Welfare, voters, and political mobilisation in Andhra Pradesh

Andhra Pardesh’s political parties must consider the challenges of a populist model too

Updated - June 19, 2024 11:03 am IST

Published - June 19, 2024 01:19 am IST

YSRCP president and Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy with the party manifesto. File photo: Special Arrangement

YSRCP president and Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy with the party manifesto. File photo: Special Arrangement

The outgoing Chief Minister, Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, in his poignant address after the rout of his party, The Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP), in State Assembly and general elections said; “…and yet, after all these incredible transformations, after touching the lives of millions, I wonder where that reverence has gone, where did the warmth vanish…”

The YSRCP government put in place a strategic new welfare-based governance model leveraging short-term welfare measures to lay the groundwork for more extensive, infrastructure-focussed and capital-intensive endeavours. These welfare programmes, particularly aimed at women voters, were significant for their precision in reaching intended beneficiaries, and for their chequered impact on political parties and their workers in Andhra.

Welfare schemes: respite and opportunity

Women, particularly in the below-middle-class sections, are a crucial demographic in Andhra Pradesh politics. Women voters now exceed male voters by a small margin, and recent literature shows that fewer women vote based on family preferences. Our recent fieldwork in four districts indicates that the welfare initiatives of the YSRCP substantially contributed to attracting women voters. The ‘YSR Cheyutha’ scheme offers direct financial aid, while ‘Amma Vodi’ provides crucial support for education. A door-to-door volunteer system has been introduced which streamlined access to these benefits, especially for uneducated rural women.

Seventy-year-old Durga (name changed) from a tribal village in Parvathipuram Manyam, is relieved that her pension is delivered directly to her home by village volunteers. She says, “Earlier, I had to travel fifteen kilometres to the bank for my pension.” Padma (name changed), a toddy tapper from West Godavari, says, “I received ₹18,500 over four years through ‘YSR Cheyutha’, which helped me run my home during the off-season.”

Focusing on the immediate needs of women has allowed the YSRCP to create a stable support base, leaving room for the party to pursue long-term initiatives. Andhra Pradesh under Jal Jeevan mission for reliable clean water supply has installed water meters in over two-thirds of households. The ‘Nadu-Nedu’ scheme upgraded school infrastructure, introduced English medium. International Baccalaureate syllabus will be introduced thereby improving quality of education.

Historically, political communication has promoted both welfare and development, but as distinct categories. But voters do not delink long-term and short-term goals. This is something the YSRCP seems to have understood, boosting its potential for electoral victories. ‘Navaratnalu Plus’, which includes nine categories of promises, amalgamates both long and short-term policies, thereby integrating welfare and development, creating for itself a robust support base among the poor.

Besides, the volunteer network eliminates the need to rely on elite support for benefit distribution. This was practically achieved by direct benefit transfers, which can mute the influence of rural caste elites on redistributive schemes. That said, the caste elites still hold sway over society in Andhra Pradesh.

Making sense of the rout: strong leader, not-so-strong party

Streamlined delivery, reduced bureaucratic hurdles, and minimised leakages strengthen a party’s credibility and build voter trust. They also limit opportunities for local cadres to apportion resources. A sarpanch and senior YSRCP worker complained that the ‘village secretariat system’ introduced by his party’s government took away his power to identify beneficiaries, which meant he also lost control over his party’s workers.

Unlike volunteers, party cadres have a deeper investment in the party, stemming from either a commitment to its ideology or the charisma of its leaders. The YSRCP’s influence among workers and the public is largely due to its charismatic leader. Cadres’ motivation relies on direct accessibility to their leader. This charisma is not easily transferable — the leader needs to do it himself/herself. The marginalisation of party cadres, who are crucial for voter mobilisation during elections and on polling days, along with limited access to leadership, has negatively impacted YSRCP’s electoral prospects.

Some might argue that volunteers could replace traditional party cadres in voter mobilisation efforts. While they are certainly capable, the key issue lies in the lack of an ideological foundation that binds voters and supporters to the party. Welfare and economic empowerment without an ideological core meant that the voters could be convinced to vote for a different party that has a similar basket of offerings and is accessible to people. Consequently, although volunteers were effective in delivering schemes, this did not translate into electoral victories for the YSRCP.

On the other hand, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) went back to traditional methods i.e., a huge number of smaller and more localised rallies along with a similar basket of welfare deliverables as against a handful of massive public rallies by Mr. Reddy.

Through its welfare model, the YSRCP has established a powerful populist leader, but could not build a loyal voter base, as it has undermined internal party dynamics, raising doubts about its long-term viability. The absence of a robust ideological framework and accessible leadership begs the question: can a party reliant solely on populism endure periods out of power? This is a critical consideration for political parties on a similar pathway.

Vignesh Karthik K.R. is a postdoctoral research fellow of Indian and Indonesian politics at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, Leiden; Chandra Sekhar Vadigalla is a doctoral researcher at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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