This is the last time Andhra Pradesh will vote as one state before it splits. Sreenivas Janyala captures the poll fervour on either side of the divide.
Telangana: TRS vs Cong
It’s a warm evening at the Kalasala Ground in Karimnagar. K Chandrasekhara Rao, KCR garu to his supporters, wears the pink scarf of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) over his signature whites and gets down to doing what he does best — giving his opponents a tongue-lashing. As always, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader Chandrababu Naidu’s dilly-dallying on Telangana makes him an easy target. “Chandrababu says he won’t go from Telangana. What work do you have here,” asks the TRS chief, pausing for effect. “So he is contesting elections here. As if anyone is going to vote for him here in Telangana!” The crowd, mostly youngsters, howl and cheer lustily.
The Karimnagar Lok Sabha seat and the 13 Assembly seats in the district are important for the TRS. Karimnagar has been at the centrestage of the Telangana movement since 1969, a legacy KCR has been quick to hold on to. He had contested as an MP from Karimnagar in 2004. Again in the 2006 and 2008 bypolls, he won from the same constituency. This election, though KCR is contesting from Medak — both Medak Lok Sabha seat and Gajwale Assembly constituency in Medak district — the TRS’s hopes of forming the government hinge heavily on the support that Karimnagar gives it. But this has traditionally been a Congress bastion. It was in Karimnagar in 2009 that Sonia Gandhi had promised a separate Telangana state.
The TRS is wary about the Congress’s belated push in the region. Rallies by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi in Karimnagar are said to have rejuvenated the cadre and may help the party put up a fight in the north Telangana districts of Adilabad, Nizamabad and Karimnagar, where the party is popular.
The TRS is betting on the euphoria over the formation of Telangana, hoping that it will help the party sweep seven of the 10 Telangana districts. The party has gone to the people with the claim that it was their agitation that made Telangana a reality. The Congress is claiming that without Sonia, Telangana would have remained a dream. The BJP says that if Sushma Swaraj had not made her statement in Parliament, the T-Bill would not have gone through. With so many claimants to the statehood pie, it is a noisy and crowded field.
At the Karimnagar rally, KCR is warming up. “Is there something wrong if I want to become the chief minister? Some people are asking why TRS is not talking about a Dalit CM. Then why isn’t Chandrababu naming a Dalit CM candidate?” Rao comes from the Velama community, a forward caste in Telangana, and he has certainly come a long way from the days he spoke of nominating a Dalit as CM.
“We will develop our state the way Telangana people want it. Only the TRS can do that,” he says, before rattling off a series of sops and promising ‘Bangaru Telangana’ or Golden Telangana. “We want to build homes for the poor and backward classes. I am not talking of those matchbox houses that Andhra governments have been building so far. We plan to spend Rs 50,000 crore for the poor and backward sections,” he says.
The basis for the formation of Telangana was the region’s ‘backwardness’. Unemployment and the lack of irrigation are two major issues this election. The YSR government’s pro-poor schemes such as scholarships for backward classes and fee-reimbursement schemes and the mushrooming of a number of private educational institutions have helped thousands of students complete their engineering degrees but most of these youngsters are either unemployed or underemployed. It’s this section of voters — young, mostly first-time voters, high on Telangana sentiment and hope — who who may turn the tide in the TRS’s favour.
Many of them believe the new state will generate thousands of government jobs. “I am sure there will be a lot of jobs because all the Seemandhra people will leave to join their state government and the Telangana government will start recruiting,” says P Ramakotaiah, a student of Nagarjuna college in Nalgonda. But won’t he have to clear the State Public Service Commission exam to get a government job? Ramakotaiah doesn’t seem to know and simply chants a jingoistic “Jai Telangana” in response.
“The TRS will benefit from young voters because they are the ones who participated in the statehood agitation. These are traditionally Congress votes,” says Mellapalli Lakshmaiah, former journalist and coordinator of the Centre for Dalit Studies and vice-chairman of the Telangana Joint Action Committee.
That’s just the beginning of the Congress’s woes. Besides watching the TRS walk away with the Telangana thunder, the party is battling internal dissent and has to face 30 rebels who are in the fray as Independents after being denied tickets.
But G Haragopal, political scientist and professor at the School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad, says the Congress may still put up a fight. “Ninety per cent of Telangana’s population is OBC and they will dump the TDP after its alliance with the BJP. So now, it is a contest between the TRS and Congress. The TRS had an edge a month ago but the Congress may see a late surge,” he says.
For now, the wind seems to be blowing the TRS’s way. “The Congress may have got the Telangana Bill passed in Parliament, but it was the TRS that fought for Telangana. The party must be given a chance to realise people’s dream of a well-developed Telangana,” says B Satish Kumar, undergraduate student who had turned up for KCR’s public meeting at Karimnagar.
A smooth four-lane highway built by the GMR Group takes you to Nalgonda. The Congress has a strong presence here. KCR is addressing a rally at the Mekala Abhinav Stadium and is late by over two hours, but the crowd doesn’t seem to mind. A few folk artists and DJs have the audience under their spell. Finally, at 7.20 pm, KCR arrives, takes the microphone and hits out at the TDP and the Congress. But for the first time today, the KCR magic seems to be waning. Unlike in Karimnagar, there are no hearty cheers so KCR changes tack and talks of fluorosis in Nalgonda district, quoting WHO reports. Still doesn’t work. People head for the exit gates and by the time KCR winds up his speech, the stadium is nearly empty.
Before Telangana was formed, KCR had a full repertoire of expletives against ‘Andhrawallas’. Now, with statehood no longer an issue, his arsenal is somewhat depleted and he struggles to strike a rapport with the audience.
“I liked his speeches earlier, when he would rip apart Seemandhra leaders. He doesn’t deliver those punch lines anymore,” says Ravi Goud, who spent Rs 60 to travel from Pochampally, about 35 km away, to hear KCR speak.
Seemandhra: YSRCP vs TDP
Proddutur is no place for a rock star. But this town in YSR Kadapa district knows what it is to see one. So as Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy’s convoy of SUVs inches forward, N Venkata Shiva jostles and pushes to stay ahead of the swelling crowd on either side of the road. And when he finally sees Jagan, the 44-year-old electrician pumps his fist in the air and shouts a rapturous “Jai Jagan”. It is infectious and soon, thousands of voices start chanting, “Jai Jagan, Jai YSR”.
Jagan’s on-road campaigns can go horribly wrong. People throw themselves in front of his modified mini-bus, risk their lives and limbs just to shake hands with him. He obliges everyone, halting everywhere, and the convoy proceeds painfully slowly.
A few metres ahead, Jagan climbs on to the roof of the vehicle and a group of students from Vignana Bharathi Institute of Technology cheer loudly. One of them, 22-year-old Vardharaj Reddy, is filled with emotion as he says, “Ma Jagan anna puli bidda (My Jagan is a lion cub). Only he will rule Seemandhra.”
Kadapa, the turf of the late Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, is Jagan’s launch pad. But his popularity extends far beyond Kadapa to the remotest parts of Rayalaseema and the coastal districts, collectively known as Seemandhra.
Ever since he resigned from the Congress in November 2010 and launched the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) the next month, Jagan has charted his own course. Except for the 16 months he was in jail after the CBI arrested him in the disproportionate assets case, he has spent his time touring the state. Jagan is MP from Kadapa — he won with a record-breaking margin of 5,21,000 votes in the May 2011 by-elections — but has now moved to Pulivendula Assembly seat which was represented by his late father YSR seven times.
This election, his YSRCP has a distinct edge in Seemandhra. What has added to his appeal is that his was one of the few political parties to resolutely stand for a united Andhra.
It is a humid evening at Chilkaluripeta in Guntur district and Jagan’s convoy is late by more than two hours. The mood is festive. Young men on bikes zip through the small town’s lanes, raising slogans; women take up vantage points in balconies of nearby buildings. When Jagan finally arrives, people gathered at the Kala Mandir Centre raise shouts of joy.
Ramesh Kondareddy, 19, a first-time voter and an ITI (electrical) student, says, “Jagan is the only one who will look after the poor and socially backward, just like his father YSR did. We want to see him as the CM.”
Looking at the adulation, it seems Jagan will have a cakewalk. But that’s only till you see the subtle momentum building up in the TDP-BJP alliance.
The TDP is seeing a late resurgence in the north coastal districts of Srikakulam, Vizianagaram and Visakhapatnam. This is the stomping ground of the rich and powerful agriculturists and landowners whose wealth fuelled the growth of Hyderabad. “They are betting on Naidu as the one who will take Seemandhra in the right direction. They have seen and experienced his development strategy, although it was only about Hyderabad then,” says political analyst and author
C Narasimha Rao.
Besides, the party may have found its answer to Jagan’s popularity by getting actor Pawan Kalyan, brother of actor-turned-politician K Chiranjeevi of the Congress, on its side. Pawan, who is hugely popular among the youth, launched the Jana Sena Party last month, declared his support for Narendra Modi and agreed to campaign for the TDP. Last week, Pawan shared the dais with Modi and Naidu at a public meeting in Hyderabad.
But those sceptical of Naidu’s BJP tie-up say he has taken a big risk because the BJP has no political base in coastal and Rayalaseema districts. “Naidu is banking heavily on his alliance with Narendra Modi. His strategy is that people want to see Modi as the prime minister and therefore they will vote for the TDP. Whether this will work is a big question,” say analyst Telakapalli Ravi.
For now, Naidu’s show of strength is no less than the YSRCP’s. At Pedana Road, 70 km from Vijayawada, in Krishna district, Naidu’s road-show turns into a massive public meeting.
To applause and cheers, Naidu talks of his nine-year rule in Andhra Pradesh and promises to take everyone along this time. “During my padayatra, I have seen the sufferings of people in our state. Only the TDP can ensure that social justice is done and the poor and economically backward classes are taken care of,” he says.
“Many of us feel Naidu, who has a good image not only in the country but abroad too, will develop cities in Seemandhra just the way he developed Hyderabad. Jagan Reddy also promises to do so but Naidu is tried and tested,” says Sai Prasad, a leader of the local Kapu community in Vijayawada.
“Till 2004, the fight in Seemandhra was between the TDP and Congress. In 2009, for the first time, there was a third factor — Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam Party (PRP). Now, there is no Congress, no PRP. It is a straight fight between the YSRCP and TDP. The middle- and upper-class in urban and semi-urban areas of north coastal districts appear to have their loyalties with the TDP. Even in the south coastal districts, Naidu is looking to consolidate his position and that is the reason he bargained so hard with the BJP. The YSRCP continues to remain strong in the rural areas,” says analyst Rao.
Jagan’s mother Y S Vijayalakshmi is contesting from the Visakhapatnam Lok Sabha seat in coastal Andhra, vacating Pulivendula in Rayalaseema for son Jagan. At her massive public meeting on RK Beach Road in Vizag, it’s raining promises. Just as KCR promises a “golden Telangana”, here Vijayalakshmi promises to bring back the “golden days” of YSR if they vote Jagan to power. “A vote for the YSRCP will mean good days ahead as you will be voting for a leader with commitment. We will make Vizag the next IT destination.”