For all the noise generated by the exit polls on Monday evening, what really injected a dose of reality into the speculation about what the future may hold was the small and innocuous announcement of the civic poll results in Andhra Pradesh. The results of the elections held on March 30, after the polling process had been set in motion in the country, have shown that the TDP has done well in Seemandhra and the Congress in Telangana. The two traditional rivals in the state had recently been shaken up by a self-assured TRS in Telangana and Jaganmohan Reddy’s assertive YSR Congress in Seemandhra, each confident of forming the government after the state polls, being held simultaneously. All caveats apply, such as a different dynamic operating in these polls, which are more about individuals and local issues than about parties. But they may well turn out to be straws in the wind.
Uttar Pradesh, it is believed, will effectively decide which party gets to form the government in Delhi. But could a state like Andhra Pradesh be more expressive of what’s going on in Indian politics today? Andhra Pradesh may be the one southern state where both the Congress and the BJP are caught in a tricky situation. It may well hold lessons for India and shape the form and course of the new government much more than we may imagine.
This time, Andhra Pradesh could be the bellwether — it could reflect what is happening nationally. Mismanagement and the tendency to score self-goals are arts that the UPA 2 government perfected here. It created the Telangana problem, with considerable imagination, and then went on to (mis)handle it. On a more serious note, in both 2004 and 2009, the state epitomised the UPA’s successful performance and management of its political problems. It is also the state where, this time around, the BJP has scored its biggest and most significant southern ally — the TDP.
Except for a party from Andhra Pradesh, NTR’s TDP in 1984, a regional party has never been the second-largest in the Lok Sabha. Exactly 30 years ago, when Rajiv Gandhi got 415 seats for the Congress, the TDP won second place in a spectacular national debut.
Currently, Andhra Pradesh is being seen as important for the UPA. But even the NDA only made it to government because it had a big alliance partner in the state and, therefore, the ability to squeeze the Congress’s seats there. Winning more than 50 seats in UP is not the only important thing. When the TDP joined the NDA, it added substantially to the coalition’s kitty. Thirty-six of the state’s 42 seats were won by the TDP in 1999.
Andhra Pradesh chief ministers, be it Chandrababu Naidu or Y.S.R. Reddy, have had a significant impact on governance at the Centre. Naidu’s influence on the NDA was quite evident and Reddy’s welfarism, successfully piloted in the state, served as a beacon for the UPA.
Even though polling is over, the claims and counter-claims made by rival players during the campaign are still resonating in the state. Narendra Modi’s rallies in urban Andhra Pradesh have been an important aspect of Naidu’s campaign. In rural areas, however, the TDP has reluctantly ceded space to the popular cine star, Pawan Kalyan, Central minister Chiranjeevi’s brother, and Naidu kept the Modi pitch small and made it about his managerial abilities to build the new state. If anything, Andhra Pradesh has actually tested the BJP on how it would behave as part of a real alliance. Despite its often-repeated claims of having 25-odd allies, NDA watchers have pointed out that as many as 22 of them may not win even a single Lok Sabha seat.
For the Congress, which has deep roots and, at least till 2009, committed voters in the state, Andhra Pradesh is perhaps the only state where, even three decades after her assassination, Indira Gandhi is still a big part of the party’s posters and campaign. Even though the party has been factored out of the electoral fray in Andhra by analysts, for its handling of the bifurcation issue, you will not find anyone overtly critical of the Congress there. What is worrying Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress, which claims to have swept Seemandhra, are internal surveys indicating that the Congress will retain 15-17 per cent of its voter base. If this happens, it will be an uphill task for the YSR Congress to secure a convincing victory.
As is the case nationally, the NDA has not been able to offer an alternative economic vision in Andhra Pradesh. Despite the pleas of several fans of big business and Ronald Reagan in India, the BJP has refused to come out clearly on how “Thatcherite” a government formed by it would be. This, even though the party’s effective and assertive campaign focused on how Modi would deliver what the UPA couldn’t during the last two-three years — the period that the Congress’s critics cite as exceptionally bleak and which coincides with the anti-government media blitzkrieg, the CAG report on the 2G scam, the Lokpal campaign etc. In Andhra Pradesh, too, despite Naidu, who is proud to champion free-market economics and is known as the state’s CEO, there is not a whisper about changing or even tinkering with the YSR bouquet of schemes. Jagan has a much easier ride as he guarantees more of what his father gave the state. The YSR schemes are the framework of the debate even in Telangana. The TDP’s uncertainty is evident from how the electorate is being offered the moon and more — including two deputy chief ministers, one of whom, Naidu promises, would be a Kapu (an agricultural caste). So much for this being a caste-free election.
UP, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are witnessing four-cornered contests, making it a nightmare to predict the general trend. Unusually, this time around, Andhra Pradesh, too, is experiencing a three-cornered fight in both Telangana and Seemandhra. This has upset old certainties and given the electorate more choice. This itself could be a reflection of what might follow nationally. The BJP has aggressively projected that the end-2013 assembly election results will be repeated on a national scale — a Congress crash which will reward the BJP handsomely.
But Andhra Pradesh has shown signs that things could be different this time. The Congress is apparently set to crash from its high of 33 seats in the 2009 election. But with other new players in the fray — Jagan in Seemandhra and TRS in Telangana emerging as a big contenders — the NDA may well have a fight on its hands. The NDA’s supremacy may be more about what must be projected before May 16 than what might happen afterwards.
Friends in the Met office have been amused to see the certainty with which political parties have resorted to the language of “waves”, “tsunami” and “hawa”. The Met department will tell you that the only thing they have to worry about this summer is not the wave or wind but the current — El Nino — and how it will impact India. Political pundits have yet to weave that into their vocabulary.