capital city. This, party old-timers feel, is a clear message that the party is determined to go back to the basics.

Putting the mahanadu and the deliberations in perspective, a senior member who has been in the leadership of the TDP since the days of N.T. Rama Rao, said: "The spark is missing this time and this was how it was in 1989. The difference, however, is that unlike in 1989 when NTR was at the helm, this time the party is led by Chandrababu Naidu and he has the grit and energy, and not just the charisma, to enthuse the ranks." However, he added that a lot depended on the monsoon this year.

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