The battle lines in south coastal Andhra Pradesh and the Rayalaseema region going to the polls in the second phase on Thursday have been drawn on the basis of caste.
While caste was not a major factor in the first phase of elections in Telangana and north coastal Andhra, the second phase is going to be altogether different. Elections are being held in the state both for its 42 Lok Sabha seats and for the 294-member state assembly.
The entry of the Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) of superstar Chiranjeevi, who belongs to the Kapu community, has changed the caste equations in the state, especially in the politically significant south coastal region.
Kapus, a backward class with considerable population in coastal Andhra, are looking for a key role in state politics which has long been dominated by upper caste Kammas and Reddys.
Caste polarisation has taken place. Kapus - who form the single largest community with about 20 per cent of the state's 78 million population - appear to have rallied behind Chiranjeevi.
With the slogan of 'social justice', the superstar is trying to bring together Kapus, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and minorities, who together constitute over 80 per cent of the population. However, the actor has so far not succeeded in evolving this new caste matrix.
The PRP is likely to do well in constituencies where there is a large chunk of Kapu votes, especially in East and West Godavari and Krishna districts. It will also cut into the vote banks of the ruling Congress in other districts to the benefit of the Telugu Desam Pary (TDP).
Kapus were a traditional vote bank of the Congress and with their migration to the PRP, the Congress is facing testing times despite the visible lack of anti-incumbency.
It is because of the caste factor rather than the promise of free colour television sets and cash doles that the TDP seems to have an edge in East and West Godavari, Krishna, Guntur and Prakasm districts in south coastal Andhra, which sends as many as 88 legislators to the state assembly.
The PRP, which is believed to have not done well in Telangana and north coastal Andhra which went to the polls on April 16 and is not likely to make a major impact in Rayalaseema, is focussing on these districts. It hopes to get a considerable number of seats to emerge as a kingmaker in the event of a hung assembly.
Though Kammas and Reddys are about six and 10 per cent respectively of the state's population, they are economically and politically powerful. A majority of the state's 14 chief ministers were from these castes, and a Kapu has never made it to the top post.
Chiranjeevi has managed to attract several Kapu leaders from the TDP and the Congress. It is the pressure from the community which forced several top leaders including former ministers to join the PRP.
However, political analysts say the PRP failed to emerge as a major contender for power because of its failure to carry other backward castes along. Though the party fielded 104 candidates from the backward classes, the highest by any party in the state's history, it failed to cobble together an alliance of backward classes.
The Kapus, who are economically and socially strong among backward classes, have several sub-castes; they also have differences with other backward classes.
The Palakollu assembly constituency in West Godavari, from where Chiranjeevi is testing his political fortunes, is a classic example. There are serious differences between Kapus and OBCs like Setty Balijas and Devangulu (weavers), making things difficult for the actor.
For the 294-member assembly, the Congress has fielded 88 Reddys, the four-party Grand Alliance led by the TDP fielded 46 Kammas while the PRP gave the party ticket to 37 Kapus.
Polling in 20 Lok Sabha and 150 assembly constituencies in south coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema will be held in the second phase on April 23.
It was the entry of legendary actor NT Rama Rao into the state's politics in 1983 that made Kammas a major force in the state which was till then dominated by Reddys.
Whether Chiranjeevi's political plunge give the Kapus a bigger slice of the political pie and change the caste equations forever will be known only after the results are declared on May 16.