Lok Sabha elections 2019: For TDP, high-stakes battle to retain power
Andhra Pradesh will hold its assembly elections simultaneously with the Lok Sabha polls, and Naidu needs to retain power not only for his political survival but also to act as a fulcrum for a potential non-BJP alliance at the Centre.Updated: Mar 30, 2019 06:46 IST
For almost a year, Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu has hogged national headlines. His Telugu Desam Party (TDP) quit the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in March last year, brought a no-confidence motion against the government that was eventually defeated in July, and then Naidu travelled around the country rallying opposition leaders against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Most recently, he sat on a much-publicised hunger strike in Delhi against the alleged neglect of Andhra Pradesh by the Centre.
But behind the whirlwind trips and the photo ops with top opposition leaders, the 69-year-old politician is fighting a high-stakes battle back home. Andhra Pradesh will hold its assembly elections simultaneously with the Lok Sabha polls, and Naidu needs to retain power not only for his political survival but also to act as a fulcrum for a potential non-BJP alliance at the Centre.
A defeat may mean a virtual collapse of the party, which has few second-rung leaders, and a personal defeat for a man who appears to nurture dreams of playing the kingmaker at the Centre.
In 2014, AP was emerging from the rubble of a highly unpopular bifurcation of the state that created Telangana and took the crown jewel of the erstwhile united state, Hyderabad, away from the residual state.
Emotions ran high, and the TDP stitched together a last-minute alliance with the BJP and the Jana Sena, started by popular Telugu actor Pawan Kalyan. The party rode the popularity of Narendra Modi to power, defeating the main opposition YSR Congress Party, led by YS Jaganmohan Reddy, son of late former CM YS Rajasekhar Reddy.
Naidu unveiled ambitious plans of building a world-class capital for Andhra Pradesh in Amaravati, and his party won 102 of the new state’s 175 assembly seats and 15 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP won two, the YSRC eight and the Congress, blamed by the voters for dividing the state, could not open its account.
Five years down the line, Naidu is struggling. The state’s finances are in poor health and according to the 2019-20 vote-on-account budget, the fiscal deficit stands at Rs 32,390 crore, which is 3.03% of the gross state domestic product. The debt burden has been mounting with total liabilities mounting from Rs 1.487 lakh crore in 2014-15 to Rs 2.237 lakh crore.
The special status category that Naidu demanded from the Centre to secure special grants for development projects has not materialised. Despite spending ~1,500 crore released by the Centre and raising another ~30,000 crore through various sources, including budgetary allocations, market borrowings and bank loans, the capital city of Amaravati is unfinished. And the Polavaram irrigation project, which was supposed to cost ~58,000 crore, is yet to take final shape.
To be sure, the Centre has said that special category status for AP is not possible under the law, and that it has offered financial and infrastructural help to the new state.
The last blow was the crushing defeat that the Congress-led Maha Kootami, which Naidu helped cobble together and of which his party was a constituent, faced in the recently concluded Telangana elections, with the TDP winning a paltry two of the 119 seats.
According to political analyst T Lakshminarayana, the residuary state of Andhra Pradesh was left to be an orphan with central assistance failing to trickle in for its rebuilding. “The NDA government belied its own promise for special category status and failed to liberally help in building a new capital in Amaravati and the Polavaram project,” he said.
On the other hand, Naidu’s bête-noire Reddy has been gaining popularity. He completed a 3,600 km-long padayatra (road journey) spanning over 14 months with the aim of exploiting public resentment about the denial of special category status.
Reddy has promised a set of nine promises, which he calls Navaratnas, covering almost all sections of the society in a bid to woo voters. Moreover, Reddy has attempted to invoke the legacy of his father, who was immensely popular in the coastal state, and is banking on the goodwill of his welfare schemes such as Arogyasri health programme, fee reimbursement and free power supply to farmers, which he has incorporated in his Navaratna programme.
As the election schedule was announced, several lawmakers from the TDP, like Rajampet MLA Meda Mallikarjuna Reddy, Guntur (West) MLA Modugula Venugopal Reddy and Chirala MLA Amanchi Krishnamohan, besides Anakapalle MP Avanti Srinivas, Amalapuram MP Pandula Ravindra Babu and Kakinada MP Thota Narasimham – had already joined the YSRCP.
Reddy, whose party trailed the TDP by just two percentage points in vote share in the last election, has no ambition for a role at the national level and can concentrate all his attention on the state. And, though he recently met Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) working president KT Rama Rao to work out details of a so-called federal front, it was widely seen as a response to Naidu’s overtures to leaders across the country.
But YSRCP ranks fear that any talk of a connection with the TRS, which came to power on a plank of anti-Andhra sentiment, might spell disaster for Reddy in a state where the sentiment against the creation of Telangana still runs deep.
Naidu is aware of the challenges. He broke all ties with the BJP last year and has since painted the Centre as the villain, launching broadsides against the NDA government for not giving special category status to the state, despite accepting a special financial package for AP earlier. For the last few months, his party MPs have stalled Parliament on the issue and Naidu has held rallies across Andhra on the alleged betrayal of the state by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The second prong of Naidu’s election strategy is welfare. He has announced a slew of sops for various sections of people on the lines of his Telangana counterpart K Chandrasekhar Rao, whose welfare schemes fetched him a landslide victory in the December 7 assembly elections.
Some recently announced schemes include the doubling of pensions given to senior citizens and people with disabilities from January 1, release of ~10,000 crore in cash assistance to 9.3 million women members of self-help groups, waiver of pending crop loans and even extension of investment assistance to the extent of ~10,000 to each farmer on the lines of Telangana’s flagship Rythu Bandhu scheme, which gives ~8,000 per acre per to all the Telangana farmers besides providing smart phones to all the families.
“Freebies may certainly have some positive role favouring the TDP and help it in overcoming the anti-incumbency undercurrents,” E Venkatesh, an election analyst from the University of Hyderabad, said.
The other player is Pawan Kalyan, whose Jana Sena has generated a lot of attention but has failed to create an electoral impression. Jana Sena limited itself to supporting the BJP-TDP combine without fielding its candidates in the assembly and parliamentary elections in 2014. Kalyan is banking on his traditional vote bank of the Kapu community, who dominate the East and West Godavari districts and can influence the outcome in around 35-40 assembly seats.
The Congress, which received a drubbing in the previous elections by drawing a blank in both assembly and Lok Sabha elections, is looking for a revival on the promise of realising special category status to AP if it comes to power at the Centre. The BJP has focused on attacking the TDP on alleged corruption and poor governance but ground sentiments appears to be against the saffron party.
To be sure, two elections,to the assembly and the Lok Sabha, will take place simultaneously in the state.History shows that local parties that do well in the assembly polls also hold a lion’s share of the Lok Sabha seats.
“The past experience indicates the fact that there has been a similarity in assembly and Parliament elections in a way that the party coming to power in the state will also be having a sway over Lok Sabha seats also. If one goes by this trend, the upcoming simultaneous polls will witness a similar feature,” Venkatesh said.
The TDP is banking on the support of the Kamma community (who comprise 5.5% of the state population), Other Backward Classes (OBCs, 46.7%) and some sections of the upper castes (21%). Reddys (6%), Dalits (16.2%) and minorities (4.5%) are likely to back the YSRCP. Naidu has attempted to woo the Kapus away from Kalyan by providing them a 5% quota in jobs and education while Reddy is looking to retain his popularity among OBCs by remaining neutral on the Kapu quota.
And, finally, Naidu is hoping to whip up the issue of Andhra self-respect to criticise the new-found bonhomie between TRS and YSRCP. As emotions continue to run high in the state against the bifurcation, Naidu plans to paint Reddy as anti-Andhra. Whether this strategy works will only be clear on counting day.
First Published: Mar 30, 2019 06:46 IST