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Mainstream, VOL LI No 44, October 19, 2013

Congress’ Game-plan in Andhra Pradesh

Monday 21 October 2013


by Sambaiah Gundimeda

The Congress party has enjoyed stable support in Andhra Pradesh during the 2004 and 2009 elections, thanks mainly to the Machiavellian electoral strategies and politics of the former Chief Minister, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR). But after YSR’s disastrous death in a helicopter crash in September 2009, both the Congress party and the State of Andhra Pradesh have been embroiled in crisis after crisis. Two factors that are at the centre of these crises are Telangana and the Jagan phenomenon. In this short essay I would like to comment on how the Congress has been dealing with these two factors for the last four years, particularly since the death of YSR; and the Congress’ calculations behind the sudden decision on the separate Telangana Statehood and the controversial bail to Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy.

Telangana Factor

Although the demand for separate Telangana Statehood is as old as that of the formation of the State of Andhra Pradesh in 1956, the Congress party, despite using the demand to its own advantage, has been reluctant to find a viable solution. It always finds something or the other, like giving doles or accommodating the Telangana leaders in the positions of power, to evade the demand. For instance, in 1969 when the Telanganites mobilised for a separate State under the leadership of the Telangana Praja Samithi (TPS), the Congress suppressed it by making the TPS’ leader, Marri Chenna Reddy, the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. It has tried to deploy the same strategy with the Kalvakurthi Chandrasekhara Rao (KCR)-led Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) too. During the 2004 elections the Congress had forged an electoral alliance with the TRS by promising separate Telangana Statehood if it came to power. Despite forming the governments both at the Centre and in the State, the Congress did not keep its promise. Rather, it tried to camouflage its promise by inducting the TRS leadership into the Union Cabinet, and also by passing a resolution that has kept the responsibility of addressing the Telangana question on the shoulders of an yet-to-be-constituted States Reorganisation Commission.

The Telanganites saw these moves of the Congress as strategies not only to procrastinate but ultimately to suppress the movement. They feared that the TRS would also end up as the TPS. They took to the streets and mounted severe criticism against the TRS leadership for sticking to power at the cost of Telangana’s Statehood. Caught between the crafty Congress and agitating Telanganites the TRS leaders did not have a choice but to resign from the government. On the eve of the elections in 2009 the TRS joined the TDP and Left parties to form a ‘Grand Alliance’ solely to defeat the Congress. But the TRS lost miserably in the electoral battle and its strength in the State Assembly came down from 26 to 10 and in the Lok Sabha from five to two. Although this catastrophic electoral defeat led the political analysts to predict the end of the TRS, it found a startling new lease life with the unexpected death of YSR.

Following YSR’s death the Congress High Command wanted to appoint someone who is more pliable than YSR. Despite a strong campaign for YSR’s son ‘Jagan-as-CM’ and the State Cabinet’s letter that urged Sonia Gandhi to consider Jagan’s candidature, the Congress chose Konijeti Rosaiah. Konijeti is a veteran Congressman and an able administrator but lacked any support-base in the party. As a result of which his own Cabinet colleagues began to take him for a ride. On his part, Jagan—now the disappointed and disgruntled young man—began to create troubles for Konijeti’s government. The disobedient colleagues and troublesome Jagan have brought chaos in the administration of the State, which had virtually come to a standstill situation. Such a state of complete pandemonium was tailor-made for KCR, for he had been facing a crisis of credibility due to the severe drubbing in the recently held elections. He wanted to do something dramatic so that he could bring himself and his party on to the centre of the State’s political arena, and thereby put pressure both on the State and Central governments to settle the separate Telangana issue.

As it happened, KCR launched a ‘fast-unto-death’ on November 29, 2009 only to give it up within a few hours. But the agitating students staged massive demonstrations and vent out their anger against KCR by taking out his mock funeral procession and burning his effigies. They announced that they would continue the struggle even if KCR withdraws his fast. The terrified KCR continued his deeksha (fasting), which lasted for nine days, during which the Telangana region was gripped by tension and violence. The police went for baton-charges against the agitating students in various University campuses in the Telangana region; violence erupted across the ten districts of Telangana, where government offices and vehicles were torched. In addition to this, the deteriorating health condition of KCR also led to the flaring-up of emotions there. In any case, the fasting helped KCR to salvage some of his lost credibility, yet it pushed the emotionally charged-up innocent young people to commit suicides. Since the beginning of KCR’s fast till the Congress’ decision on Telangana on July 31, 2013 nearly 850 suicides have been reported in the media.

These grave incidents forced the UPA Government to make an announcement on its willingness to initiate the process of formation of the Telangana State on December 9, 2009. Yet it went back on its announcement when there was a huge and unexpected adverse response from several fronts, especially the en masse resignation of MLAs and MPs of different political parties, including the Congress, from the coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions, which are jointly called the Seemandhra region. The Congress sought further time on the pretext that it needed to hold wide-ranging consultations with all political parties and groups in the State. Meanwhile it also appointed a five-member Committee, headed by Justice Srikrishna, on December 31, 2010 for consultation on the situation in Andhra Pradesh. The Committee submitted its report in December 2011 favouring: (a) creation of a separate Telangana State with Hyderabad as its capital; (b) keeping the State united with constitutional and statutory measures for empowerment of the Telangana region. But the Congress leadership, true to its dilatory tactics, did not act upon it immediately. It continued to maintain a studied silence for more than seven months after the Committee’s report, and thereby sought to further aggravate the Telangana question. The vexed agitators refused to budge on the vacillating and procrastinating tactics of the Congress and they responded by intensifying their struggle for separate Telangana.

Jagan Phenomenon

In recent years, in addition to the Telangana question, AP is caught up with another political phenomenon in the form of Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy. Jagan, as he is popularly known, is the President of the Yuvajana, Shramika, Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP—Youth, Workers and Farmers Congress Party, literally) and an MP from the Kadapa Lok Sabha constituency. Jagan began his career as a businessman in 1999-2000 by establishing a tiny power company, Sandur, in Karnataka and then expanding it to the North-Eastern States. Once his father became the CM of AP in 2004, Jagan ventured into many other successful businesses, including cement plants, infrastructure and the media, and succeeded in building a formidable and powerful business empire. By 2011, when Jagan quit as the Congress MP and returned to Parliament on the YSR Congress ticket, he was the richest MP with a property worth Rs 389 crores.

Jagan was barely 36 years old when he first got elected to the Lok Sabha and was a political novice at the time of his father’s death. But being born into the dominant Reddy community from the Rayalaseema region, which treats political power as its own property, and growing up under the shadow of his factionist father, Jagan nurtured high political ambitions and felt (and still feels) that he has every right to succeed his father as the Chief Minister. Towards the realisation of that ‘family right’, he left no stone unturned to convince the Congress’ central leadership on his abilities to take over the wheels of power. But the Congress leadership, which is not disinclined to dynastic succession by disposition, was somehow reluctant to entertain Jagan’s claim and advised him not to be impatient to become the Chief Minister as he was too young and inexperienced. Although Jagan was disenchanted by this advice, he was unwilling to give up his ambition. He went to the people albeit in the guise of Odarpu Yatra (consolation tour) and emerged as one of the most popular leaders in the State. The Congress, which was troubled by Jagan’s tour, attempted to discipline him by replacing Konijeti with Nallari Kiran Kumar Reddy as the CM of the State.

Jagan saw this replacement as a conspiracy to isolate him in the party, and left it by resigning from his Lok Sabha seat. His mother, Y.S. Vijayalakshmi, also followed him by resigning from her Pulivendula Assembly constituency seat. What followed in the ensuing by-elections to the Kadapa Lok Sabha constituency and the Pulivendula Assembly segment is history. While Jagan won with a margin of more than 5.67 lakh votes; his mother was re-elected from her seat by a margin of more than 85,000 votes. Although political analysts and the Congress party tried to interpret this victory as an outcome of the sympathy wave due to YSR’s untimely death, the Jagan-led YSR Congress established its political hold in the by-elections that took place in June 2012. These elections were caused by the disqualification of 17 Congress legislators, who quit the party to join the YSR Congress. The YSRCP swept the by-polls by winning 15 out of the 18 Assembly seats. It also won the lone Lok Sabha seat of Nellore with a record majority of over 2,90,000 votes over the Congress candidate.

The June 2012 by-elections proved to be a death-blow to the Congress. For, until those elections it was confident that it would write-off what has been called ‘Jagan phenomenon’ in AP politics by exposing the corrupt practices through which he built his financial empire. Incidentally, Jagan was arrested just weeks before the end of the campaign for the by-elections on the charge of having disproportionate assets. In his absence, Jagan’s mother and sister Sharmila took over the campaign and made a martyr of him. They lambasted the Congress for what they called unfair tactics. It was an emotionally charged campaign that touched a chord with the voters, and both the anti-incumbency and sympathy factors worked in favour of the YSR Congress. Although this electoral success does not prove Jagan’s innocence, the common people seem to be unimpressed by the charge of corruption against him. They support Jagan by questioning the other corrupt political leaders in the State, especially the TDP chief, Nara Chandrababu Naidu. “Show me one good person in politics, who does not make money through bad means! When Naidu entered politics, he owned a mere two acres of land; now look at his properties? Besides owning the Heritage Food (India) Limited company, Naidu is the owner of not less than two thousand crores of rupees and two thousand acres of agricultural land.” (Interview with Patibandla Nageswara Rao in Vijayawada on June 3, 2013)

Whether the allegations against Naidu are true or not, with its electoral debacle the Congress has realised that Nallari is no match for Jagan and that the Reddy caste has thrown its strength behind Jagan. It attempted to restructure its leadership by accommodating other dominant and numerically larger castes in its rank and file. For instance, in the last two Cabinet reshuffles that took place in October 2012 and again June 2013, seven MPs from AP— in addition to the earlier five—were inducted into the UPA-II Government. These MPs mainly come from the Kapus and Kammas—the two dominant castes that share traditional rivalry against the domination of the Reddys. Through these accommodations the Congress had hoped to both gain the support of various castes and communities and at the same time destroy the support base of the YSRCP. That is to say, for the Congress the promotion of the non-Reddy castes was one way of eclipsing the political power of the Reddys and thereby reducing the sway of Jagan in the State. The Congress would have continued with this strategy but for the predictions by the pre-poll surveys that forecast the party’s defeat in the State.

Pre-Poll Surveys and the Congress’

The Congress, which had procrastinated on the question of reaching a decision on Telangana, flabbergasted everyone on July 31 by its announcement of the creation of the separate Telangana State. While the people of Andhra Pradesh are still struggling to understand the ramifications of this announcement, they were in for yet another shock in the form of bail to the jailed Jagan. Although these appear to be two isolated events, they are, in fact, closely connected with one another in the Congress’ electoral game-plan, a plan that has been devised in the wake of the predictions by the pre-poll surveys for the elections in 2014. Two significant aspects of those predictions, which are useful for our purpose, are: (a) that if the elections to the Lok Sabha were to be held right way it is not the Congress-led UPA, but the BJP-led NDA that has better prospects; and (b) that the Congress in Andhra Pradesh would be defeated and the YSR Congress Party would emerge victorious by winning something like 20-22 Lok Sabha seats out of 42 in the State.

The Congress had become apprehensive due to these gloomy forecasts in general and particularly in Andhra Pradesh. The party has a special interest in the State, for it has been reduced to a non-entity in the cow-belt, and it is in a flux in other bigger States like Maha-rashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Indeed, the Congress has managed to remain in power in 2004 and 2009 on the strength of AP and it cannot afford to lose it at any cost. But given the strong mobilisations for a separate Telangana and the popularity of Jagan, winning a decent number of seats in the State seems to be a well–nigh impossible task for it, unless it deals with both the troubling factors. Of course, for the Congress with a history of taking advantage of its adversaries and adversarial circumstances dealing with those factors is not a difficult task.

As a first step the Congress has come up with the announcement of a separate Telangana
State. It seems the Congress has made this announcement after carefully calculating gains and losses in terms of the number of seats and the areas in which it may win or lose those seats. A pro-Telangana decision and an electoral alliance with the TRS are bound to fetch it all the parliamentary and assembly seats in the region. But such a decision will cost it heavily in the coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions—together known as the Seemandhra region—as these regions are agitating in favour of a united Andhra Pradesh. Of course, there is no guarantee of any seats for it in this region even if it does not take a pro-Telangana decision. In addition to competing against the TDP, it has to compete against the YSRCP, which has been growing in popularity in the region. Thus, the pro-Telangana decision by the Congress is not on account of the historical injustices suffered by the Telanganites at the hands of politicians, capitalists and government employees that belong to the Seemandhra region, but simply for strengthening its chances of winning in the coming elections.

Secondly, the news of bail to Jagan has been received with a bang in the State. Given the seriousness of the CBI’s allegation of dispropor-tionate assets against Jagan, nobody had ever thought that he would be granted bail, at least not so soon. This is the reason why many in the State, including the Opposition parties, think that the bail is the result of a secret pact between the Congress and YSRCP. It has been alleged that Sonia Gandhi would help Jagan to get bail and later wriggle out of the CBI case; and Jagan, in turn, would help her son, Rahul Gandhi, in becoming the Prime Minister with his MPs. Whether there is an agreement or not, the transfer of the CBI Joint Director who was investigating the case and the speed with which the bail was granted, particularly at a juncture when the State is going through a severe turmoil in the form of agitations for separate and united Andhra Pradesh, gave strength to those allegations.

The politics of bail apart, Jagan’s release would change the political scenario in Seemandhra drastically. The YSR Congress is the only party that has openly opposed the bifurcation decision and is agitating to keep the State united. Now with Jagan’s leadership the agitation for a united Andhra Pradesh is bound to be reinforced. Incidentally this is what the Congress wanted—a reinvigorated agitation under the leadership of the YSRCP. It is aware that it has lost its ground to the YSRCP and it does not want the TDP to take advantage of the agitation as it cannot enter into any sort of a alliance with the latter. On the contrary, if the YSRCP controls the agitation, it is bound to consolidate its position in Seemandhra. This, in turn, would help the party to reap rich harvest in the coming elections and emerge as the single largest party in the region. In the event of a fractured mandate at the Centre, the Congress may seek a post-poll alliance with the YSRCP. It is very likely that Jagan would come to terms with the Congress as the CBI case against him is far from over. This way Jagan can take charge as the CM of the new State and support the UPA Government at the Centre either as a coalition partner or from outside. In a way, by entering into a post-poll alliance with the YSR Congress, the Congress can ensure that it remains in power in Seemandhra; and in Telangana, either in alliance with the TRS or without it, the Congress can return to power in the new State since it is responsible for its creation. Would the Congress succeed in this grand game-plan? One has to wait and watch.

Dr Sambaiah Gundimeda is an Assistant Professor, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad. Currently he is the Charles Wallace India Trust Visiting Fellow at IASH, University of Edinburgh.

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