Why a single bypoll in Andhra Pradesh has gained national significance and could affect the government at the Centre.

Rarely has so much money been spent in an election just to reduce a candidate's winning margin. (Or to increase it, depending on whose side you are on). Seldom have two major political parties fought so hard, knowingly, for second place, as the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party have in the Kadapa parliamentary constituency bypoll (voting tomorrow). And while rival parties often claim the same leader's legacy, it isn't often that one of them first abuses that leader as corrupt and then seeks votes in his name. Which the Congress has done in Kadapa, in a massive effort to humble Jaganmohan Reddy of the YSR Congress (son of Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy who died in 2009).

As many as 14 Ministers have campaigned in this Lok Sabha seat with over 13 lakh voters in Andhra Pradesh's Rayalaseema region. There is a Minister in charge of each of its seven Assembly segments running the campaign round the clock, while several others, including Chief Minister Kiran Reddy flit in and out. In the Pulivendula segment, YSR's own brother (Agriculture Minister till the elections), is pitted against YSR's widow Vijayamma in a bypoll to the State legislature. The Congress candidate challenging Jagan Reddy, D.L. Ravindra Reddy, is presently Health Minister. The joke here is that the Andhra Pradesh Cabinet meets more often in Kadapa than in Hyderabad. Factor in Chiranjeevi, and the firepower deployed by the Congress is awesome. In the process, what might have been just another bypoll now commands national significance.

TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu has tried lifting the spirits of his party's cadre and boosting their candidate, M.V. Mysoora Reddy. The party publicly claims a coming victory. As its leaders point out: “a vertical split in the Congress — which is what Jagan's party represents — can only favour us.” In 2009, a united Congress with YSR at the helm saw Jagan beat his TDP rival with a margin of 1.78 lakh votes in an almost straight fight. Mr. Chiranjeevi's PRP bagged just 63,000 votes. “With Chiranjeevi joining the Congress, even if that party retains a third of its own vote, it means our man will beat Jagan.” That's the TDP's seductive logic.

Yet, party leaders know they are fighting for the second place. Mr. Chiranjeevi's votes have faded. Major local TDP leaders have joined the Congress in recent months. Most significantly, large numbers of people across many mandals in Kadapa are voting not so much for Jagan as for his father. “People are voting for YSR,” says Shankar Reddy, a four-acre cotton grower in Cherulopalli village of Pendlimarri mandal. He believes the TDP will come third in his segment. “When Naidu was Chief Minister, life was a constant harassment. The authorities would cut off our electricity and water when the crops most needed it, demanding payment of bills on heavily raised rates we could not afford. Many of us were ruined that way, our crop wasted. YSR treated us better.” Everywhere, there are references to the latter's welfare programmes, rice at Rs. 2 a kilo and more.

Meanwhile, farmers like Ramanjaneyulu Reddy in Mallepalli village of Vempalli mandal are amused: “We are getting seven hours of electricity every day now for our fields. Only because there is a bypoll on.” And, says a cynical voter in Chapadu town: “It will end on the evening of polling day. Then it will be back to two or three hours in the fields.”

“We are getting barely Rs. 60 (less than half the wage),” say labourers at an MGNREGS site in Cheemalapenti village in Pendlimarri Mandal. Women workers say they get even less. However, Dalit labourers are most reluctant to discuss the polls. This feudal district's history of repression of Dalits has taught them caution. Even so, those from the Mala community seem to favour Jagan Reddy, again on account of his father, not the candidate himself. There are also complaints of intimidation by local authorities. Many with old case records, some of them trivial, have been summoned to police stations and are on a leash till the polls end. Since ordinary folk have also had cases foisted on them in the past in a region notorious for arbitrary abuse of power, they see this as persecution by the Congress government.

The Congress has charged Jagan Reddy with gross corruption and highlighted his rapid amassment of wealth. (His election affidavit declares his worth, along with his wife, at Rs. 430 crore). Yet, this hasn't cut much ice, even with those acknowledging the seriousness of the charges. For them, these bypolls are about doing justice to YSR's memory. That the corruption charges come from a Congress party swimming in scams reduces their weight. In Kadapa town, the Congress office sports a huge picture of YSR. But in the villages, hostile voters have told its campaigners to replace his posters with those of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi “when you are fighting his family.”

In the Pulivendula Assembly constituency, Vivekandanda Reddy is putting up a spirited fight against his sister-in-law Vijayamma. Here, the contest is keener. YSR's brother is well regarded. “We took our problems to him even when YSR was alive,” said several male voters. However, women see Vijayamma as grievously wronged and could turn out in strength for her. “We are all for her,” says Gangamma, a landless labourer in Thumalapalli village of Tondur Mandal. “She deserves justice.”

Certainly, the all-out effort of the Congress has improved its candidate's position. Only a few days ago, D. L. Ravindra was mocked as “Deposit Loss Ravindra.” He seems to have banished that and picked up steam with some aggressive campaigning. “Too little, too late,” says one senior TDP leader. “Not believing they could win, they started too late. Now their high-voltage campaign has made Jagan a hero. First they cracked down on his yatras and padayatras, making him a Statewide figure. Then they fight him like this, giving this election national significance. Had they said ‘in respect for the memory of our leader YSR, we will not contest against his wife and son,' that would have ended the story. Now, defeat will be humiliating.”

Expenditures have been staggering. Several voters told us they had been paid Rs. 500 each to favour particular candidates. "That's in the villages," scoff people in Mydukuru. "Here in the towns the rate is Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 2,000." Besides, with local community heads being enticed by huge sums, leaders allege that over Rs. 200 crore has already been spent by all those in the contest. Police, under Election Commission directions, have seized nearly Rs. 3 crore during vehicle checks. That sum mounts hourly, while more cases evade detection. Everyone says the day before voting will see the maximum ‘buying’. The EC has ordered the district’s 22 banks to report any transaction of over Rs. 50,000. It has also ordered deployment of 11,100 security personnel, a record for a single constituency (one with an awful history of violence and rigging). Meanwhile, it has served 39 notices relating to “Paid News” on Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy, and four and three respectively on his TDP and Congress rivals. His mother Vijayamma (7) and her rival Vivekananda Reddy (2) have also been served such notices.

Why is the margin of victory so crucial? In 2009, Jagan's lead of 1.78 lakh came in an almost straight fight against the TDP. Now there are three major candidates. Retaining that margin would be hard. Bettering it would be astonishing. Many Congress MPs and MLAs are close to Jagan Reddy, even a few now campaigning against him. The same or bigger margin this time could see Congress MLAs switching sides. More embarrassingly, he might get 20-25 of them and even a few MPs to resign, forcing by-elections in their seats. Which means the Congress could unravel in Andhra Pradesh — from where it has 33 MPs in the Lok Sabha, its highest from any State.

Already, people are restless. Though Mr. Kiran Reddy has tried in recent weeks to galvanise its functioning, many feel there is no government at all. The welfare programmes that did the party proud in 2009 seem paralysed. On Telangana, the Congress has painted itself into a corner. Its internal surveys show the party doing badly across the State, should there be an election. Having staked so much prestige on a by-election they feel they cannot win, Congress campaigners talk of shredding Jagan's margin. Managing that might deflate his tyres and discourage would-be defectors.

The TDP struggles for relevance. Voters have not yet forgiven Mr. Naidu's regime. A third place in both battles, in a district from which they sent members to the legislature, could affect his party Statewide. It needs to nose ahead of the Congress — and cut the winner's margin. As for Jagan, anything short of a big win could disrupt his drive to power.

The Kadapa margin is now a live sport for the State's betting industry, with books opening on the race even in coastal Andhra. The betting is on the margin, not on the result. A margin that could affect not just Kadapa politics but the government at the Centre itself.

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