It is 41 degrees in Mangalagiri. The air is thick with anticipation. At the corner of a narrow road, a crowd of yellow caps wait in neat rows as the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) flags flutter silently above their heads. “Move, move, move.” A tall man wearing gold-rimmed glasses cuts through the crowd.
Close behind, Nara Lokesh moves at a brisk pace; waving at people, pressing his hands together to greet the elderly, and halting briefly to oblige for selfies. A member of his entourage complains, “Lokesh anna, time saripodu (Lokesh brother, we will run out of time).”
Lokesh is the incumbent IT minister and the son of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu. He is contesting for the first time on a party ticket from Mangalagiri, the gateway of the state’s capital city, Amaravati.
Last time, TDP lost this Assembly constituency to YSRCP by just 12 votes, the slimmest victory margin in the 2014 elections. In fact, the election was initially a tie. Both parties had polled nearly 89,000 votes each. A recount of votes followed and YSRCP’s Alla Ramakrishna Reddy emerged as the winner after he polled 12 postal votes more than TDP’s Ganji Chiranjeevi.
The Assembly segment had been a Communist stronghold until the turn of the millennium, after which its grasp loosened despite the heavy presence of labour and trade unions in the area. The arrival of a new state capital nearby has put Mangalagiri, an Assembly constituency of nearly two lakh voters, on the map once again.
The TDP last won the seat in 1985 when Dr M S S Koteswara Rao, riding on the NTR wave, defeated yesteryear Telugu actress Jamuna of the Congress. In the last four decades, the Congress won four times and the CPM and YSRCP, once.
Lokesh is aware it wouldn’t be easy to wrest the seat but he says he is fully prepared for the fight. “TDP has quite a few seats where we have won for six-seven terms. I didn’t want to go to those constituencies, I wanted to go where TDP is relatively weaker. I can actually fight it out and turn it around and make it a stronghold for the party,” he told indianexpress.com.
Lokesh, a member of the state legislative council, hasn’t given up the position even after the party announced his name from Mangalagiri. This has led to murmurs within the party circles that his father Chandrababu has hedged his bets in case Lokesh fails to win.
It is April 2. Lokesh is canvassing in Mangalagiri municipality wards 15 and 16. Dressed in black trousers and a bright yellow linen shirt, with sleeves rolled up till the elbows, Lokesh moves from door to door, introducing himself as the TDP candidate and seeking their vote and blessings. A brooch in the shape of a golden cycle, the TDP symbol, is pinned to his shirt placket. He is running behind schedule today. Lokesh stopping every few minutes to pose for a selfie is not helping either. The IT minister, in fact, makes it a point to click them himself.
“Cycle amma, cycleu. TDP ke mana votu (It is cycle, cycle. Our vote for TDP)”.
A motley group of local youth cry in unison as Lokesh and his supporters snake through lanes and bylanes not wider than 10 feet. Chiranjeevi, the area’s municipality chairman and previous TDP candidate, who is walking a few feet ahead, pilots the campaign trail, steering it past houses strung together like threads woven on a warp and a weft.
Some of these are also home to weavers, a community that has been struggling to make ends meet. The town is renowned for its pattu and cotton sarees. The quality of work is unparalleled. However, weaving is a skillset that presently has no takers. Poor pay, lack of proper support structure and migration to other occupations has pushed the weaver community to its brink. There are approximately 52,000 people from the Padmashali community in the constituency. Historically all of them were weavers. Now, 40 per cent of them are goldsmiths.
The clacking noise of many handlooms in the area fell silent as the trade dwindled over the years. A thousand odd of those running to this day are in the grip of master weavers, who control the production from procurement of material to hiring weavers and the design of sarees. Leela Prakash, a fifth-generation weaver, says a person, on an average, earns around Rs 2,000 per month for six cotton sarees and Rs 5,000 to Rs 9,000 for those with pattu.
The community gets subsidy from the Centre to buy yarn at cheaper rates but a majority of them still rely on the master weaver who runs the handloom and provides other raw materials such as silk. The lack of growth in income has forced youth to turn away from the family trade and move towards the gold industry. Even here, Prakash says, the youth are not finding it easy as the spurt in the number of goldsmiths in the area has lowered wages across the industry.
Lokesh says the current handloom infrastructure really doesn’t cut it. “Weavers cannot compete on basic products anymore because there is so much of mechanisation and modernisation,” he says.
Handlooms need to be promoted, Lokesh said, adding that they need to be given a “modern spin”.
“What is that unique selling point that we can pitch Mangalagiri handlooms as is something that I want to really work on. And also branding. Branding plays a humungous difference. We have seen that with Araku coffee which is run by tribals has grown globally. How can we do that with the handlooms sector is what it makes even more exciting,” he says.
It is 1.30 pm, the TDP campaign bandwagon reaches Baptistu Peta, a municipality ward that has many YSRCP voters. Residents complain the municipality, headed by Chiranjeevi, has been erecting electric poles randomly without taking them into confidence. “The entrance to our house is partially blocked by this electric pole. We have petitioned Chiranjeevi numerous times to get them shifted but he hasn’t addressed the problem. Our children sometimes accidentally fall into the open drains as they have to walk around the pole,” claims Krishnaveni, a housewife.
A little further down the road, a group of women intercept Lokesh. They petition him in connection with their names missing from the list of beneficiaries eligible for the government housing scheme. Lokesh gives them a patient hearing and promises to immediately address their issues.
Earlier this year, the government allotted 4 lakh homes under the NTR Rural Housing Scheme and the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY). The state and Central governments grant Rs 1.5 lakh each towards the construction of houses for families with less than Rs 6 lakh annual income. The rest of the cost is borne by the beneficiary.
Lakshmi, a TDP member living on rent in the area for nearly 40 years, claims local councillor Srinivas Rao sought a Rs 30,000 bribe to get her name added in the list. “I didn’t get a house. I feel I will get justice from Lokesh babu. Our ward councillor Srinivas Rao did not give us houses. He asked me for money. He asked me Rs 30,000 bribe…We all payed through the councillor. Chandrababu Naidu is giving homes to the poor but these dalas are not letting it happen,” she said.
She adds that rents have touched the sky after the capital came up nearby. “I get a government pension of Rs 2,000. We have been paying a rent of Rs 2,500 per month. Ever since the capital city came up, our rents have gone up considerably,” she said.
Many of them, however, hope that with the capital city nearby there would be a spillover effect in terms of development, especially infrastructure and that Mangalagiri would gain considerably from it.
The YSRC has retained sitting MLA Ramakrishna Reddy, a local resident, as its candidate. Chiranjeevi, his previous opponent, feels the TDP will win with the highest majority this time as Ramakrishna Reddy did not do much in the last five years. “People of the constituency are hoping that if a CM-level candidate is the MLA, the development would be beyond expectations. He disregarded the problems of his constituents and went after other unnecessary issues. He tried to highlight himself individually and failed whoever elected him with the hopes of solving their problems,” Chiranjeevi said.
A local resident who did not wish to be identified claims the response to TDP campaign so far in the urban segment of Mangalagiri has been lukewarm. “If you notice closely, people are not stepping out of their homes in large numbers to welcome Lokesh,” he said. There is anger against the incumbent MLA and also hope that Lokesh would turn things around, he adds.
Mangalagiri is also home to Lord Panakala Narasimha Swamy. According to the local legend, the temple sits at the foot of a volcanic hill. Devotees feed Panakam — water mixed with jaggery — to Lord Narasimha Swamy in the belief that it would stop the volcano from erupting.
The TDP, in this election, is hoping that its pro-poor sops will neutralise any anti-incumbency across the state.