The ruling Congress is skating on thin ice as the Opposition raises the pitch over popular issues such as farmers' woes while the new Chief Minister merely acts tough.

An inflexible, even adamant-sounding, Congress government is seemingly compounding an already complex situation in Andhra Pradesh by refusing to yield to demands on behalf of the State's farmers that Telugu Desam Party president N. Chandrababu Naidu is pitching for.

From Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy downwards, Congress leaders parrot their stand that they would not budge an inch beyond the “best package given under the circumstances” to farmers. Untimely rains in early December crushed the ryots by causing extensive damage to the kharif crop in the paddy-rich delta districts of coastal Andhra.

Clearly, a fast that Mr. Naidu started on December 17 to press for higher compensation to the distressed farmers has made no impression on Mr. Kiran Reddy. He has responded by using force to end the TDP leader's fast and administering intravenous fluids to him under duress.

Good sense should have dictated that the Congress put the trouble over farmers' misery behind it and focussed on its immediate political and administrative priorities, it is widely felt. Primarily, a strategy to tackle turmoil over the issue of a separate Telangana, which will inevitably break out on January 1, is crying for attention.

Next, the Congress ought to provide a credible leadership to counter the threat posed by the former MP, Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy. This will restore political stability, prevent the administration getting derailed every now and then and help the government concentrate on bailing out the farmers.

Yet, Mr. Kiran Reddy has chosen to focus energies on battling the fasting TDP president and even making sarcastic comments. While Mr. Naidu lay in fasting-induced stupor on his hospital bed, the Chief Minister made a tongue-in-cheek remark that “the TDP leader should call off his fast, now that he has achieved his goal of projecting himself as a champion of farmers.” Such insensitivity perhaps suited the Congress insofar as it helped move the focus from issues that deserve its urgent attention. Or, was it a simple case of the political ego of Congress leaders loathe to concede any space to the main Opposition party?

A more charitable view will be that they want to avoid repeating the blunder committed by the Centre in the wake of the indefinite fast undertaken by Telangana Rashtra Samithi president K. Chandrasekhar Rao more than a year ago. The Union Home Minister announced on December 9, 2009, the Centre's decision to initiate the process for creating a separate Telangana — only to backtrack two weeks later.

In Mr. Naidu's fast, too, there has been an element of desperation. His candidates having forfeited the security deposit in the byelections to all the 11 Assembly seats in Telangana and faced with competition from Mr. Jagan Reddy in the Andhra-Rayalaseema region, the TDP leader had to do something dramatic to seek to re-establish his lost supremacy. Mr. Naidu held out gutsily for a full week on an empty stomach, drawing upon hidden energy reserves he had built up by practising yoga and doing workouts for two hours from 4 am every day. But, at the end of his fast, he would have wished he had received a better response from the farmers to his protest action.

For a government that plans to implement a whopping budget for Rs.1.13 lakh crore in 2010-11 in Andhra Pradesh, finding money to help farmers should not be an impossible task, provided finances are managed prudently and not in the manner things are being handled now.

For instance, a laudable scheme to reimburse tuition fees and pay scholarships to underprivileged students at a cost of Rs. 3,600 crore this year leaked heavily because of faulty design. The case of the white ration cards for Below Poverty Line (BPL) families whose number (1.81 crore) exceeds the total number of households in Andhra Pradesh, was similar. Free power supply to farmers will cost the exchequer Rs. 4,912 crore this year.

Thus, there is a strong case for the Chief Minister to go beyond his Rs. 910-crore relief package for farmers. He cannot possibly get away with repeating what the Congress has been doing so far — allowing controversies to simmer in the hope that the latest one would make people forget the previous one. Such strategies could even imperil the prospects of the Congress in the next round of elections to the Assembly — where it has only a slender majority today.

The compensation of Rs. 6,000 a hectare towards input subsidy is meagre, and the waiver of Rs. 350 crore as interest on loans is inadequate. Farmers had borrowed heavily to invest in inputs, anticipating bumper yields — only to find harvested paddy rotting in waist-deep water.

The worst fears are coming true. Farmers are committing suicide by the dozen, unable to bear the consequences of the failure to repay loans. V. Peddaseshi Reddi, a farmer from Guntur district, collapsed and died in a bank soon after he was handed over compensation of Rs. 400 towards loss of paddy, cotton and red chilli he had grown on two acres. He was actually eligible for a princely sum of Rs. 900 but the bank deducted Rs. 500 to be retained as minimum balance in his account that was opened for the purpose of disbursing the sum.

Not surprisingly, farmers have lost all hope that the government would come to their rescue and provide them funds for the rabi crop. By the time monetary compensation reaches them, they may well be in the throes of another crisis — flood, drought or harassment by the new and slick breed of moneylenders, which are the micro-finance institutions.

Official estimates are not yet available on the number of suicides, though data compiled from news reports indicate that over 125 farmers have ended their lives this month alone. Mr. Jagan Reddy says 42 farmers died till December 16, the day the Chief Minister announced the package, and 86 after that.

Mr. Jagan Reddy himself undertook a 48-hour-long fast on the banks of the Krishna in Vijayawada. The ostensible purpose was to remonstrate against the Kiran Reddy government's indifference towards farmers, but the real motive was to show his political muscle. He succeeded in sending shivers down the Congress' spine by mobilising over 35 MLAs, including two each of the Telugu Desam and the Praja Rajyam. If another 25 to 30 MLAs jump the fence, the ex-MP will take a shot at toppling the government. With some MLAs gravitating towards Mr. Jagan Reddy, and others, fearing erosion of their popular base in Telangana, supporting the TRS' cause, the State is heading towards another spell of uncertainty, and possibly a round of mid-term elections.

This is a prospect that the ruling party dreads, having done nothing in recent times to endear itself to the voters. On the contrary, it has conceded ground to the TRS in the Telangana region and to Mr. Jagan Reddy and to Mr. Naidu in the Andhra-Rayalaseema regions. The three of them may split most of the seats among them, and the Congress may well be out of the reckoning.

Mr. Kiran Reddy succeeded an indecisive and vacillating K. Rosaiah, who himself was left fending off allegations of corruption against his predecessor, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy. A clean slate was what Mr. Kiran Reddy was expected to start working on. Within a short span, the Chief Minister is seen as confusing arrogance for assertiveness, and is often blamed for being inaccessible. His frequent visits to New Delhi, all the dissension over the distribution of Cabinet portfolios and his inability to find a Deputy Chief Minister and a Speaker of the Assembly, have hardly improved his ratings.

Over time, Andhra Pradesh has paid a heavy price for protests of all varieties by leaders who have an eye on achieving their goals. It is unlikely that the politics of fasts will end soon, given the leaders' proclivity to exploit the unstable situation and indulge in games of one-upmanship. Hopefully, the Srikrishna Committee's report will be a game-changer.

More In: Lead | Opinion