Ajith Vijay Kumar
Andhra Pradesh presents a key challenge to UPA in its endeavour to come back to power at the Centre, it also marks a very decisive turning point in the way elections are fought and won in this key state.
Andhra Pradesh will have simultaneous polls to the State Assembly and Parliament on April 16 and 23.
In 2004, the Congress had registered a landslide win both in the Assembly and as well as Lok Sabha polls. It had won 29 out of the total 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state, while its then partner the Telengana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) won five seats, effectively ensuring that the Congress got the numbers required to emerge as the single largest party in 2004.
If it wants to retain power at the Centre, it has to repeat its performance in the crucial state of Andhra Pradesh and the Congress knows it.
Had it been December 2008, Chief Minister YSR Reddy would have been a smiling man. Exit poll after poll was projecting him as the undisputed leader in the state. His key pro-poor schemes policies like the Indiramma housing scheme for BPL families, pension scheme for old age people and widows, rice at Rs 2/kilo etc were doing well and more importantly his opposition was a divided house.
The TDP was nowhere in the picture, shorn of any allies, it was only a pale shadow of its glorious past.
But now things are different, economic downturn has neutralised any “feel good” sentiments that the YSR had hoped to bank upon.
Then the first setback: TRS announced its withdrawal of support to the UPA over the Telengana issue and pulled out of the government in the state.
In one stroke the wily Chandrashekar Rao robbed Congress of the “vote netting” Telegana cause and in turn also projected his party as a martyr.
The Opposition has also, successfully, resurrected itself to present a credible challenge to the ruling dispensation.
In the last elections, the TDP had suffered a complete rout, while its alliance partner BJP was wiped out. But times have changed and with it have changed the political affiliations.
In a series of deft “Chandrababu style” manoeuvres, the TDP brought itself back into political contention not just in the state but also on the national level.
Firstly, the TDP has wrangled out of the NDA and then Chandrababu garu set off on ‘Mee kosam’ (for your sake) yatra, crisscrossing the state in his yellow custom built rath, Chandrababu did all he could to highlight what he called the misrule in the state.
Then the big move; Naidu who had been a very vocal opponent of the Telengana idea did an absolute U-turn and came out in support of the separate state cause.
Naidu didn’t stop at that, in a clear political shift, he joined hands with his one time bitter adversary Chandrashekhar Rao of the TRS.
But the most decisive blow to the Congress’ fortunes was the formation of a grand alliance (Mahakootami) with the TRS, the CPI (M) and the CPI.
Also adding to the woes of the Congress is the emergence of Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam party. Promising to bring “peoples rule”, the filmi party rolled out announcing the emergence of the third pole in state politics.
Although YSR is accepted as a strong leader, his grip has loosened considerably in the past few months.
The reasons for this fall in his acceptability are not too hard to find. For the start, he and his family are battling numerous corruption charges, the biggest being the allegations of them being involved in the Satyam Computer and Maytas Infrastructure mega scams.
Secondly, the Congress is fighting large scale dissention, what is compounding the problem is that the “fleers” are not necessarily joining rival camps instead plan to fight as independents against the official candidates.
The gravity of the situation can be judged from the fact that Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee president D Srinivas had to order the expulsion of 40 party leaders who have entered the election fray against the official candidates.
The not so strong Third Front
Although the Third Front alliance in the state holds promise but the differences among the four parties over seat sharing have raised doubts on the ability of this alliance to fight the next month`s elections unitedly.
The “problem” is now reportedly over as the grand alliance constituents have now vowed to work together to defeat the Congress.
As per the new agreement TDP will now contest 29 Lok Sabha and 219 assembly seats. Nine Lok Sabha and 45 assembly seats would be contested by the TRS, two Lok Sabha and 16 assembly seats by CPI-M and two Lok Sabha and 14 assembly seats by the CPI.
It remains to bee seen whether they will stand united all through the elections and after.
The number game
In 2004, out of the 42 seats in the state, the Congress was victorious in 29 seats, while its alliance partner TRS had won five. Chandra Babu Naidu`s TDP was restricted to just 5, while BJP could not open its account. Other parties CPM, CPI and AIMIM had won one seats each.
The real picture becomes evident by taking the vote share of key players into consideration.
The Congress got 41.56% votes in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, while the TDP and TRS got 33.12% and 6.83% votes respectively.
While in the Assembly elections held simultaneously that year the Congress had a vote share of 38.56%, TDP bagged 37.59% votes while the TRS got 6.68% votes.
The vote share comparison brings out two interesting observations. Firstly, the TDP suffered along with the NDA as its share in the votes polled for choosing MPs was considerably less than what it netted for the Assembly elections.
Secondly, with the TRS switching sides and the 3% vote share of the Left, it’s advantage Naidu and company in Telengana which accounts for 119 assembly seats and 17 Lok Sabha seats.
If the Grand Allaince cracks Telengana, then it would be very difficult for the Congress to “arrange” the numbers.
A stronger TDP and anti-incumbency and its unclear stand on Telengana –despite Sonia’s assertion that the Congress is for its creation - may result in it losing out on votes..
The Chiru factor
While the BJP is nowhere in the picture and the main contest will be between Congress and the TDP led front, it’s the Praja Rajyam party that hold the potential to effectuate surprising results.
Going by the overwhelming response the “for change” party is getting the Congress and the TDP are rightly having anxious moments in the run up to the polls.
Although the Praja Rajyam cadre have been campaigning in every nook and corner of the state, the actual impact of Chiru would be felt in the coastal Andhra region (124 seats) where the Kappus – Chiru’s caste – reside in overwhelming numbers.
East Godavari, West Godavari, Krishna, Chittoor and Anantapur are expected to swing towards Chiranjeevi.
His party is also expected to be deciding factor in Vishakhapattanam and Guntur districts.
Moreover, the Congress’ assessment that Chiru will harm the Opposition more than it would harm the grand old party, may not turn into a reality given the complexities of the prevalent political equations in the state.
For Chiranjeevi the challenge lies in ensuring that his party doesn’t limit its identity as a Kapu party but emerge as the engine for social change – the very theme of many of Chiru’s super hit movies.
And, he would be praying that the huge crowds at his meetings, largely made up of youth, will, when it matters, translate into votes.
When it comes to be smitten by film stars, Andhra fans come very close to the hysteria displayed in Tamil Nadu.
This election season too, star power is exploding on the Andhra Pradesh’s election scene like never before, with popular actors attracting thousands as they go their campaign trail.
The most prominent of the star campaigners is Junior NTR - the grandson of NT Rama Rao - had taken rural Andhra by storm when he went about seeking votes for his uncle Chandrababu Naidu.
But tragedy stuck TDP’s poll juggernaut when Junior NTR suffered serious injuries in a road accident, owing to which he had to withdraw from active campaigning.
NTR`s son N Balakrishna has also been campaigning for the TDP and getting good response in the coastal Andhra districts.
Buoyed by the public response, Chandrababu Naidu had infact asserted proudly, “Junior NTR and Balakrishna are like a tsunami which will sweep away the Congress party”.
The Congress was struggling to equal TDP in star power before yesteryear actor Krishna declared his support.
The Congress also has some “not so” big stars in its fold like Rajasekhar, Jeevitha and actress Jayasudha but that’s nothing when compared to the magic of Junior NTR.
The other fulcrum in the star studded poll tamasha in AP is actor-turned-politician Chiranjeevi who has been on a whirlwind tour of the state along with his actor brothers Pavan Kalyan and Naga Babu.
The other worthwhile presence is that of “Lady Amitabh" Vijayshanti, who is campaigning for the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS).
Telangana is once again at the centre of the political debate in Andhra Pradesh. Ever since MC Reddy twice became chief minister leading a violent Telangana agitation, the dry parched land in the north has been a key ingredient in the political concoctions brewed by states’ politicians.
To be fair, Telangana cause does have merit as the region has remained backward even when there has been all round development in the coastal Andhra region. It never progressed in tandem with coastal districts.
After many failed starts by many other champions of the Telangana cause, Telangana Rashtra Samithi president K Chandrasekhar Rao hit gold with his movement on the issue rapidly gaining currency.
As a result the TRS gained substantially in subsequent polls, which in turn gave the regional player a stake in the national scene. Joining the UPA and then leaving it over what it called the “un kept promise” of creating a separate state, the TRS has been al along in the very centre of the fight for statehood.
Notwithstanding the shock defeat in the Lok Sabha by-polls, the TRS is expected to be the difference between winning and losing Telengana – something that is crucial to win the state.
The Congress is also going with the sentiment with Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy declared that his government had no objection to the formation of Telangana State in principle.
The Congress assertion stems for the realisation that unless it wins 60-70 seats here, it would be difficult for it to retain power in the state.
The TDP on the other hand, in a complete turnaround, has promised Telangana if it is returned to power. Probably Naidu remembers the drubbing it got from the regions electorate last time around.
The BJP, hoping for a change in fortunes, has promised Telangana within 100 days of coming to power at the Centre.
Chiranjeevi also didn’t think it wise to go with the majority sentiment and said that he also supports the cause but threw in a word of caution by saying that he would prefer ‘a peaceful parting of ways among brothers.’
And the result is
Although there has never been a hung Assembly in Andhra, the three cornered contest this time around is sure to throw up surprises.
Many analysts have stuck their neck out and predicted a hung Assembly, conservative opinion at least estimates a neck-to-neck fight between the Congress and TDP-led front with Chiranjeevi playing a spoiler in the coastal areas.
Whether the electorate goes with YSR Reddy’s soaps or Naidu’s star power or Chiranjeevi’s promise for change remains to be seen but one thing is sure, 2009 will be remembered as the year when Andhra’s political equations changed forever.