The delicate art of balancing regional, political and caste interests in Andhra Pradesh.

The leaders of the Congress in Andhra Pradesh, divided along regional, political and, of late even caste lines, are back at their old game — infighting. But, at this critical point in the State's political history, this may be a luxury the ruling party can ill-afford.

Indulging in squabbling could, this time round, deal a severe blow not only to the party but to Andhra Pradesh's very future. For, the countdown has begun for the submission, by December 31, of the report of the Srikrishna Committee that is examining the rival demands for creating a Telangana state or maintaining the status of a united Andhra Pradesh.

Congress MPs and MLAs from the Telangana region have in recent days shown an unusual level of belligerence on the statehood issue, not wanting to concede a significant part of their vote base to the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS). The TRS was quick to cash in on the groundswell of regional sentiment over the issue in the region after the Centre announced its hastily conceived decision on December 9, 2009 to initiate the process of creating a Telangana state.

For the Congress, the death of Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR) upset the regional applecart, balanced delicately as it was. And, the vaulting ambition of his son, Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy (who was the MP from Kadapa), added a new dimension to party politics.

Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy had lost no time in demanding what he believed was really his inheritance. Having secured the signatures of 150 out of 156 Congress MLAs in his support after YSR's death, he asked senior leader K. Rosaiah to move over and propose his candidature for the Chief Minister's post.

The veteran's refusal to oblige him, unless he was asked by the high command itself to make way, drew the wrath of the Jaganmohan Reddy loyalists in the Cabinet, and they defied Mr. Rosaiah.

Preoccupied as it was with fire-fighting operations elsewhere amid a clutch of controversies, the high command gave the impression that it had no time for the seething issues in Andhra Pradesh. It seemed to want to do precious little to rein in the rebellious Ministers, who were fighting either over regional issues or by proxy for Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy. Saddled with a team originally chosen by YSR and owing loyalty to the late leader's son, Mr. Rosaiah found his hands tied. He had neither YSR's mass appeal nor sufficient clout with the high command to sack the errant Ministers.

Rosaiah's innings

The 78-year-old leader's innings was clearly over a month ago when his request to Congress president Sonia Gandhi to let him reshuffle his Cabinet did not evoke any response. With her attention focussed on issues at the Centre, and on Karnataka where the Yeddyurappa Government was tottering, as well as on Maharashtra where a Congress Chief Minister had to be replaced, she merely said she would convey her decision later. After a month, Mr. Rosaiah went to Delhi again and asked her to relieve him on the grounds of advanced age and work-stress. The high command complied immediately and a successor was chosen.

Assembly Speaker N. Kiran Kumar Reddy, 50, did not have any political baggage, never having been a Minister. And, he belonged to the politically dominant Reddy community. Although a YSR loyalist, his choice, it was thought, could possibly checkmate Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy as they belonged to the same caste and hailed from the same region.

New Delhi's faith in Mr. Kiran Reddy seemed justified. The Chief Minister began his innings in a no-nonsense manner and promised to provide transparent governance, improve delivery systems and be strict with those transgressing law and order. The fairy tale seemed set to turn into a nightmare when Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy quit the Congress along with his mother Vijayamma, who was an MLA. However, the young leader could not rock the Congress boat as he could muster the support of no more than 20 to 25 of the Congress MLAs.

As a hedge, the Congress got an assurance from film-star K. Chiranjeeevi that his Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) would support the government in return for three Cabinet berths and possibly a Rajya Sabha seat next year. Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy, however, had other plans – to launch his own party soon and become Chief Minister in 2014 when the next Assembly elections come up.

It was the Congress' anxiety, if not obsession, to checkmate Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy that was partly responsible for triggering the latest round of instability. The Chief Minister's inexperience was also in evidence when he failed to strike the traditional balance in terms of caste and region in distributing important portfolios.

Cabinet formation in Andhra Pradesh is invariably a tricky exercise based on a rather complicated matrix. As in other States, caste, region, religion and an MLA's political stature have to be taken into account. What makes the task different in Andhra Pradesh is the fact that a further balance has to be struck in the distribution of portfolios on the basis of region and caste.

A ratio of 60:40 is maintained between the Andhra (including Rayalaseema) and Telangana regions under a gentlemen's agreement that was reached in 1956 ahead of the formation of the State of Andhra Pradesh. Mr. Kiran Reddy did observe this norm by inducting 23 Ministers from Andhra (eight of them from Rayalaseema) and 16 Ministers from Telangana (41 per cent).

But he draw flak for inducting 13 persons belonging to the Reddy community into the Cabinet (one-third of the team), including three leaders from Kadapa district. His effort to constitute a please-all Cabinet boomeranged.

Nearly 28 Ministers had been members of YSR's Cabinet. Many of them had tasted blood by getting away with defying Mr. Rosaiah. No sooner were they were sworn in than about a dozen Ministers rebelled against the allotment of ‘lightweight' portfolios to seniors.

Eleven portfolios are considered to be key ones and are traditionally distributed in a certain proportion among the regions and castes. These are Finance, Revenue, Home, Major Irrigation, Panchayati Raj, Municipal Administration and Urban Development, Power, Major Industries, Roads and Buildings, Agriculture, and Health. Crucially, eight of these 11 portfolios were this time entrusted to members of the Reddy community, two to members of the Backward Classes and one to a Scheduled Caste person. YSR, during his second term as Chief Minister in 2009, had given Reddys only four of the top 11.

Not surprisingly, the discontented Ministers managed to give this ‘unequal' distribution of portfolios a ‘social justice' twist. The Chief Minister's camp defended the allotment on the ground that he had limited options since 53 out of the 156 Congress MLAs are Reddys. The Congress also failed to fulfil its promise to appoint a Deputy Chief Minister from Telangana.

For now, Mr. Kiran Reddy has got a breather by promising the prominent ones among the peeved Ministers — Botcha Satyanarayana and Dharmana Prasada Rao — to rectify the imbalance in two to three months. The high command also intervened to ensure that the new Chief Minister did not cave in to their demands.

History has repeated itself as farce in Andhra Pradesh often enough. It had four Congress Chief Ministers during the period from 1978 to 1983, and three during the period from 1989 to 1994. At the end of both these periods, the party lost power to N.T. Rama Rao, who rode to power on the slogan of Telugu pride. It is striking that in the 18 months since the Assembly elections in May 2009, three Chief Ministers have ruled the State.

The Congress leadership's handling of affairs concerning its only government in the South clearly requires greater sensitivity to ground realities, as its choices are limited. A mid-term election is not a choice. For, the TRS will be able to leverage the Telangana sentiment to sweep the 119 seats in the region, while Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy and Mr. N. Chandrababu Naidu's Telugu Desam Party could inflict heavy damage to the party. If that happens, the Chief Minister's ambition of winning 41 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats from Andhra Pradesh and help make Rahul Gandhi the next Prime Minister, could well remain but a pipe dream.

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