Chandrababu Naidu, recognized as the creator of modern Hyderabad, who had just become the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh after the 2014 elections chose a green field spot on the banks of the River Krishna. He named the place Amaravati after an old Buddhist site by that name located merely 60km away. Naidu, being a keen student of history, wanted a Buddhist name for a specific reason. The new state was in the eastern springboard of India, overlooked Singapore on the south-east, and on the route to Japan. The name, he averred, would attract the Buddhists (read investors from Japan et al).
The wily Naidu, however, made a mistake. He made the capital on the river bank just about 60km from where it met the Bay of Bengal. Thus, the new riverfront capital took away eminently cultivable land from farmers. In some cases, force was also used to evict the farmers. Naidu was helped by the fact that most of the land belonged to absentee landlords—most of whom had migrated to the US. The land was cultivated by tenant farmers who had become the de facto owners of the land; so, the absentee owners were only too glad to get rid of their land.
The problem was that the absentee landlords were allegedly mostly of the Kamma caste, to which Naidu belongs. So, the logical conclusion was that the land had been taken over to favour his caste men, who would receive an eventual windfall after land value appreciated. There were also allegations that Naidu and his associates knew about the capital’s location in advance and bought a lot of land at throwaway prices before the announcement. All of these factors are now being cited as justifications by the newly installed chief minister Jagan Reddy who is hell-bent on unmaking Naidu’s legacy.
And Jagan is finding support in at least some quarters. “The approval of Amaravati as the capital was taken at the legislative assembly in a strategically manipulative manner," says former chief secretary of Andhra Pradesh, I.Y.R Krishna Rao. “The decision was unilateral and had a hidden agenda. Amaravati is a dis-embedded capital city."
Interestingly, the K.C. Sivaramakrishnan committee set up by the government of India to recommend a new capital had said that a new capital should not be built in the Guntur-Vijayawada region because of environmental concerns. This is exactly where Amaravati is located. The May 2014 report, however, did not recommend any specific place where the capital should be located; instead, it recommended multiple places where some part of the capital could be set up.
In the run-up to the 2014 elections that brought Naidu to power, Jagan had made his own calculations about the new capital of Andhra Pradesh. His choice was a place called Domakonda, a stretch of sandy land on the coast some 70km south-east of Amaravati. But since Jagan lost the 2014 elections, Domakonda could not come up. When Jagan came to power in 2019 in an election where he completely outclassed Naidu, soon enough, doubts began to be expressed about Amaravati. Several ministers in Jagan’s cabinet began voicing doubts about Amaravati, leading to a crash in local real estate prices. Incidentally, the Jagan Reddy government has been on a contract cancellation spree—from solar energy contracts negotiated by the previous government to Naidu’s pet irrigation project at Polavaram.
The fact that Naidu was aiming high (he wanted to make Amaravati superior to even Hyderabad) meant that the progress was agonizingly slow. This was something Jagan took full advantage of because it was impossible to disregard an already fully built capital city. In the last fortnight of December 2019, Jagan announced that Andhra Pradesh would have three capitals—Amaravati as the legislative capital with the state assembly, Kurnool in Rayalaseema as the judicial capital with the high court, and Visakhapatnam in Uttar Andhra as the administrative capital.
He also set up a cabinet-level committee to work out the new arrangement. This threw everybody into confusion, including foreign investors who had hedged their bets on the swift development of Amaravati.
Some in the business community have resigned themselves to the fact that Jagan will push ahead with his plans no matter what. “Naidu ran into problems with Amaravati because he wanted to put all eggs in the same basket. Amaravati was to be the capital but also the major investment centre," says Srikanth Reddy, a businessman who was until recently a member of the Telugu Desam Party.
“Naidu set up huge towers where industry would come and locate their offices. But no one came because Amaravati is (in the) back of beyond." This also made it easy for Jagan to propose the scrapping of Amaravati as capital, Reddy adds.
Not everyone has made peace with the sudden shifts in government policy though. Ramachandra Prasad (name changed), a businessman belonging to the same Kamma community as Chandrababu Naidu, is very upset. “I had started living in Vijayawada (across the river from Amaravati). But I am now returning to Hyderabad. Jagan is taking such a partisan decision," he says.
“Just because he wants to upturn all decisions taken by Naidu, he is changing the location of the capital. This is so unfair and hits (our) investment plans," he says. “What will happen to the 33,000 acres of land acquired by the government from over 20,000 villagers in 29 villages? Some farmers are already raising questions."
However, independent analysts are in agreement that the decision to locate the capital in Visakhapatnam may turn out to be a wise one. Known in short as Vizag, the city has a cosmopolitan outlook and the presence of large establishments ranging from the Indian Navy to a number of other public sector undertakings.
The city is on the Bay of Bengal and has hills on the backdrop, making it a tourist destination. It has an international airport and is an important rail junction, exactly halfway between Chennai and Howrah. “It’s already a developed city and whatever you build there will be incremental. Better than Amaravati, where you had to start from zero," says Srikanth Reddy.
More importantly, in caste-driven Andhra Pradesh, Vizag is not dominated by any particular caste, like say the Amaravati region is by Kammas. The former chief secretary, Krishna Rao, also thinks that the choice of Vizag is a wise one but he prefers wide ranging discussions to build a consensus on Vizag, so that there aren’t any serious problems later. Since some investments have gone into Amaravati, the legislative assembly could still come up there, say most analysts. However, doubts have already surfaced as to whether the high court could indeed be located in Kurnool, which remains a relatively underdeveloped region of the state.
There is also another strand of logic, informed by the unique history of the state, behind the announcement, which goes beyond practical and logistical considerations. The conflict about a new capital for Andhra Pradesh is, after all, not merely a Naidu-Jagan tussle. It has much to do with the history of the region.
With the creation of Telangana, for the new Andhra Pradesh state, it was like going back to 1953—a state without a proper capital. Under the British raj, the country was amalgamated into territories which were clubbed together based on the sequence in which they were conquered by the British.
Thus, a huge territory in the south was grouped together into the Madras presidency—this included present day Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and parts of present day Karnataka. After Independence, the Telugu speaking areas of Madras presidency wanted to be separate and a movement began that ended with the fast unto death of a Telugu social activist, Potti Sriramulu (who was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi).
Disturbances broke out in the Andhra areas of Madras presidency and shaken by the turn of events, the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru announced the formation of an Andhra state in 1953. The Telugus wanted Madras city to be a part of this newly created Andhra state and argued that the rapid growth of the city was fuelled largely by Telugu-speaking entrepreneurs. But the Tamils would never allow this and, so, Andhra state was formed with its capital in Kurnool and a high court was planned in Guntur. This was not a great solution because Kurnool was too insignificant to fit the bill of a state capital.
But India was reorganized on linguistic terms in 1956. Hyderabad state, the erstwhile territories of the Nizam of Hyderabad, had Telugu, Urdu, Kannada and Marathi speaking areas. The Telugu and Urdu speaking areas were separated and merged with Andhra state (where Telugu was spoken) and Andhra Pradesh was formed. The actual attractiveness of the proposal was that Hyderabad which was a developed city could then be made the capital of Andhra Pradesh.
On paper, this was a great idea, but the problem was that those parts of Andhra Pradesh which were part of the erstwhile Madras presidency were more developed than the parts which fell under the Nizam’s territories. With Urdu being the medium of instruction in Nizam land and English in Madras presidency, the subjects of the erstwhile Nizam in Andhra Pradesh were at a disadvantage because English was chosen as the language of administration (much like the rest of India).
Telugus from Madras city and Andhra moved into Hyderabad to take up all available government jobs. A large part of the elite of the old Nizam’s territory were Muslims, many of whom migrated to Pakistan. They left behind most of their property and land. The properties of the outgoing Muslim elites were taken over by the Andhrites. So, the original residents of Nizam’s territories faced a double whammy: soon, their culture was overrun by the new elite from Andhra and the Andhrites took over all the abandoned properties. What was worse was that the Andhrites began to look down upon the denizens of erstwhile Nizam’s territories (Telanganites in short), decrying them as lazy and unenterprising.
This generated so much resentment among the locals that by 1969, a full-fledged movement for a separate Telangana had begun. The movement went on for a few years, but was quelled by then prime minister Indira Gandhi. Using a few strategic steps, like choosing a chief minister of Andhra Pradesh from Telangana (P.V. Narasimha Rao), matters went quiet. But this was only for a few years.
Dawn of Andhra pride
In the early 1980s, leading Telugu cine star N.T. Rama Rao jumped into Andhra Pradesh politics, forming a new political party, the Telugu Desam Party. Using a strong anti-Congress line (a party which he claimed was run as a fief from New Delhi, with local leaders being mere managers of the headquarters), NTR romped into power. NTR’s entry into politics was a phenomenon for more reasons than one. First, in feudal Andhra Pradesh it brought the Kammas to power beating the Reddys who ruled the roost till then and controlled the Congress party. This had far-reaching implications because the Kammas and Reddys were rivals in villages in the Andhra region. In the Telangana region, Kammas are not present in any significant number (Interestingly, Brahmins account for only half a percentage of the population in Andhra Pradesh, unlike north India where they constitute at least 10% of the population in many states).
Thus, the entry of TDP and, especially, the oratory of NTR in chaste Telugu and his Andhra-oriented policies only served to alienate the denizens of the Telangana region more. NTR was followed by his son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu, who deposed him.
Naidu was credited with modernizing Hyderabad and bringing in global investors to the city. But in 1999, his close aide K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) revolted and formed a new party, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), with the express objective of forming Telangana. Much against the desire of Naidu and after a long spell of agitations, Telangana became a reality due to Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s intervention in 2014. It was after this that the battle for a new capital began and the battle continues. That is why Andhra’s capital games are unlikely to die down any time soon. After all, the state’s history and politics has been informed substantially by a simple question: which community controls the capital and who benefits from the economic boom-town that is the capital city.
Kingshuk Nag is a former resident editor of The Times of India, Hyderabad.