The perception that the Congress decision is based entirely on electoral politics is fuelling the fury on the streets across coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema

We had not been half an hour out of the Vijayawada airport when we ran into the first of the rasta rokos. After it lifted, we encountered demonstrations, dharnas, processions, rallies and rokos every hour on our journey through Krishna and Guntur. Some of these featuring schoolchildren under 14. And it isn’t just here in coastal Andhra. The rage is greater in Rayalaseema. In parts of Anantapur district there, villagers have put up actual brick-and-mortar walls across roads to halt movement.

Anantapur town has a population of around three lakh — and has witnessed demonstrations where up to a fourth of that number was on the streets at one time, in different protest meetings. The outbursts in Krishna and Guntur are not as dramatic, but are many.

The announcement that Andhra Pradesh is to be broken up has sparked off chaos across coastal AP and Rayalaseema. And the people out on the streets — students, youth, employees, pensioners, traditional folk artists — have been mobilised by no one. Political parties played no role in organising these protests, most having accepted a separate State of Telangana.

The anger on the streets is directed at the political leadership — primarily that of the Congress party. The party’s central leaders are seen — even by their own supporters here — as having made their move on statehood for purely opportunistic electoral reasons. “They think we are all fools,” says S. Venkatappaiah, a small farmer in Unguturu in Krishna district, “now they will see the anger.” Otherwise, even amongst the very angry is a sense that the division is irreversible. They know there is no parallel movement for a united Andhra Pradesh in Telangana. Which suggests that, had the issues facing people on both sides of the divide been handled differently, and outside poll calculations, the anger would have been less.

“They are conceding a right demand for wrong reasons,” says Prof. G. Hargopal, on the motives behind the Congress actions. Prof. Hargopal is ICCSR National Fellow at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad and supports statehood for Telangana.

Huge disconnect

The disconnect between the political class and the people is huge. The former spends much of their time in Delhi. The latter, in coastal AP and Rayalaseema, are on the streets. The basic concerns of the poor and the oppressed in Telangana are shared by those on the streets here. As anyone you ask would tell you, they’re both worried about “work and water.” Only, their demands are being driven in opposition to each other.

Decay by design — that’s the story of AP’s socio-economic and political fabric these past 15 years. Successive governments have burdened their people with hardship, ruthlessness and spectacular corruption. Whether under N. Chandrababu Naidu or Y.S. Rajasekara Reddy or those that followed, Andhra Pradesh saw massive and forced human displacement. Nearly 20 lakh acres were acquired for projects in the past decade, displacing perhaps a million or more human beings. For all his welfarist measures, YSR’s government was no different in imposing that misery on the poor. Nor did it lag behind in corruption. The past 15 years of policy-driven resource grab have seen millionaire-contractors, nourished with public money, emerge in droves. They quickly joined the ranks of the political class.

Money power in AP elections is awesome. In the recent panchayat polls, two candidates in the battle for a single ward spent a crore of rupees. The sarpanch’s post in that panchayat in Krishna district is reserved, so the best those candidates can be is upa sarpanch. In another contest for a single ward with just 200 votes in Gollanpalli in the same district, a candidate spent eight lakhs.

Those who have looted the State for 15 years, gorged on the resources opened up to them in that period by policy — they are now the ones seeking (or having) leadership on both sides of this great divide. Not one of them ever seriously raised the issues hurting the poor and the less privileged. Not one of them raised a voice against the forced evictions of a million human beings.

But independent public reaction has scorched them. They are scrambling, depending on the region, to ride statehood euphoria or anti-statehood anger. “Now people are at centre stage and politicians are at the margins,” says Prof. Hargopal.

With the bifurcation, the Congress believes it can retain close to half the 33 Lok Sabha seats it has from this State. That is if the TRS were to merge with the Congress as its leader has promised. Then, the party believes, it could sweep the 17 Lok Sabha seats from Telangana. That, or a wipe-out across the united Andhra Pradesh, was how the Congress perceived its chances. And hence conceded “a right demand for wrong reasons.”

“All this is to make Rahul Gandhi Prime Minister,” says B. Subba Reddy, a farmer in Krishna district. “But they will pay a price for it.” The Congress also reckons that this neatly corrals its main challenger, the YSR Congress Party within just coastal and Rayalaseema regions. And there, they feel that with YSRCP leader Jagan Mohan Reddy in jail and his party rudderless, they can reverse the damage they’ve suffered by poll time.

Early signals

There were tiny signals of the damage even before bifurcation was announced. In Telaprolu village in Krishna district, the Congress held the sarpanch’s post for 24 years. This time, in July, their sarpanch candidate got “60 votes out of 6600,” say villagers there with some relish. Panchayat elections in AP are not a good proxy for the Assembly polls to come. And local strongmen mostly win regardless of party affiliation. But when the ruling party cannot find candidates in villages some of their Ministers come from, you know something is wrong. In fact, it already was.

In June last year the YSRCP beat the Congress and the TDP in 15 of 17 Assembly seats which saw bypolls in coastal AP and Rayalaseema. It won close to half of those with margins of over 30,000 votes. Further self-inflicted blows suffered by the Congress have brought some limited gains to the TDP. Many see the Congress falling to third place in some seats in 2014. But the TDP has tied itself in knots on the statehood issue, with many leaders other than Mr. Naidu joining anti-statehood protests. Talk of a possible tie up with the BJP was reinforced by Narendra Modi’s reaching out to the TDP in his Hyderabad meeting. That would not change much in coastal AP and Rayalaseema, but it could win them some seats in the Telangana region.

The Congress hopes the ‘Modi factor” will send the minorities scurrying to its side. This does not seem to be happening now, with the division making large sections of them more insecure.

So there you have it: The political class in backroom deals on the one hand and in public contortions on the other. People in all regions seeking the same things but divided and pitted against each other in doing so. On one side, rage and hurt. On the other, hope and an understated satisfaction.

“You will have a new State but not a new political culture,” says Prof. Hargopal. “The dominant political leadership has hijacked the Telangana movement. That movement has a base but has not thrown up a single leader who challenges the dominant political culture.”

(Concluded)