AP’s bitter battle between a beleaguered Jagan and a battered Chandrababu
When Jaganmohan Reddy wrested power in Andhra with a landslide 50% vote share in the 2019 assembly polls, some among the defeated incumbent, Chandrababu Naidu’s closest aides wrote his political epithet. From 104 seats in the outgoing House, his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) was reduced to a rump of 23, the victorious YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) bagging a stunning 151 seats in the 175-member legislature.
The YSRCP leader had already exterminated his mother party, the Congress, in the 2014 polls, winning 67 seats with a vote-share of 44.60% to the victorious TDP’s 44.90%. The Congress which refused to anoint him the chief minister in the aftermath of his father YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s 2009 death in a chopper crash polled a paltry 2.8 per cent vote share.
Two factors combined to bury the Congress fathoms deep in Andhra — the state’s 2014 bifurcation on the party’s watch and Reddy’s hijack of its organisational-popular base that were a legacy of his father. The senior Reddy’s consecutive 2004-09 electoral victories in Andhra had catapulted and kept the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in power in Delhi for a decade.
Against this backdrop, the mid-life crisis the Japan Reddy regime has come to face is being linked to his style of governance widely perceived as autocratic; an overdose of populist welfare-ism that has emptied the state’s coffers and the running battles he has had with the judiciary and the Opposition TDP. On the day the CM announced the repeal of the laws he brought to set up three capitals in the state, the chief justice of India, N V Ramana, chose a convocation ceremony in the state to advise the present-day rulers to “introspect daily” whether they had “bad characteristics” and whether their decisions were good (for the people).
”They should ask (themselves) whether they were on the righteous path,” he said. On the face of it, the CJI’s comments seemed generic. But his counsel couldn’t but be seen as directed at Jagan who had lodged a complaint with the SC against one of its sitting judges. The matter related to the allocation of land to the concerned judge’s relatives in Amaravati, which Naidu had launched as a green-filed administrative capital of Andhra after the bifurcation. The Court probed and dismissed eventually the allegations.
By some coincidence, the CJI delivered the address two days after the TDP chief, now leader of opposition in the assembly, broke down in the House on November 20, alleging character assassination of his wife (a daughter of the iconic NT Rama Rao) by the treasury benches, vowing not to return to the legislature till he was CM again. He told this writer that Jagan withdrew the contentious “three capitals” laws not as much in response to the mass protests in Amaravati as out of his anxiety to pre-empt an adverse High Court order.
Political observers in Andhra pointed out that even while getting pulverised in terms of the seat count in 2019, the TDP polled 39.70% of the popular vote. It’s a good enough mass base to keep alive the party’s hopes. Yet, in the YSRCP’s first flush of victory, it seemed to be the end of the road for Naidu, then 69, now 71-year-old.
“Such prognosis could go wrong if Jagan persists with his adventurist ways,” said a bureaucrat who served both regimes. He pointed to the state’s financial woes accentuated by Jagan’s lavish doles that are a big drain on the exchequer. There have been instances of a delayed payment of salaries to government staff and non-payment of dues (by the state administration and local bodies) to power distribution companies towards tariff subsidy and electricity consumption charges. A communication by the Andhra Pradesh Electricity Regulatory Commission (APERC) recently revealed the state owed over ₹15,000 crore as a subsidy to three distribution companies. Inclusive of unpaid power consumption to the tune of ₹10,000 crore, the outstanding amount works out to a humongous ₹25,257 crore. A part of these bills was inherited from the Naidu dispensation. Jagan’s ostentatious populism has made the crisis graver.
Why the extravagant welfare-ism?
The Damocles’ sword of graft cases hanging over his head, Jagan is aiming apparently at building a constituency that’ll sustain his party without him at the top. The “worst-case” strategy has also had him develop a working relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Centre whose patronage and support he requires to countenance the criminal cases besides getting the funds he needs to keep the government running.
Unaligned observers say the CM’s Navaratnalu initiative is a basket of nine welfare schemes roughly priced at a staggering ₹60,000 crore. “The coat he’s cutting is way bigger than Andhra’s financial cloth,” said a Hyderabad-based economist. It is “smart politics but bad economics” to spend the truncated state’s meagre resources for political benefit from a large base of targeted beneficiaries: the SCs, STs, the OBCs, minorities and other weaker sections, especially women. These social groups are serviced by over 300,000 volunteers attached to a network of village secretariats at a monthly retainer.
“They’ll constitute our frontline in election campaigns,” said a close Jagan aide. To those who link the gigantic outreach to the CM’s fear of the long arm of the law catching up, the aide responded: “The schemes aren’t borne out of any scare. They’re our way of reaching equity and opportunity to the poor….”
Jagan’s tentative future is largely on account of the corruption cases, the total number of which he put at over 30 in a 2019 election affidavit. There are reports also of a rift in the family with his mother and sister, over his plans to install his wife YS Bharati as CM if he has to demit office upon incarceration or conviction in the pending probes. Only time can tell if Andhra will get an educated-version of Bihar’s Rabri Devi.
Insiders admit that Jagan’s grooming her for a role beyond overseeing his media empire.
The resultant sibling rivalry was out in the open when the CM’s sister, Sharmila, defied her brother to launch her YSR Telangana Party on their father’s birth anniversary earlier this year. However, an official close to Jagan denied that his mother, YS Vijayamma, was on her daughter’s side. He said the talk of the mother being partial was pure speculation, given that she continued to be the honorary president of YSRCP.
The cases Jagan faces date back to when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was in power at the Centre. Certain close associates of a then ascendant Naidu (who regained power in 2014) had played an active role in their registration. The genesis of the Jagan-Naidu antipathy, bordering on the inimical, is in these cases the UPA let happen to pinion YSR’s rebellious son. They are now a ready tool in the hands of the BJP-helmed NDA to navigate YSRCP’s local politics and the actions of its 28 members of parliament (22 in Lok Sabha and six in the Rajya Sabha) at the Centre.
“It was Naidu’s conspiracy that saw Jagan spend 16 months in jail without bail,” alleged a senior YSRCP leader: “Must anyone be surprised that he’s bitter about it and wants nothing to do with the TDP….”
Naidu has an uphill task
From available indications, Jagan’s graph has dipped among certain sections that voted for him to boot out the TDP. But is Naidu strong enough to recoup the lost ground? He has predicated on his getting elected CM again, his return to the assembly he pledged not to enter during Jagan’s tenure.
Nothing is permanent in politics. In real-time terms, there are more reasons to be sceptical than sanguine about Naidu realising his resolve to unseat his bête noire. With elections over two years away in 2024, the TDP has a hard road ahead, given his advancing years, his party’s minuscule presence in the house and his son and widely perceived successor, Nara Lokesh not having made his mark yet.
One has to hand it to Naidu that he kept his party alive and kicking during YSR’s rule from 2004 onwards, even restoring it to power in 2014. “But he’s older now and is facing a challenger much younger who, unlike his father, will deploy all means to achieve his political goal,” noted a leader of the Kamma community to which the TDP chief belongs.
Notionally, a social alliance between the rich and politically prominent Kammas and the Kapus, a dominant peasant caste in coastal Andhra, could help the TDP mount a fight against the YSRCP. But the nimble-footed Jagan is at work already to draw a wedge between these communities amid expectations of Naidu cutting a deal with Kapu leader Pawan Kalyan’s Janasena Party. Kalyan is an actor-politician dissatisfied with his equation with the BJP. He’s the younger brother of Chiranjeevi who merged his party with the Congress during the UPA rule.
What transpires in the near or distant future in Andhra could depend on the way the BJP uses its leverage in the state, where it’s keen, as was evident during home minister Amit Shah’s recent visit, to gain a toehold of its own. The possibility of its alliance with the TDP seems remote, at least for the time being, given the bitter parting of ways with Naidu before the 2019 polls. Then there’s that element of the course the law takes on cases against Jagan, given his testy ties with the judiciary.
Closer to polls, one can expect a replay of padyatras the state saw being undertaken by YSR and Naidu before the elections in 2004 and 2014. Both came to power after the outreach. For his part, Jagan too stole the Congress’s base by traversing the state to meet families of those who committed suicide after his father’s 2009 demise while he was CM. In fact, his breaking point with the mother party came in 2011 when Sonia Gandhi asked him to abandon the yatra. Arrested by the CBI a year later, he went on a hunger strike against Andhra’s bifurcation for the creation of Telangana.
After walking out for good from the current assembly, Naidu told this author that he’d go to the people to tell how Jagan stifled his voice in the House to undermine the mandate his party got to oppose the government. That leaves open the possibility of him launching another yatra closer to the elections that today are some distance afar.