Updated: March 31, 2019 9:30:10 am
A stream of trucks laden with crushed granite coming from internal roads join National Highway 65 near Donebanda, a few miles after crossing into Andhra Pradesh from Telangana. Most of the trucks are headed to Amaravati where the new Andhra capital is coming up, or to housing sites in Vijayawada. But the construction boom less than 50 km away seems lost on the people of Mylavaram Assembly seat, where entire hill ranges are being blasted to mine granite needed for the construction.
“The contractors and politicians are making money. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government has nothing for the common man,” says K Raju, 42, a supervisor at one of the stone crushing units, his anger directed at the TDP’s ‘Janmabhoomi’ village-level committees. In 2016, the TDP had formed these 40-member panels to identify families eligible for government schemes in villages.
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According to Raju, these committees manipulate the list in such a way that “the beneficiaries are mostly their family members, TDP cadre or sympathisers. There is nothing left for anybody else”.
Across Krishna, East and West Godavari districts, the narrative has changed in the last one year. Ahead of the April 11 elections when Andhra votes for both the Assembly and Lok Sabha, no one is talking issues like Special Category Status or Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu’s promise of a world-class capital. It’s all about sops and schemes, who has got what and who has been left out.
Y S Jaganmohan Reddy too has been citing the tenure of his father, Y S R Reddy, and his schemes such as Re 1 per kg rice, Indiramma housing, fee reimbursement for students till graduation, and the Arogyasree health scheme, that are still remembered fondly.
Traditionally, the party that wins the most seats in East and West Godavari districts forms the government in Andhra. East Godavari has 19 Assembly seats (out of 175) and 3 Lok Sabha constituencies (out of 25), while there are 15 and 3 in West Godavari.
A little ahead on the highway, at Satyanarayanapuram, Veera Babu, a private schoolteacher, says Jagan’s YSR Congress Party would have swept the elections but for Naidu’s “last-minute sops” and “the improvement in infrastructure in villages”.
The TDP would welcome this change of narrative. Just a year ago, Naidu had been forced to take up the issue of special status, pushed to the backfoot by an aggressive Jagan. Naidu had gone on to even snap ties with the BJP, for its Central government not conceding the demand.
Cut to March 2019, and YSRCP Vijayawada Lok Sabha constituency candidate Potluri Vara Prasad calls the issue boring. A YSRCP leader justifies, “It is a long debate… The Centre has made it clear it is disinclined to give the status, so it is not a hot topic.”
One of the schemes the TDP expects to be a gamechanger is 2BHK housing. Under it, the Naidu government allotted houses to beneficiaries or, if the beneficiaries owned land, gave money for building a house. With beneficiaries required to bear a portion of the cost, many are opting for bigger flats by taking bank loans. According to Rural Housing Minister Kalava Srinivasulu, nearly 11 lakh houses have been given in the last four years.
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While anti-incumbency has pushed TDP to the wall, the slew of welfare schemes and sops announced in the last two months have given it a fighting chance. On the other hand, Jaganmohan Reddy, who has been laying the groundwork for more than 3 years, is poised to give a tough fight.
Starting February 2018, the elderly have been receiving pension of Rs 2,000 per month. Another hit are separate corporations for Kapu, Backward Classes, SCs, STs, and Brahmins, which give subsidised loans. This February, the government started a Pasupu Kumkuma scheme under which Rs 10,000 and a smart phone are given to women Self-Help Group members. Nearly 93 lakh have received the first cheque of Rs 3,000. Another much discussed scheme is Annadata Sukhibhava, announced last month, assuring Rs 10,000 per annum to every farmer.
In Unguturu, deep in West Godavari district, paddy farmers like Gudivada Venkataramana have benefited from Annadata Sukhibhava. The scheme also includes tenant farmers, though Mallesh Rao, who doubles up as a daily wager, says they are yet to see the money.
The Andhra Pradesh Brahmin Welfare Cooperation now has cooperative credit offices across villages. “It is good that the TDP recognised that the Brahmin community also needs support as there are very poor families among us too,” says a government official who doesn’t want to be identified.
Backward Classes comprise about 50 per cent of the population in Andhra. Kapus are approximately 17 per cent, SC/STs around 18 per cent, and Muslims 9 per cent. Both the TDP and YSRCP have a huge support base among the BCs and SCs/STs. While Kammas (5 per cent of the population) are with the TDP, the Reddys (8 per cent) back Jagan.
In the rural areas of Rajahmundry, Kapus who had been angry with Naidu for failing to include them as a backward class, which would enable quota in education and jobs, are now rallying behind the TDP. “The change came with the Kapu Corporation, which is helping families,” says Veera Swami of Nidadavole town in West Godavari, who purchased a cab with a loan from the corporation and is now hoping to build a house.
At Tanuku in West Godavari district, Kapus also welcome Naidu’s promise of 5 per cent quota for the community from the 10 per cent EWS reservation.
But if the TDP hopes to reap the sop bonanza, the flip side is the consistent complaint that the beneficiaries have been chosen for their caste or political affiliations.
Some sections of backward classes and large sections of SCs/STs claim they have been left out. “The TDP has transferred funds meant for SCs/STs to other schemes. People want Jagan, who will carry the entire state together,” says Mala leader of Krishna district K Palle Rao. Associations of backward classes and SCs/STs accuse sitting TDP Eluru MP Maganti Venkateshwara Rao, who has been renominated, of not even meeting them.
In Amalapuram in East Godavari, retired school principal P Raghavendra Reddy says sops are the only issue this time. “Naidu announced some sops but it is very late and not everyone is included. BCs are angry because half of them have been left out. The SCs and STs have been excluded because the TDP feels they will anyway vote for Jagan,” he says.
Naidu’s son Lokesh denies that the TDP has selectively chosen beneficiaries. “These must be isolated cases. There is zero involvement of our cadre in benefits,” he says.
But even those critical of the TDP acknowledge Naidu’s contribution in bringing development down to villages. Roads have been widened and cemented across districts, and sewerage pipelines are being laid, further establishing Naidu’s image as a doer, at least in the urban areas. Many people assert only Naidu could have done so much “without the Centre’s help”, cite how he fought with it to get the Polavaram project running, and believe that by now Amaravati would have been built if the Centre had given more funds. Hence, the delay in construction of the capital, which is expected to eventually cost Rs 35,000 crore, is not held against the CM.
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To counter this, Jagan, whose YSRCP is believed to be stronger in rural areas, has announced ‘Navaratnalu’ or nine welfare gems. These include assistance of Rs 50,000 per annum to all farmers; fee reimbursement for all students from Class 1 to graduation; free medical treatment above Rs 1,000 for eligible beneficiaries; ban on alcohol; Rs 15,000 to women to encourage them to send children to school; waivers of all loans taken by women from cooperative societies and interest-free loans of Rs 50,000 to each; Rs 75,000 over four years to all women over 45 years of BC, SC, ST communities; construction of 25 lakh houses over five years; reduction of pension age from 65 to 60; Rs 2,000 per month pension to the poor elderly and Rs 3,000 for the disabled; and completion of Polavaram on a war footing.
As he seeks to build a national profile, taking the lead in a non-NDA federal front, Naidu has been playing up this Centre vs him narrative. This also makes it a do-or-die fight for the 68-year-old veteran of many battles. The Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal and the National Conference’s Farooq Abdullah were at Naidu’s meetings in Andhra last week.
A win will also secure the future of Naidu’s son and chosen heir Lokesh, who is making his electoral debut from the Mangalagiri Assembly seat. Having decimated many rivals, Naidu has ensured there is no second rung standing in the way.
The 36-year-old, with degrees from Stanford and Carnegie Mellon University, first dabbled in politics when he managed Naidu’s Kuppam Assembly seat in 2009. In 2014, Lokesh was appointed general secretary and, overseeing a TDP membership drive, soon made it to the party’s Politburo. After becoming an MLC, he was made a minister.
In his speeches, Lokesh focuses mostly on “development” brought by the TDP government, and promises to make the state an investment destination.
At 5 pm at Mandapeta in East Godavari on March 27, a large crowd has gathered to hear Jagan, ignoring the heat and humidity. Queues have formed up to 3 km away. Cries of ‘Jai Jagan’, ‘Ravali Jagan, Kavali Jagan (Jagan must come, we want Jagan)’ rent the air as the 46-year-old arrives.
On November 6, 2017, Jagan had embarked on a Praja Sankalpa Yatra, from YSR’s native village Idupalapaya in YSR Kadapa district. Over the next 14 months, he covered all the 13 districts of Andhra by foot, walking 3,648 km. The march has generated a lot of goodwill for the YSRCP chief, just like the late YSR’s 1,400-km padayatra in 2004 that had swept the Congress to power.
“Jagan came in touch with over three crore people along the way. It was like 14 months of campaigning,” says national general secretary V Vijay Sai Reddy.
But despite the boost provided by the march, Jagan, who missed power by less than 2 per cent votes in 2014, can’t afford another loss. While there is no one to challenge his leadership, it would be difficult for him to keep his fledgling party’s flock together. After the 2014 loss, more than 24 YSRCP MLAs had joined the TDP. In one indication that the tide may be turning, dozens of TDP leaders and over 15 MLAs and MPs of various parties have joined the YSRCP in the run-up to the polls.
“People want change, they want Jagan as CM. The YSRCP is going to sweep this election,” says Chinta Anuradha, the YSRCP’s Amalapuram Lok Sabha candidate.
However, hobnobbing with Telangana CM K Chandrashekar Rao and Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) could cost Jagan. Five years after the state was split, there is little love lost between the two sides. “Why is Jagan defending YSRCP-TRS bonhomie? Doesn’t he know KCR has abused people of Andhra? It is said KCR is sending money to YSRCP candidates,” says Adinarayana, a farmer, at Jaggayyapeta.
The unknown quantity in the mix is the Jana Sena Party, of actor Konidela Pawan Kalyan. The younger brother of superstar K Chiranjeevi, the 47-year-old is known as the Telugu film industry’s ‘power star’.
Pawan is a Kapu, and the Jana Sena’s impact is visible in the southern parts of East Godavari district, where the community has a large presence. He is following in the footsteps of Chiranjeevi, who had launched the Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) in August 2008, and in the Assembly polls a year later, won 18 seats in a combined Andhra and 17 per cent of the votes. Later, the PRP had merged with the Congress.
The Jana Sena has tied up with the BSP and Left parties, which have a vote share of about 2 per cent, and is contesting all the seats. Pawan’s elder brother K Nagendra Babu is also in the race, from Narsapuram parliamentary constituency.
At Razole in East Godavari, Chittala Francis, who works as a hotel manager in Qatar and claims to have come just for the elections, says the Jana Sena has pushed the TDP out in the region. “Not just Kapus, all sections support Pawan Kalyan here. His ideas of social equality appeal to people,” Francis says.
At Bhimavaram in East Godavari, a large volunteer force of Pawan fans is giving the YSRCP and TDP campaigns a run for their money. Apart from 20 Jana Sena vehicles moving around the constituency, hundreds of youths are out on motorcycles, spending their own money. Many of them work in Hyderabad but have taken a break to campaign for Pawan.
“We want to help Pawan bring the change he has promised, which is to rid politics of money, caste, religion,” Shiva, a volunteer, says.
In what his fans call ‘Pawanism’, the Jana Sena leader has promised such “clean” politics as well as bringing the CM’s chair under the Lokayukta.
Since the past few days though, Pawan has started speaking in support of the TDP and attacking Jagan for “stalling development”.
P Hari Prasad, Jana Sena political secretary and Pawan’s confidant, insists the party has not taken a call on supporting any party after the polls. “YSRCP leaders are saying the Jana Sena supports the TDP, not us,” he says.
Reminded how the PRP had failed, Prasad says times have changed and people are looking for leaders like Pawan.
In bad news for the Congress, with just 10 days to go, it is a non-presence in Andhra. Blamed for pushing through the split leading to the creation of Telangana, the party has lost ground rapidly in that state, while it is still carrying the weight of it in Andhra. In 2014, the Congress had not won a single seat in either the Lok Sabha or Assembly polls in Andhra and got a mere 2.7 per cent of the votes.
Denying the virtual absence of the party on the ground, Andhra Congress chief
N Raghuveera Reddy says candidates have started door-to-door campaigns and are waiting for national-level leaders for the final push. While Rahul Gandhi is slated to address several rallies, schedules are not decided yet.
Local Congress leaders, however, confide that candidates are not receiving much public response. A party leader in Rajahmundry fears that due to the understanding at the national level with the TDP, “the Congress is not putting in enough efforts in Andhra”.
That is quite a fall for the Congress that, in 2004, had won the combined Andhra with 185 seats out of 294, as well as 30 of its 43 Lok Sabha seats; and followed up with 156 and 33 seats respectively in 2009 under YSR.
Admits the Congress Vijayawada Lok Sabha seat candidate N Narasimha Rao, “There may be anti-Congress feelings due to the bifurcation issue.”
As for the BJP, which is trying to mop up any extra seats, anticipating a decline in north India from the high of 2014, it’s not likely to make much headway in Andhra. The BJP got 7.2 per cent vote share in 2014 and won four Assembly and two Lok Sabha seats, fighting in alliance with the TDP.
The party started its full-fledged campaign on March 29 from Kurnool, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a meeting. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath and other senior BJP leaders are lined up next.
BJP chief Kanna Lakshminaryana says the star candidates will make all the difference. “We were the first to start campaigning in Andhra, so there is no question of not being visible. We are everywhere.”
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