The crumbling of the Congress in its bastion in Andhra Pradesh is significant because in no other State does any political party hold as many Lok Sabha seats on its own as the Congress does here.

The elections to five State assemblies earlier this year surely deserved the public and media attention they got. The country's most populous State, Uttar Pradesh, was one of those holding polls. And many saw the millions of voters in these States as giving us a preview to the general elections due in 2014. Yet, the results of the small number of by-elections in Andhra Pradesh last month might tell us more about which way the Congress (and its leadership of the United Progressive Alliance) is going. And the results of polls to local bodies in the vital State of Maharashtra also throw up some signals worth a glance.

The big picture in A.P.

The Congress has far more to lose in Andhra Pradesh, where it is in power, than it does in U.P. It has 33 Lok Sabha MPs from here, more seats than it holds in any other State. In fact, no other party holds that many seats on its own from any other State either. So A.P. is crucial to the Congress nationally. In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress could, on its own, hit the 40 per cent vote-mark or higher. But that is something it will not do in 2014 when it might, in fact, face disaster. The Congress contested all seven Assembly seats where bypolls were held in A.P., including six in Telangana — and lost them all by huge margins. In Telangana, it lost the Kamareddy seat to the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) by nearly 45,000 votes. It trailed the TRS in Adilabad and Ghanpur (Station) by well over 30,000 votes in each. And came third in Mahbubnagar, trailing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winner by 14,000 votes. Oddly, that was actually the seat where it performed best, in terms of the margin of defeat. It lost Nagarkurnool to a TRS-backed ex-TDP leader by over 27,000 votes. And trailed the TRS by over 15,000 in Kollapur.

Congress, TDP hit

Who held these seats earlier? The bypoll to the Mahbubnagar seat (now won by the BJP) was caused by the death of the Congress MLA there. In five others, resignations by sitting MLAs pushing the Telangana demand, forced the bypolls. Kollapur and Ghanpur (Station) had Congress MLAs who resigned to contest on the TRS platform. Both won. Adilabad and Kamareddy had TDP MLAs who quit their seats and won this time on TRS tickets. Nagarkurnool was held by a TDP leader who left the party and contested on his own platform, backed by the TRS. He won, too. And in the coastal Andhra seat of Kovur, the sitting TDP MLA had gone with Jagan and was disqualified. He's back on the ticket of the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRC) of Jaganmohan Reddy. So both the Congress and the TDP have taken a hit.

True, the margins might have been less had the YSRC contested in Telangana as well. But then the Congress might have come third in two or three more constituencies. Jagan Reddy seems to have stayed out in order to let the TRS slaughter the Congress. But the result in Kovur in coastal Andhra, which the YSRC did contest, was in some ways more ominous. Its winning candidate here was N. Prasanna Kumar Reddy. The same gentleman had been the sitting MLA of Chandrababu Naidu's Telugu Desam Party (TDP) till he chose to join Jagan Reddy. As a TDP man in 2009 he won by around 7,400 votes. This time contesting against that party and the Congress, he won by more than 23,000 votes. That is by over three times his previous margin. The Congress which he had beaten the last time, came third this time. This suggests the YSR Congress is cutting into both the TDP and the Congress. It also means, if this is the trend, that the Congress is not just in trouble in Telangana. It might run into worse in coastal Andhra. In the Rayalaseema region, it lost the Kadapa seat last May to Jagan Reddy by over half a million votes. Interestingly, the Congress Minister then routed, D.L. Ravindra Reddy (taunted as “Deposit Loss Reddy” during that campaign), is now out of the government. He has quit following the new round of factional warfare that the latest debacle has brought on. That war has seen the Chief Minister and party factional leaders clashing in direct and indirect battles. The Anti-Corruption Bureau raids on the liquor lobby across the State are seen by many as a part of this war. The facts unearthed by the raids, whatever their reason, are fascinating. Close to 50 per cent of liquor shop-owners in the district of Vizianagaram turn out to be BPL card- holders. In reality, they are “benami” owners fronting for a very senior State Congress leader. In Anantapur, a BPL card-holder owns a Rs.570-crore cement company. Again, a front for a Congress leader whose son and daughter-in-law joined the board of the owning company while that leader was a minister. Meanwhile, CBI charges against Jagan Reddy in the illegal assets case, so far at least, do not appear to be helping the ruling party.

In Maharashtra

And now there's 18 more seats in Andhra Pradesh for which bypolls must be held within months. All but one of these were held by Congressmen who resigned to join Jagan Reddy. One was vacated by Chiranjeevi who has gone to the Rajya Sabha. Nine of these are in coastal Andhra, eight in Rayalaseema and just one in Telangana. Defeats in many of these could further carve up an already paralysed party. What's happening to the TDP in the State is also interesting. The perennial corporate-media favourite, Chandrababu Naidu, is floundering. The TDP failed to win a single one of the seven seats in the bypolls. It also lost its deposit in three of those. In several of the 18 seats for which bypolls will soon be due, the TDP and the Congress could be fighting for second place.

The crumbling of the Congress' A.P. bastion will have a wider national fallout for that party. The more so when it is losing ground to its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra, another vital State for the Congress. Whether in the municipal councils, corporations, panchayat samitis or the zilla parishads, all recent local body polls have seen the NCP fare better. In the zilla parishads of this huge State, there are just two among 27 which went to the polls — Sindhudurg and Latur — where the party is in a position to rule on its own. The trends must worry the Congress. It appears Muslims and dalits — both crucial to that party's base — have not voted for it in their usual numbers. Maharashtra (48) and Andhra Pradesh (42) account for 90 Lok Sabha seats. With the Congress holding more than half of these, changing vote patterns in these States matter a lot to that party. The Congress holds 17 Lok Sabha seats from Maharashtra.

The party can draw comfort from the fact that its main rival, the BJP, is not doing much better across most of the country. And in fact, the Congress-led Democratic Front (DF) in Maharashtra has been losing vote-share but winning elections thanks to the disarray of the rival front. For instance, the split in the Shiv Sena has helped the Congress pull off unlikely victories. However, the period has also seen the NCP gain ground from the Congress. This will not help at bargaining time in 2014. When the Congress will be facing the heat from another ally in another State where it once had about 40 per cent of the vote on its own, West Bengal. But the bypolls to 18 seats in A.P. won't wait till then to cause problems. Those begin immediately in what 36 months ago was the strongest Congress bastion in the country.

psainath@mtnl.net.in

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