By T S Sudhir
Disclaimer : This post is not about predicting who will win the battle for the residuary state of Andhra Pradesh. At least I will not stick my neck out in public because in the age of social media, I do not want my Twitter timeline to be abused by trolls using inappropriate vocabulary.
It is a fascinating contest taking place in the heat and dust of Seemandhra. The mood is angry out there as the wounds of bifurcation haven’t healed completely, the feeling of `we will show them’ is burning in their hearts. They are still uttering the `D’ word but this `D’ is not about division but about Development. Despite the loss of Hyderabad, those in Seemandhra want to show that they can build a state better than Telangana and a brand new capital city that would be the envy of those living in the city of the Charminar.
That is the context in which this match is being played between Nara Chandrababu Naidu and Y S Jaganmohan Reddy in the 25 Lok Sabha and 175 assembly constituencies of Seemandhra. With the Congress out of the race and also-rans like Kiran Kumar Reddy there only as side actors, it is a clear one-on-one fight. No holds barred.
These are my takeaways from my travelling around Seemandhra districts and conversations (and phone chats) with both partisan and neutral observers of politics in this region.
The most obvious question that every visitor from the north of the Vindhyas would like to know the answer to. On the surface, there is no Modi wave. No one even talks about the NDA’s PM candidate in these parts. But listen carefully and you will realise why Seemandhra’s results may well leave Modi smiling.
The disgust against the Congress is so deep, so intense that the natural beneficiary of that anger is Modi. When people look for a national option that is fiercely anti-Congress, Modi becomes the most obvious choice as far as Parliament is concerned. That is where Naidu has done the smart thing by tying up with Modi. Because then Naidu gains from the desire of those voters who are looking at who should occupy 7 RCR next and those votes are likely to go into the TDP-BJP alliance kitty.
In contrast, Jagan has virtually nothing to offer as far as New Delhi is concerned. Apart from a feeble proclamation that he is willing to do business with anyone but the Congress. For a state looking for dollops of grants from Delhi, having ruling party MPs would help. This factor will give Naidu a decisive edge over Jagan in the Lok Sabha polls in Seemandhra, particularly in constituencies with a higher awareness quotient. The tide may not be against YSRC to the same extent in LS seats with a higher proportion of not-so-politically aware voters.
The Pawan Kalyan factor
The reason why Modi is not such a talking point is also because the BJP in this region is a non-entity in Seemandhra. With Kishan Reddy reducing the Andhra Pradesh unit in the last five years to a Telangana unit, the Seemandhra unit of the BJP was a decrepit outfit. But what is helping its cause is the pinch-hitting that actor Pawan Kalyan has done for Modi in the last one week of the campaign. The actor has a tremendous fan following and he is using his fan clubs and Jana Sena to take the message of `Modi for PM’ to the masses in Seemandhra far better than the BJP. If the BJP-TDP alliance does well, they owe it in large measure to Pawan Kalyan.
The hope is that like elder brother Chiranjeevi whose party Praja Rajyam polled a large number of Kapu votes in 2009, Pawan would be able to net a majority of the 27 per cent Kapu vote in Seemandhra. A large number of first-time voters in Guntur told me that they will vote for TDP only because Pawan Kalyan told them to. While a large number of votes he would attract would come from the community, the flip side is that he is seen more as an actor, some kind of a youth icon and not so much as a Kapu representative. Also the Kapus are not entirely comfortable voting for a Kamma party (TDP) so I doubt how many votes will get transferred because of Pawan’s campaigning for the alliance.
The fact that Naidu at the last minute announced that one of the two deputy CMs will be a Kapu, reveals his desperation and perhaps an indication that Pawan has not been able to convince the community to plump for the bicycle. This is significant.
As a damage control measure, YSR Congress has managed to persuade Kapunadu, an umbrella organisation representing the community to back the party. Moreover, YSRC has fielded a fair number of Kapu candidates in key constituencies.
Development Development Development
Like Vidya Balan in `The Dirty Picture’ says “Entertainment Entertainment Entertainment”, Naidu has gone into overdrive uttering the Development word. With hoardings of Naidu with Bill Gates and Hi-Tec city plastered all over urban constituencies of Seemandhra, Naidu is promising to create another Cyberabad. Talk to people who have seen Naidu as CM between 1995-2004 and they want to give him a chance. They see in him a more mature and visionary leader, wiser from having been dumped twice by the voters, who would put Seemandhra on the path to development. In contrast, to this section of the electorate, Jagan comes across as an inexperienced leader along with also the taint of corruption cases against him.
Naidu’s credibility crisis
But then this does not mean everyone is in favour of Naidu. The former CM still suffers from a credibility crisis, especially in the countryside and most remember his tendency to use and throw. There are also two Naidus who are campaigning. One is for the urban areas promising development and the other offering dollops of unimplementable and economically nonsensical sops. Politicians who offer fish to eat without making the unskilled learn fishing, can be disastrous.
This is the cuss word Naidu utters everytime he has to abuse Jagan. He calls him a psycho and derides him by saying his place is in jail. Jagan too has provided ammunition by giving tickets to people like industrialists like Koneru Prasad (Vijayawada LS) and Ayodhya Rami Reddy (Narsaraopet LS) who are chargesheeted in different cases, like him. But is the criticism working? Among the educated lot in urban centres, yes. But talk to people in rural Seemandhra and they ask you who is not corrupt and whether Naidu is 100% clean.
Jagan’s argument that the cases were politically motivated too has worked for him as most people believe that he would not have gone to jail if he had stayed on in the Congress.
More than himself, his mother and sister, it is his dad’s legacy that is working like a fixed deposit for Jagan. Eight of every ten YSR Congress supporters who I spoke to, in any part of Seemandhra, have good things to say about YSR and how they want to give the son a chance because the father passed away soon after they had given him a second term in May 2009. But will this feel-good factor alone work magic for Jagan, up against the might of Modi-Naidu-Pawan Kalyan, is the question. But if he has to encash it, it has to be now. 2019 will be too far away.
The Minorities factor
Losing this vote is a calculated risk Naidu has taken and this entire bloc could move to Jagan. Muslims constitute 4.5% of the coastal AP population but it is the Christian population that is his biggest strength. On paper, they are an insignificant number but a large of practising Christians are still seen in census as Dalits and other backward classes. That number is estimated roughly as around 10%. The BJP tie-up will make them shun the TDP even though they know Jagan too could go with Modi post polls if he gets the seats.
Telugu Congress Party
The biggest blunder Naidu committed was to admit a whole lot of Congress turncoats into the TDP, converting it into a branch office of Indira Bhavan. If they were liabilities in the Congress, how can they win elections in the TDP. Getting TDP cadre to gel with the campaigners of the Congress turncoat and to canvas for someone who you criticised till a month ago, has been Naidu’s biggest challenge. If the TDP suffers in the assembly contest, it will because of this singular reason. I suspect many of them will lose.
Have money, will contest
It does not matter if you have never been in politics before. If you are loaded and willing to splurge, you are welcome to wear the party colours. Any party. Look at the profile of the candidates and you will know why. From Jaydev Galla to Koneru Prasad to Rami Reddy to Kesineni Nani, both the TDP and YSRC have fielded crorepati candidates. Those in the know of things say, many a candidate is spending between 10 to 25 crore rupees in an assembly contest and upto 70 crores in a Lok Sabha contest. Imagine the next few years will be spent in recovering that money with interest. “In politics, it is easy,” said a former MP. Thankyou.
Congress = Zero
This is the side story of this election. The ruling party that sent 29 and 33 MPs to Parliament in 2004 and 2009 respectively is poised to fall to unimaginable depths this election. Its vote share is unlikely to even touch double digits in Seemandhra and it will be a miracle if it wins any Lok Sabha seat. Chiranjeevi, its star campaigner, has not drawn any crowds and if you asked people to name the Congress candidate, in most cases they did not even know. But the anger against the Congress is not just because of bifurcation, it is also due to lack of good governance in the last five years. The electorate is fed up with the Congress and they want to deliver it a stinging electoral slap. “Iss thappad ki goonj suni tum ne” (Did you hear the sound of this slap?)
At the Guntur rally, the only one Sonia Gandhi addressed in Seemandhra, hired crowds (for 100 to 200 rupees per person) admitted they were upset with the Congress decision to bifurcate but came only because money was offered. A farce of a democracy Indian elections have become.
Kiran Kumar Reddy, a non-entity
A traffic constable manning the crowded Kaleshwaram market in Vijayawada, where Kiran Kumar Reddy was addressing a public meeting, told me, “If it was not for the fact that he was our CM, we will never allow him to hold a meeting in such a place, throwing the traffic out of gear. He is a loser.” One wonders why Kiran is even bothering to campaign since he is not even a serious player in the race. At best, he will eat into a bit of the Jagan vote and only help TDP in the bargain.
Since this is a straight contest, even a margin of 2 per cent difference between YSRC and TDP-BJP can result in a huge difference in the harvest of seats and convey the impression of a sweep. But on the ground, each seat is being very fiercely contested.
At the moment, Naidu seems to be ahead in the race, with a clear edge. Partly because of the alliance’s focus on 94 of the 175 seats that are urban or semi-urban. But poor candidate selection (two in every district, by TDP’s own admission) means the party starts with a minus of at least 25 assembly seats.
Elections are usually decided in the last 48 hours. A lot will also depend on the distribution of money and liquor at the last minute by both parties and whether that will sway a large number of voters. Also established merchants of community votebanks also will be purchased enmasse by both parties. The voting percentage will also matter as a higher turnout will work to the TDP-BJP’s advantage.
A defeat for Jagan will leave him licking his wounds and put him at the mercy of a Chandrababu Naidu who is on record saying he would like to send him to jail. A defeat for Naidu – a third one in a row – would end his political career and poachers would gobble up the TDP. As far as the Congress is concerned, it will take a lot of effort for it to ensure it does not go the Tamilnadu way in Andhra Pradesh.