Andhra Pradesh

Falling apart

Print edition : April 13, 2018

Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu during the Budget session in the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Assembly at Velagapudi near Vijayawada on March 8. Photo: Ch.Vijaya Bhaskar

TDP members staging a protest demanding Special Category Status for Andhra Pradesh, outside Parliament House in New Delhi on March 13. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Ch. Babu Rao, State committee member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), at the March 19 round table of the Pratyeka Hoda Sadhana Samithi (Special Status Achievement Forum).

Chalasani Srinivas (centre) with other members of the Andhra Intellectuals Forum, under whose aegis the Special Status Achievement Forum has been formed. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Members of the YSRCP, Left parties, the Congress and the Jana Sena block the Vijayawada-Chennai section of National Highway 16 on March 22. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Left party activists blocking a section of National Highway 16 on March 22. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Andhra Pradesh faces a year of political uncertainty as the Telugu Desam Party severs its ties with the BJP and a united opposition, led by the YSRCP, reaches out to the people with its demand for Special Category Status for the State.

The eight days from March 15 will go down in history as a period that witnessed many firsts not only in Andhra Pradesh politics but also at the national level. On March 15, the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress (YSRCP), a regional party with just nine representatives in the Lok Sabha, submitted a notice to the Lok Sabha Secretary General to move a no-confidence motion against the National Democratic Alliance government headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The next day, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the NDA’s alliance partner at the Centre and in Andhra Pradesh, also gave notice for moving a no-confidence motion against the Narendra Modi government after withdrawing support to it. (Two TDP Ministers in the Union Cabinet quit their posts on March 8.) These moves were followed by several days of failed attempts to table the no-confidence motion with the requisite number of signatures necessary to admit it. (At least 50 members have to support a no-confidence motion for it to be tabled in the House. The TDP has 16 MPs and the YSRCP has nine.) The Speaker, Sumitra Mahajan, expressed her inability to admit the motions for want of a head count. The attempt to table the motions was followed by the decision of the opposition parties in Andhra Pradesh to launch State-wide protests seeking Special Category Status for the State, a demand that belatedly got support from the TDP.

On March 22, members of a united opposition blocked various parts of National Highway 16, which runs along the State’s 970-kilometre coastline from Tada in Tamil Nadu in the south to Srikakulam on the Odisha border in the north. The roadblock was jointly organised by the YSRCP, the Left parties, the Congress, and a relatively new entrant to Telangana and Andhra politics, the Jana Sena party led by film actor Pawan Kalyan. (Pawan Kalyan is the younger brother of Telugu film actor Chiranjeevi, who merged his Praja Rajyam Party with the Congress. Although Pawan Kalyan, who indulges in stage acting at his press conferences and political rallies, is not taken seriously in political circles, he gets considerable media attention and is said to draw support of the youth.)

Highways leading to Hyderabad and Bengaluru were also blocked for a couple hours from 10 a.m. The TDP held separate rallies, not wanting to be seen as being on the same side of the opposition. With the ruling party supporting the blockade, Andhra Pradesh once again appeared like what it was in 2009, when almost the entire political spectrum was united on a single issue: opposing the bifurcation of a unified State.

In the Assembly, Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu said his government did not have a choice but to support the opposition-led strike, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was using friendly parties such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) to stall its proceedings in Parliament. The BJP, which has four members in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly, began talking the opposition’s language within two days after the TDP sought to move a no-confidence motion against the Modi government. The State’s Endowments Minister and Health Minister, both from the BJP, shifted from the Treasury Benches to the opposition benches and began accusing the government of incompetence and political expediency, while the YSRCP, with 43 MLAs in the 175-member Assembly, boycotted the session for a second time in a row on the issue of Special Category Status and non-implementation of assurances given four years ago in the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 2014, and in Parliament.

The Andhra Intellectuals Forum, an independent pressure group formed after the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, brought disparate political parties and organisations together on March 19 in Vijayawada. Babu Rao of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) told Frontline that the plan was to set up student and political joint action committees in every mandal and organise padayatras in every town. “This will be our grass-roots work to reach out to the people of Andhra explaining how the Centre reneged on its promises. At the same time, we will attempt to highlight the issue in Parliament as well,” he said, explaining the road map that has been evolved to take on the BJP. The political line is clear: the BJP does not attach any sanctity to democratic procedure and participatory governance. This has been made amply clear by the way it has dealt with opposition-ruled States and those ruled by its junior allies.

But the opposition is yet to accommodate the TDP in its ranks, as it is felt that the TDP was a bit too late in calling off its alliance with the BJP, that too reluctantly after it became clear that it would not gain much electorally in 2019.

The opposition group calls itself Pratyeka Hoda Sadhana Samithi in Telugu, which loosely translates into Special Status Achievement Forum. Its convener, Chalasani Srinivas, told Frontline: “We had asked the TDP to join this forum in the past as well, but they did not. We are 14 political parties and 106 people’s organisations including transport, teachers’ and women’s organisations. We have been seeking the grant of Special Category Status and the speedy implementation of various projects for almost four years now. The unified Andhra struggle was a fragmented fight, with parties such as the TDP and the YSRCP divided on regional lines on the State’s division. In fact, barring the CPI(M) and the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen [MIM] all the other parties agreed to the bifurcation. But this time it is different. We called upon the TDP to quit the NDA and join our struggles. They have done it now. It is late. They were singing a Gujarati tune [referring to Prime Minister Modi and BJP president Amit Shah’s influence over the TDP.] They have stopped it now. It is a good decision. The BJP, we are calling it the uttara [northern] Bharatiya Janata Party. They have no concern for south India. All they want is gaddi [power], nothing else. We will tour Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Odisha, where Telugu people reside in significant numbers, and we will campaign against the BJP.”

That pretty much summed up what the fight is going to look like in the days to come. There is no telling, however, just how this fight will pan out in terms of electoral alliances ahead of the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections expected to be held together in May 2019.

March 19 marked another milestone. The YSRCP chief, Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, entered Guntur, south of Vijayawada divided by the Krishna river, completing about half of his 3,000-kilometre-long padayatra across the 13 districts of the State. He began the protest march to demand Special Category Status for the State on November 6, 2017. The YSRCP’s protest-cum outreach programme has drawn significant support. It has kept up the pressure on the TDP to show action on the ground for the new capital, infrastructure development, and job creation. It has successfully portrayed the Chief Minister in a poor light for his inability to gain any concessions from the Centre despite the TDP being the NDA’s most numerically powerful regional ally. Despite facing several corruption charges and allegations that his several companies received kickbacks when his father Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy was Chief Minister, Jagan Mohan Reddy has emerged as the face of the opposition in Andhra Pradesh, causing much consternation to the TDP.

The YSRCP chief began his protest early, in 2015, once it became clear that the Central government had decided to go back on Special Category Status citing the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission as the reason for its decision. Jagan Mohan Reddy started a hunger strike in Guntur on October 7 that year, which was initially slated for 48 hours but continued well beyond that period and ended with the police forcibly admitting him to hospital on the seventh day. Through the padayatra, Jagan Mohan Reddy is attempting to replicate his father’s successful outreach programme just ahead of the Assembly elections in 2004. Rajasekhar Reddy’s padayatra prevented Chandrababu Naidu from returning to power for a third consecutive term. Chandrababu Naidu came back to power in 2014 as the first Chief Minister of what remained of Andhra Pradesh after Telangana was created on June 2, 2014. This and the fact that the considerably younger Jagan Mohan Reddy has a mass connect on the ground despite being mired in numerous controversies ranging from charges of corruption to downright physical intimidation have perplexed the TDP and given it much cause for concern.

The TDP has played its game of wooing YSRCP MLAs to its side effectively for the past four years. The YSRCP, which won 67 seats in 2014, lost 23 MLAs in the next year and a half, reducing its strength to 43, according to Vara Prasad Rao, its MP from Tirupati. He told Frontline that the TDP had attempted to win over YSRCP MPs as well. At least three defections were attempted, but like in neighbouring Telangana, the Andhra Pradesh Assembly Speaker did not invoke the anti-defection law to disqualify those who crossed over to the TDP.

The 14th Finance Commission suggested that Special Category Status be restricted to the north-eastern States and hill States such as Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Haryana, citing their geographical remoteness and low economic activity. The commission argued that an increase in Central tax devolution from 32 to 42 per cent to the States from the 13th Commission recommendations would significantly make up for the loss of revenue even without the grant of other concessions. The commission’s recommendations were tabled in Parliament on February 24, 2015.

While the Finance Commission is a statutorily empowered body formed under constitutional provisions under Article 280 to address the resource gap between States and the Centre and inter-State disparities, its recommendations have not always been accepted in their entirety. This point was made by Chandrababu Naidu in a detailed note to Modi on “issues related to AP Reorganisation Act” on January 12. On the commission’s recommendations, the note says: “Although 14th Finance Commission did not distinguish between special category and general category States while determining the norms for devolution, it did consider the cost disability and fiscal capacity of the States separately. After due consideration of the fiscal capacity of the States, the 14th Finance Commission has stated categorically that ‘Andhra Pradesh would continue to be revenue deficit even in 2019-2020 financial year’ and awarded special revenue deficit grant for the five year period from 2015-16 to 2019-2020. Moreover, the Central government has not abolished the distinction between the special and general category States so far and 11 States continue to enjoy Special Category Status receiving special financial assistance. For example, Himachal Pradesh not only gets revenue deficit of Rs.8,000 crore every year but also gets special status.”

At Amaravati, the new State capital, there is little to show in terms of progress. There are freshly paved roads, parking lots, a canteen and some public transport at the transit Secretariat and Legislature buildings, and that is all what is there in 33,000 acres (1,320 hectares) of farmland. Wealthy families that gave up their lands under the controversial Land Pooling Scheme, which circumvented the 2013 Land Acquisition Act, are content with their windfall gain in terms of real estate as developed plots promised by the government will become functional in 10 years. Those with under five acres (2 ha) have already begun selling their allotted space—1,000 square yards of commercial space for every acre of wetland—and have begun buying farmland in the neighbouring fertile districts of East and West Godavari, jacking up agricultural land prices across the region.

Speaking to Frontline, senior TDP leader and former Union Minister of State of Science and Technology and Earth Sciences, Y. Satyanarayana Chowdary, defended the slow pace of work by saying that “you have to imagine creating a capital out of nothing—in a forest or on farmlands. The first task is to create trunk infrastructure, which you might have noticed, is going on. We have been given only Rs.1,500 crore by the Centre. You can imagine what can be achieved with that money at current prices.”

Indeed very little money has devolved from the Centre to the State. This fact has not been lost among the people. By exiting the NDA and supporting opposition-led protests, the TDP is attempting to make up for lost ground by portraying itself as being twice betrayed—first by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, which divided the State in an “unscientific and irrational manner”, and then by its own ally, the BJP. Just how the anti-BJP vote will swing in 2019 is anybody’s guess.

Another Rs.1,000 crore was allocated to create underground drainage infrastructure in Vijayawada and Guntur, which are now Andhra Pradesh’s second and third largest cities after Visakhapatnam. But again, little work has been done on the ground. On March 15, Guntur witnessed an outbreak of diarrhoea, which claimed 15 lives. The government admitted that poor sanitation in the town was the reason for the deaths. The work, which has been given to the infrastructure giant Larsen & Toubro, has been going on at a painfully slow pace. Many homes in Guntur and Vijayawada release their sewage directly into the storm water drains running outside their homes, clogging and polluting them. The sewage drains into the three canals that criss-cross Vijayawada and finally empty into the Krishna river, the lifeline of the farming community of the region.

Several other projects, for which feasibility studies and speedy decision within six months were promised in the Reorganisation Act, have only remained on paper. Even easily implementable ones, such as the creation of a separate railway zone in Visakhapatnam, given the sizeable rail traffic that passes through the region, have not been taken up. Others include the setting up of a steel plant in Kadapa, and a port in Nellore and developing the airports in Vijayawada, Visakhapatnam and Tirupati to “international standards”, none of which have been looked into. Some projects, such as the port in Nellore district, have been flagged for security reasons, but the State government rightly argues that this aspect should have been looked into before the proposal was included in the Reorganisation Act.

Political observers say that almost all the allies of the BJP have been slow in realising the party’s game plan of total dominance. While in Maharashtra the party unseated an ideologically aligned and well-entrenched ally, the Shiv Sena, it has been unable to do the same in Andhra Pradesh with Chandrababu Naidu blocking every attempt of the BJP to grow on the ground. There has been growing discontent within the rank and file of the BJP in Andhra Pradesh, with Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu, who for long handled the party’s regional alliances, being viewed as a bit too sympathetic to Chandrababu Naidu, and with loyalists of BJP general secretary Ram Madhav believing that the TDP must be stifled and weakened by pitting it against other regional forces in order to make space for the BJP. It is difficult to gauge how well this plan will work until the elections next year. But what is now clear is that the little chance that the BJP had to consolidate its strength in Andhra Pradesh is now effectively over.