The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) is celebrating its silver jubilee on Monday, on the day it was founded in 1982. One of the most successful regional parties, the TDP came to power on four separate occasions, remaining in office in Andhra Pradesh for 17 of its 25 years of existence. Until recently, the TDP also played a crucial role at the national level, both under the leadership of its founder and film star N.T.Rama Rao and later under Chandrababau Naidu, his son-in-law.
Today, while the mood might be celebratory, the TDP is at a crossroads. It received a severe drubbing at the hands of the Congress in the 2004 state assembly and Lok Sabha polls. Naidu’s pro-technology and pro-reform image won him many admirers at the national and international levels, including the likes of Bill Clinton and Bill Gates. But that same image also cost him his chief ministership. The Congress capitalized on popular discontent by offering free power to farmers and a host of other pro-poor measures and rode to power.
Having realized the hard way that only populism pays rich political dividends, the TDP is attempting a very public course correction. At the Mahanadu, a convention being organized in Tirupati, the party is expected to announce a pro-poor reform agenda that it will implement if it comes back to power in elections due two years from now. Whether Naidu, with his strong pro-reform credentials, will be able to convince the electorate about this seemingly change of heart is key as the outcome of the next assembly (and Lok Sabha) polls in the state and could hinge on whether the voters consider this transformation genuine or apocryphal.
Meanwhile, his rival and state chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR as he is popularly known), once a rabid factionalist, has managed to portray himself as a farmer-friendly politician. Despite serious allegations of massive corruption and criticism that he encourages the state’s seemingly inexhaustible land mafia, the Congress is still a force to reckon with thanks to YSR’s initiatives, such as offering free power supply to farmers.
Despite the populist success of the Congress government, the state’s media, meanwhile, has remained largely anti-Congress and anti-government. To counter media criticism, YSR has unleashed the state’s formidable power against the major newspaper, Eenadu, and its founder, Ramoji Rao. But unable to significantly hurt the newspaper itself, YSR finally decided to launch his own newspaper. How well he does with a reported Rs600 crore plan could be an interesting case study for other states and politicians that face a hostile media.
There are many imponderables that will decide the course of political developments in Andhra Pradesh, which contributes a hefty 42 Lok Sabha MPs,over the next two years. The separate Telangana issue is the most important one. YSR, who hails from the Rayalseema region, is seen to be the biggest stumbling block in the formation of Telangana, even as the Congress central leadership is in its favour. The Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS)—a former ally and partner in the UPA government at the Centre—has been unusually reticent in the recent weeks after the human trafficking scandal broke out, as several of its top leaders were named as being allegedly involved in it. Not giving in to the separate Telangana demand will hurt the Congress in the region as voters there consider it a betrayal. This will benefit either the TDP, which has been rising rapidly in the region in recent months owing to agitational politics, or the TRS, if it bounces back from its present bad phase. But giving away Telangana may damage the Congress severely in the other two regions, particularly in the coastal region, which is the largest of the three regions.
Interesting, Telugu mega film star Chiranjeevi—who has been contemplating launching a regional political outfit—is watching for news on Telangana as he perhaps calculates that he can ride to power in the new Andhra state on how the Congress splits the state. Some Congress MLAs are believed to be in touch with him in case the Congress central leadership were to decide in favour of a separate Telengana state.
In my assessment, it is this continuing suspense and confusion over Telangana that will prove to be the Congress’s undoing in the state of Andhra Pradesh.
Andhra politics is passing through several interesting developments and holds much in suspense for both the key parties, the TDP and the Congress. While for the TDP a victory in the state is an imperative to remain in existence as a potent political force, for the Congress, its performance in Andhra Pradesh will determine which side of around 100 seats tally the Congress will end up being after the next Lok Sabha polls. A big defeat in Andhra Pradesh has the potential to push the Congress to its lowest tally of fewer than 100 seats in 2009.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research and consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org