A popular backlash

Published : Jun 04, 2004 00:00 IST

Powered by a vigorous campaign, the Congress returns to power in Andhra Pradesh as the voters hand a crushing defeat to the Telugu Desam Party in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections.

VOTERS of Andhra Pradesh dashed cyber-czar Nara Chandrababu Naidu's hopes of achieving the objectives of Vision 2020 by handing out a crushing defeat to his Telugu Desam Party in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. In the process, Chandrababu Naidu lost the chance of becoming Chief Minister for the third consecutive term and playing a big role in national politics. The mantle of the head of the State government for the next five years fell on Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, a contemporary of Naidu in politics.

Powered by a vigorous campaign by Rajasekhara Reddy, the Congress stormed back into office after nearly a decade of sanyas. The mass appeal of Rajasekhara Reddy, who undertook two yatras in two years - the "padayatra" of 2002 and the "jaitra yatra" of 2003 - helped change the people's opinion in favour of the Congress. The State Congress, known for its internal bickerings, projected a `united' look. The alliance forged with the Left parties and the Telengana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) too worked to its advantage in both the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections.

The performance of the Congress-led alliance was exceptional as its final tally of 226 (Congress 185, the debutant TRS 26, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) nine and the Communist Party of India six, constituted a two-thirds majority in the 294-member House.

On the other hand, in its worst-ever performance, the TDP won only 47 seats. Even in 1989, when the party under the leadership of N.T.Rama Rao was defeated, it had managed to win 74 seats. The TDP's ally, the BJP suffered a humiliating defeat by winning just two seats. In the 1999 elections, the TDP-BJP combine had secured 47.54 per cent of the votes and won 191 seats. Its vote share slumped to 39.69 per cent this time. A 7.8 percentage-point swing away from the TDP compared to the 1999 Assembly elections saw 31 of the 38 Ministers being rejected. Speaker K. Pratibha Bharathi lost to the Congress candidate, while six-time winner P. Ashok Gajapathi Raju, scion of the Vizianagaram royal family, was defeated by an independent candidate. Chandrababu Naidu salvaged some prestige by registering a comfortable victory from Kuppam in Chittoor district by a margin of 59,588 votes over Subramanyam Reddy (Congress).

In the Lok Sabha elections, while the TDP got five seats and a vote share of 33.12 per cent, the BJP, with just 8.4 per cent of the votes polled, sank without a trace. (In the 1999 elections, the TDP won 29 seats and the BJP seven.) The Congress took 29 seats and 41.55 per cent of the votes polled, the TRS five seats and 6.83 per cent of the vote and the CPI(M), the CPI and the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) one seat each. Importantly, in the Lok Sabha elections, an additional 33.60 lakh voters favoured the Congress-TRS-Left combine than in the Assembly elections. The Congress could have won the Srikakulam, Anakapalli and Bobbili seats also had it not been for the machinations of its own leaders. The Nagarkurnool seat could have gone the TRS way but for the mistake its candidate committed by carelessly filling the nomination form and thus losing the official `car' symbol. Moreover, his legal battle for the symbol left him no time to spare for the campaign. The Chittoor seat went to the TDP where its candidate, former Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam (TTD) Chairman D.K. Adikesavulu, a liquor baron, won by a margin of over 62,000 votes. Chandrababu Naidu's Kuppam Assembly constituency alone gave Adikesavulu a lead of nearly 60,000 votes.

CHANDRABABU NAIDU, the best-known patron of the World Bank in the implementation of its reforms agenda and an icon in the world of Information Technology, apparently had little idea of the people's mood. In joining the `India Shining' campaign, he ignored the fact that rural India had lost its sheen. Even in many urban pockets, the economic reforms initiated by his government had marred his image beyond redemption. He dismissed with disdain the exit poll results by television channels, one of which forecast a TDP rout in view of the anti-incumbency factor. "I believe in exact polls, which show that the TDP will return to power," he said in response to reports about the anti-establishment mood.

After the results were out, he admitted, in a rather oversimplification of the reasons for the party's debacle, that there was indeed an anti-incumbency wave.

But, the roots of Chandrababu Naidu's defeat go far deeper. It was not merely a case of urban-rural divide, incumbency factor or disenchantment with his obsessive policy opposing any concessions in the power sector. Chandrababu Naidu's shortcomings were glossed over by his coterie of politicians and bureaucrats who chose to highlight the achievements in the IT sector and the showcasing of Hyderabad as a fast-growing and modern city. The obvious fact was that the real Andhra Pradesh, a State known for its agrarian strengths, lay elsewhere - in rural areas. Chandrababu Naidu himself made a preposterous thesis that too many farmers were producing too little foodgrains and they must seek more productive employment. There was a complete disconnect with the people and the ground realities as he relished the encomiums showered on him by the World Bank, visiting foreign dignitaries and the international media, which crowned him with various titles such as the "CEO of Andhra Pradesh" and the "IT-savvy CM". Such hyperbole threw a blanket over the deficiencies in the State's economy. The purchasing power of the average citizen had gone down, the gross State domestic product had plummeted, employment growth rate was low, health parameters were unflattering for a State whose capital, Hyderabad, was often described by Chandrababu Naidu as the "health capital of India", and farmers were unhappy over the recurring droughts and the unremunerative prices of their produce. When about 3,000 distressed farmers committed suicide, Nagam Janardhan Reddy, Minister for Panchayati Raj, remarked that "they are ending their lives in the hope their families will get ex-gratia". The TDP government never gave money to families of such farmers on the specious ground that it would only encourage farmers to commit suicide.

Chandrababu Naidu's aim of turning the State into "Swarna Andhra Pradesh" within two decades largely revolved round the long-term economic plans suggested by the Australia-based consultancy, Mckinsey & Co. In his scheme of things, the State would borrow money quite heavily from the World Bank and other international funding agencies for restructuring its economy and the power and health sectors and revamping its administration.

Strong criticism by the Congress(I) and the Left parties, particularly the CPI (M), against the World Bank's conditionalities left Chandrababu Naidu unmoved. He maintained that the World Bank had never stipulated downsizing the government by cutting 2 per cent of the jobs annually, privatising the Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation (APSRTC) and the Singareni Collieries or increasing power tariffs. "I will turn down the World Bank loan if you can secure credit at lower interest rates," was his stock reply to the Opposition, which expressed alarm over the State's overall debt burden, both internal and external, touching a staggering Rs.75,000 crores. His statements had rung hollow because his government wound up or disinvested in a record number of public sector undertakings, hired thousands of people on contract jobs, and raised electricity rates to a new high.

The Congress capitalised on the people's antipathy to the power sector reforms by promising in its manifesto supply of free power to farmers. Rajasekhara Reddy redeemed the pledge by signing the first file after taking over as Chief Minister ordering free supply to 23 lakh agricultural pumpsets in the State, regardless of the type of crop, landholding and pumpset capacity.

Chandrababu Naidu's models of development were Singapore and Malaysia and later China. But, these models were heavily tilted towards urban development, with the farmer not factored high into the scheme of things. Irrigation became an area of neglect with several promised projects such as Devadula across the Godavari in Warangal district not being given sufficient funds.

During its entire nine years in power, the TDP regime followed an unimaginative policy towards Naxalites. It held that talks with the People's War were possible only if the Naxalites gave a commitment to renounce violence, without offering to stop the repression let loose by the State police. Things came to a head when the P.W. made an attempt on Chandrababu Naidu's life at Tirupati on October 1.

Civil libertarians are anxiously watching how Rajasekhara Reddy will deal with this problem. There has been a silver lining, in the form of an offer by the new Chief Minister to lift the ban on the P.W. and its front organisations if they created a congenial atmosphere in the State by ending violence.

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