The bypolls in Andhra Pradesh are less about results, more about consequences. They will produce changes — not alternatives
It might be an idea for the CBI to contest the 2014 elections in Andhra Pradesh. It is certainly the most active political force in the State and has been for a while now. Given the poverty of choice before the Andhra electorate, who knows, they might even get some votes. It could be a self-financing drive, sort of. The CBI could use the crores they've seized from the other parties for their poll campaign. And exploit that unique resource of theirs — keeping tabs on the poll spending of their rivals. Maybe they'd even have fresh new faces on offer.
A stand-up comic contesting a seat in Australia in the early 1990s made his campaign a take-off on the emerging neo-liberal order that sought to privatise just about everything. He called for the dismantling and privatisation of the sewage and public sanitation system. “Every individual,” he thundered, “has got to be responsible for his own waste.” (Um, “waste” was not the word he used, but you get the point). Despite proclaiming himself a non-serious candidate towards the end and withdrawing in favour of Labor, he still got some votes. So there's hope for the CBI yet, if it avoids being labelled as non-serious.
There's a new flavour to the ongoing bypolls to 18 Assembly seats and one Lok Sabha constituency in A.P. There is little or no discussion about the likely results. Those have never been in doubt. The guessing games are about who will come third in more seats: the Congress or the TDP (the Congress is the current hot favourite). Or speculation on how many ruling party MLAs will defect to Jagan Reddy's YSR Congress before voting day on June 12. And how many will do so after the results. About the impact on the State government — will it drag on till 2014? And about margins. But all sides assume a bottom line of 14 Assembly wins for Jagan's YSR Congress. All that is conceded about the remaining four seats is that they will see real contests.
Otherwise, the ruling party is seen as taking a huge hit regardless of Jagan Reddy's arrest. There's not much discussion around who is corrupt. The question you run into: “Who isn't?” The debate is not so much about the results, but about the consequences. It's about anger against the ruling Congress, and the way it has functioned. It's about standing with YSR's son against the government. And about a persisting YSR factor and its almost comical impact on the Congress. The party has removed all his cut-outs from its offices while attacking his corruption. Till a year ago, it had been claiming his legacy while fighting Jagan in the Kadapa bypoll (which he won by over half a million votes).
The tragedy, of course, is that Andhra Pradesh has never been so bereft of worthwhile alternatives in any election in the past. The roster: Congress, YSRC, TDP, TRS, BJP… Many parties, very few alternatives. (The Left being too small to fit into even this picture.) But such is the anger towards the centrally-imposed crony-subedari system, that the obvious and troubling problems with Jagan's character and politics will cut no ice for now.
1983 and now
The voters of Andhra Pradesh have forged serious alternatives in the past — even if those were derided by the rulers and their captive media. In January 1983, N.T. Rama Rao swept to power on anti-Congress sentiment and with a promise of rice at Rs.2 a kilo, which he actually kept. A year-and-a-half later, the Congress at the Centre boldly sat on its own self-destruct button. It toppled NTR and split his party while he was away in the U.S. for a heart surgery. It set up a stooge government whose chief minister served 31 days (lowest ever for an A.P. CM). This provoked a public fury that would last over a decade, though NTR was back in a month. The Congress is now again on the tragedy and farce treadmill.
To thwart Jagan Reddy after his father's death in 2009, the Congress imposed K. Rosaiah as Chief Minister. Rosaiah, a highly respected Congressman, with acknowledged skills as finance minister, had no mass base — and a hostile public mood to contend with. As the ship of state floundered, he quit “on health grounds.” His health, however, did not stop him from becoming a Governor. The Congress government is now led by Kiran Kumar Reddy — of low profile within his constituency and no profile beyond it. His government panicked when the flow of defections to the YSRC began to pick up. The TDP too, is bleeding. Consider that one of its doughtiest fighters, M.V. Mysoora Reddy who battled Jagan in Kadapa 12 months ago, is now with the YSR Congress.
The post-NTR TDP saw the reign of Chandrababu Naidu, the most loved Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh ever — in the media. Riding on his father-in-law's political bank balance — and on a symbolic bicycle at poll time only — he became what the New York Times termed the “darling of Western governments and corporations.” This era also marked the consolidation of the contractor raj that has ruled the State ever since. Under Naidu, A.P. was the worst-performing State in the south, on many indicators, for nearly a decade. Rural employment collapsed. Many thousands of farmers took their lives in despair. Thousands of (non-state) “gruel centres” sprang up in 2003 to feed large numbers of hungry people.
But the corporate world and media loved him even though he failed any test by the indicators they valued. GDP growth was the lowest in the southern States for 1999-2004 and lower than the national average. The voters are yet to forgive him. Even with the Congress going downhill, the TDP is unable to emerge a dominant force in any part of the State.
Indeed, Naidu's rule, more than any other factor, helped the Congress bounce back. With Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, the party had its first popular leader in years. “YSR” capitalised on Naidu's failures (the very things the media saw as achievements). He touched a chord in the agrarian community with his highlighting of farm distress and swept to power on that in 2004. He also became the first chief minister to set up a commission to look into agrarian distress, headed by Prof. Jayati Ghosh. For a while, he even heeded its recommendations, leading to some improvements, even while the macro-economic policies of both State and Centre ran counter to the thrust of the Commission's report. He ran a decent NREGs that saw distress migrations fall in some regions. He even appropriated NTR's legacy on the issue of cheap rice. All this earned him massive public support. Which now translates big time into sympathy for his son Jagan Reddy.
On all other fronts, though, his era showed great continuity with the Naidu period. Corruption, contractor raj, scams, land grab and quid pro quo deals with the corporate world, all continued. And intensified. A 103 SEZs and gargantuan irrigation projects were approved in YSR's time. Setting up the displacement of up to one-and-a-half million human beings, with all the misery that it entailed. However, the results of these were to surface much later, allowing him to sweep the 2009 polls with an electorate that still had no trust in Chandrababu Naidu.
As this newspaper said in its obituary of the Congress CM after his tragic death: “YSR's legacy will also carry the burden of some very damaging irrigation projects and a bizarre number of SEZs… (However) The outcome of the more negative policies will be felt later, perhaps around 2012…” (TheHindu, September 4, 2009). And now we have Jagan Reddy riding high on the positive side of his father's legacy — with much of the negative also unfolding. Jagan entered the Lok Sabha last year via the Kadapa by-election where his poll affidavit placed his worth, along with that of his wife, at around Rs.430 crore. Now that worth had been, at the time of the 2009 Lok Sabha election, just under Rs.72 crore. This means he added Rs.357 crore to his assets in some 24 months. Or, on average, around Rs.50 lakh a day. No small feat.
However, the sight of the Congress, of all forces, mounting an anti-corruption crusade draws ridicule from the public. And the fact that these charges were known since the time of YSR but raised only after Jagan left the party robs them of respect. And it is hard, at this point, to see any other major force emerge before 2014. And so a State faced again with mounting farm suicides, with massive forced displacement, with the Telangana issue hanging fire, with the insane looting of public and natural resources, seems trapped on the same road. Elections with changes, but without alternatives. Heck, maybe the CBI ought to give some thought to contesting in 2014.
This article has been edited to correct an inadvertent reference to "the Assembly" in the sentence about Jagan's entry into Parliament following the Kadapa by-election.