If there is one state in the country where politics is in a major state of flux, it is the battleground state of Andhra Pradesh, which sends 42 MPs to the Lok Sabha.
By-elections to 18 assembly and four Lok Sabha constituencies in Telangana on 29 May; the seemingly imminent entry of popular film star Chiranjeevi as a third major player on the political scene; and the slew of populist measures, such as subsidized rice scheme at Rs2 per kilo are all causing the upheaval in Andhra politics.
Almost all the by-elections in Telangana have been necessitated by mass resignations by MLAs and MPs of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in protest against the ruling Congress party’s refusal to agree to its demand for a separate state of Telangana. (Sixteen seats fell vacant following the resignation of TRS members while by-polls were necessitated in Terlam and Khairatabad due to death of sitting members.)
As a result of the TRS resignations, the overriding sentiment in many parts of Telangana in favour of statehood for the region is likely to manifest in the ensuing by-elections.
My reading of Telangana is that people in the region now strongly feel that the region’s economic development is only possible after attaining statehood. The widespread belief in the region is that the Congress party has betrayed the people of Telangana by covertly supporting the demand for statehood during the last assembly elections when it tied up with TRS and then virtually rejecting it under pressure from chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy.
So, despite a slew of populist measures implemented by Reddy’s government, there is a wave of anger against him and, by implication, the Congress. It is early in the game but I predict the Congress party is headed for a disaster in the by-elections in Telangana, with Congress vote share plunging to about half its previous levels.
Meanwhile, the main opposition, the Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party (TDP), had fought the previous election on the theme of a united Andhra Pradesh. But, succumbing to the populist sentiment, the TDP now says that it is no longer opposed to the formation of Telangana and will go by public opinion statewide. But, even with this nakedly obvious shift in its stand, the TDP is unlikely to benefit substantially from the erosion in the Congress vote share unless there is a real shift in electoral alliances.
Even as the TRS leaders allege that there is a clandestine deal between the Congress and the TDP to defeat their party in the by-elections, a possible TDP-TRS tie-up in the next general election is also in the air, which has the potential to further decimate the Congress in the Telangana region.
TRS leader K. Chandrasekhar Rao has successfully managed to not only revive the decades-old Telangana statehood issue but also to keep the cause alive by precipitating a by-election in his own Karimnagar Lok Sabha seat last year and now the other seats held by the party. With both assembly and Lok Sabha elections barely a year away, the hugely emotive statehood issue has become a major problem for the Congress, whose fate in New Delhi could hinge on how well it recreates its previous Lok Sabha success from the state.
After a bout of dilly-dallying, Chiranjeevi, who goes by just one name, is finally ready to jump into electoral politics. The Congress party is believed to be making attempts to dissuade the actor from taking the plunge through multiple offers, but the efforts have apparently failed to dissuade Chiranjeevi so far. He has a sizeable following among his Kapu caste—the dominant community in the coastal region of the state—as well as the state’s youth, making the political arithmetic much more complex than in the last election.
On the face of it, Reddy’s revival of the hugely popular subsidized rice at Rs2 per kg scheme should have earned him voter loyalty at a time when inflation is a serious concern. He has also promised more such goodies.
But Chiranjeevi’s entry is likely to neutralize such measures, particularly as the actor is likely to make corruption and populism as his poll planks. This could hit the Congress hard, as the Reddy-led government, while having done well for the state, is considered corrupt, especially in relation to land deals.
Chiranjeevi’s entry also means tough times for the TDP as he threatens to grab the anti-establishment vote while making deep inroads into the party’s youth base. To beat Chiranjeevi at his own game, the TDP is unleashing a star-studded campaign with film stars from the party founder N.T. Rama Rao’s family. As a part of this deal, NTR’s elder son Hari Krishna was recently nominated and sent to the Rajya Sabha by the TDP. While the TDP has had to get used to be in the opposition, winning big in Andhra Pradesh is a requirement for the Congress party to come back to power in New Delhi.
At this stage, it is unclear if the wily Reddy, whose ability to checkmate all forms of opposition with strategic moves fully endorsed by Sonia Gandhi, can help the Congress party survive this perfect political storm, a trifecta of sorts: the wave of discontent and popular anger in Telangana, the expected onslaught by Chiranjeevi and a united TDP “family” with its own star power.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org