A GRISLY MURDER IN the run-up to the simultaneous polls to the Assembly and the Lok Sabha in Andhra Pradesh has made a hard-charging revenge hero out of YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, the 46-year-old president of the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) and the leader of the opposition in the state. Addressing the crowd on a torrid day in his ancestral hometown of Pulivendula in YSR-Kadapa district, named after his father, erstwhile Congress Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy, Jagan weaves a plot of suspicion and rage around the stabbing on March 15th of his uncle YS Vivekananda Reddy. The YSRCP, ignoring the criminal entanglements of its own leaders including Jagan—he declared 31 pending cases in his election affidavit—has echoed his sentiments and claimed that the murder smacks of political conspiracy. It is the latest weapon in Jagan’s arsenal of pernicious allegations against the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government, but it is just as likely to backfire in what could be a throwback to his hasty campaign for the chief minister’s chair upon his father’s death in 2009. The chair now well within his sight, Jagan is seeking re-election as MLA of Pulivendula, a constituency represented by his family for four decades. This is the heart of Rayalaseema, a dry, backward region in Andhra Pradesh comprising of the four districts of Anantapur, Chittoor, Kadapa and Kurnool, and the YSRCP’s home turf, where it won 29 of the 52 Assembly seats in the 2014 elections. “There is a sympathy wave. Viveka was a strong party leader. Whoever was behind his death, YSR loyalists are in a state of mourning,” says K Janardhan Reddy, a 54-year-old cotton farmer, without taking his eyes off the lean, sunburnt warrior atop the campaign bus. Jagan, flashing his father’s trademark genial smile, exudes the confidence of a man amidst his own people. In a speech that is part emotional finger-wagging and part earnest on-script appeal, he says he will once again usher in YSR’s golden rule, with the ‘Navaratna’ welfare schemes—including a comprehensive fee reimbursement scheme for students, prohibition and Rs 15,000 assistance to mothers who send their children to schools—as its pillars. And with the blessings of the crowd, he proceeds, to the beat of a rap song on Pulivendula, to file his nomination papers.
In the past month, hardly a news cycle has gone by without the YSRCP taking imaginative possession of political happenings in the state. Strategist Prashant Kishore and his team at the Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), besides getting their campaign song ‘Ravali Jagan Kavali Jagan’ ( Jagan should come, we need Jagan) over 10 million views on YouTube, have scripted for the party a straw-poll-vetted wave of righteous indignation based on Jagan’s cornerstone moment as opposition leader. Jagan had mounted pressure on Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu to demand that the Centre come through on its promise of giving special category status to Andhra Pradesh post-bifurcation. Naidu, whose party has 99 MLAs in a House of 175, and 15 of the 25 MP seats from the state, saw that the issue was becoming an electoral flashpoint and strategically severed ties with the NDA in March 2018. The failure to get Central funds, and just as crucially, to prevail on the BJP to take his demands seriously, meant that to be the redeemer delivering the state from the pangs of bifurcation, Naidu had to single-handedly build his own grand narratives—the Polavaram irrigation project, a futuristic capital city and a revamped welfare programme touching just about everyone in the state. For the first time since its inception in 1982, the TDP is contesting a General Election alone in what it hopes will be a show of strength cementing its position as a crucial regional player.
“The TDP has moved from right to centre in the past few years. We are as much about growth as we are about welfare,” says Nara Lokesh, Naidu’s son and Minister for Information Technology, Panchayati Raj and Rural Development. “We are a state that is running on steroids. In 2014, our per capita income was 9 per higher than the national average. Today it is 28 per cent higher and it has close to doubled. Still, we have the lowest per capita income in the south, but at current rates of growth—we were the fastest growing state in the last three years—we are well on track to overtake Tamil Nadu and Telangana in the next few years. In eight years from now, we will have doubled our economy.” Lokesh, 36, is a good evangelist for his father’s vision. He takes pride in every milestone: in a Chinese company that has promised to create 19,000 jobs in Chittoor; in how Andhra Pradesh has cornered the largest chunk of MGNREGA drawals in India, accounting for 15 per cent of funds released under the scheme; in a home-grown start-up that makes shaving brushes from banana fibre. He is a man unafraid to talk incremental progress when the so-called youth leaders a decade older are screaming revolution. A Stanford School of Business and Carnegie Mellon graduate, Lokesh is calm, self-possessed and endearingly objective. With his faltering Telugu, he knows he cannot make speeches that send the crowd home soaring. “How did I do today?” he asks, at the end of a day of campaigning in Mangalagiri, where he is standing for his first- ever election. It is Holi, but the colour that is most conspicuous here is the unflattering shade of yellow that Lokesh and his partymen sport. The YSRCP has fielded the sitting MLA from the constituency, Alla Ramakrishna Reddy, against him. Gladhanding his way through Muslim neighbourhoods, Lokesh talked pensions, development and free power for farmers, but failed at rhetoric. “If the fan (the YSRCP’s election symbol) has to work, Chandranna has to give it power,” he said, and further stretched the metaphor by claiming that the switch to the fan was in Delhi and the regulator with Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhara Rao. When he addressed students of engineering later in the day in English, however, one could see the first signs of the constituency warming up to his candidature. “How many of you use a Xiaomi phone? Chances are it was manufactured right here in AP,” he told them, adding: “Did you know that 10 per cent of all LCD TVs sold in India now come from Chittoor?” He stoked their ambition, showcasing his plans for decentralised development across the state—IT and pharma clusters in Visakhapatnam, a petrochemical corridor in East Godavari, the Bhogapuram airport in Vizianagaram, a $3.5 billion FDI investment in a paper mill in Prakasam.
“I hate big rallies where you herd 20,000 people like cattle without shade or food,” Lokesh says, on the drive back to the chief minister’s residence in Amaravati. He is friendly and unguarded, conceding his limitations in Telugu, slipping into Hindi and calling Jagan Mohan Reddy “a bad product with good marketing”. He is aware of the comparisons to KCR’s son, the suave KT Rama Rao, and claims he is unperturbed by trolls who turn every blooper of his—and there are a lot of them—into a meme. While Opposition troll pages continue to have a field day, the government did arrest several social media satirists including Ravi Kiran Inturi and a Basavaraju from Chittoor in 2017 for morphing photos of the chief minister and his son. The TDP government, which has acquired the reputation of being a surveillance state, stands accused of misusing the private data of citizens for political profiling ahead of the elections. “The TDP as a party only has access to Census data besides voluntary supplied phone numbers and information corresponding to our 70 lakh members. It does not have access to Aadhaar data or the Government’s household survey,” Lokesh insists, dubbing the allegations a failed Opposition ploy. “This is a non-issue in the elections. The common man in India could not care less about data privacy.” While the TDP has been building a positive narrative from a granular level, the Opposition, says Lokesh, has been trying to scuttle development and downplay the achievements of the government in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. They have also effectively raised the spectre of unchecked ambition within Naidu’s coterie of family and friends who have wrangled seats for their sons and daughters.
The failure to get Central funds and to prevail on the BJP to take his demands seriously meant that to be the redeemer delivering the state from the pangs of bifurcation, Chandrababu Naidu had to build his own grand narratives
“THIS IS A do-or-die election for us,” says M Sudheer Reddy, the YSRCP’s candidate from Jammalamadugu. Reddy, like YSR, is a doctor and a community medicine practitioner. “People want real development, not just roads and substations. We have given them hope—now we need to win. We don’t have a full-fledged hospital in this constituency of 2.16 lakh voters. We don’t have an engineering college,” he says. Reddy’s candidature, endorsed by the late YS Vivekananda Reddy, was among the first to be announced by the YSRCP. By fielding a clean-sheeter from Jammalamadugu, one of seven segments in the Kadapa Lok Sabha constituency that is emblematic of the criminal underbelly of politics, the YSRCP is hoping to invert the narrative of fear to retain control over the district. In 2014, it had successfully fielded Chadipiralla Adinarayana Reddy, the leader of a prominent family from Devagudi whose longstanding feud with another faction has left a bloody trail on either side. In 2016, Reddy defected from the YSRCP to the TDP, which appointed him Minister for Marketing and Warehousing, Animal Husbandry, Dairy Development, Fisheries and Cooperatives. He is now the party’s contestant from the Kadapa Parliamentary constituency.
In Devagudi, a neat little village on the banks of the river Penna, Adinarayana Reddy is all set to resume campaigning after his afternoon siesta. “No party except the TDP has a designated team of campaigners simultaneously canvassing for MP candidates in each Assembly segment. We don’t rely on social media, we have a strong network on the ground,” he says, offering an explanation for why the YSRCP seems to be winning the perception battle online against the TDP. “I left the YSRCP over differences with Jagan. I was a constructive critic of government policies but I did appreciate Chandrababu Naidu’s grand vision for Amaravati and the speed with which the Pattiseema Lift Irrigation Project was executed. Jagan did not like that. He is looking out only for himself. In fact, when I pointed out irregularities in the functioning of Janmabhoomi committees (the scheme aims to act as a bridge between NRIs and their homeland), he chose to ignore them and said, ‘let the project run itself into the ground so we can blame them for it’.” The reflex bigotry of pre-poll party hoppers has, predictably, framed the campaigns on either side.
After four decades, the Devagudi family is on the same side of the political divide as its sworn enemy, the Ponnapureddy family from Gundlakunta. Even a decade ago, men from the two factions that each commanded power, money and loyalties on either side of Jammalamadugu could not come within a few paces of one another without spilling blood. Dozens from both families died and were maimed for life; some are still serving jail terms. The TDP has now brokered peace between several such warring factions across the state whose storied rivalries have inspired a whole genre of films in Telugu—between Kotla Surya Prakash Reddy and KE Krishnamurthy in Kurnool, Paritala Sriram and JC Pawan in Anantapur, Karanam Balaram and Gottipati Ravikumar in Prakasam, Satrucharla Vijayaramaraju and Vyricharla Kishore Chandra Deo in Vizianagaram and Vangaveeti Radha and Devineni Avinash in Vijayawada. “Faction violence has been on the wane for the past few years. Peace has reigned for more than five years in Jammalamadugu, but some people want more peace,” says Uma Maheswara Reddy, Circle Inspector, Jammalamadugu Rural, referring to the politics of integrating powerful families. At the station, local politicians representing both factions hang out in their starched whites, chatting over cups of tea about counselling sessions to bring supporters together at the ground level. People tend to follow personalities rather than political parties here, they say. The two families together can influence between 40,000 and 50,000 votes, according to their estimates.
“Kadapa is a YSRCP bastion but now that we have come together in support of development, the TDP will make a dent. The Gandikota-Chitravati lift irrigation project has brought water to Pulivendula,” says Ponnapureddy Rama Subba Reddy, the TDP contestant for the Jammalamadugu Assembly seat who heads the other faction in the region. The prime accused in the murder of two Congress activists in Hyderabad in 1990, he lost his father’s brother to an apparent act of retaliation—a bomb attack—a couple of years later. “For some time now, we have all wanted to put our enmity behind us. The TDP has brought us together on a common platform. Elections here once meant mile-long convoys and bucketfuls of country bombs. Now people want sackfuls of cash,” says Rama Subba Reddy.
There is a sense that Rayalaseema could seal the fate of the TDP in this election. “If we can improve our position in Rayalaseema, starting with Kadapa, we will sweep the state,” says a TDP campaign manager. In 2014, the TDP won a lone Assembly seat in Kadapa, but the MLA, Meda Mallikarjuna Reddy, jumped ship in January 2019 to join the YSRCP. “We have reason to believe we are getting stronger here,” says SV Satish Kumar Reddy, the TDP candidate against Jagan Mohan Reddy in Pulivendula who has challenged the YSR family in four elections since 1999. “In my constituency alone, the government has waived farm loans of Rs 510 crore. The increase in welfare pensions from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 and the Pasupu Kumkuma scheme under which 94 lakh women who are part of the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA) are being given Rs 10,000 in three instalments, are sure to benefit the party,” he says, amidst a door-to-door campaign, accompanied by his son, party workers and an auto blaring NT Rama Rao campaign songs. In the 2017 MLC elections, the TDP candidate, Mareddy Ravindranath Reddy, aka BTech Ravi, beat YS Vivekananda Reddy by 34 votes from the local authorities’ constituency. It was an unexpected upset for the YSR family, which had never before tasted defeat in an election in Kadapa.
In the coastal districts, especially West and East Godavari that together account for 34 of the 175 Assembly constituencies, actor- turned-politician Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party is expected to divide the keenly-courted Kapu vote. Kapus, who constitute 15 per cent of the five crore population, are under-represented in polity, but consolidating their votes is easier said than done. The TDP, which has managed to inch closer to the community over the years, has dangled the carrot of 5 per cent reservations for Kapus in a purely political move that Kalyan calls “insincere”. In an interview to Open, Kalyan seemed to regard the TDP as a full- throttle capitalist machine that he was disinclined to aligning with. “A new coalition has to come to power in the state to rid it of the criminal politics of the YSRCP and mis-governance of the TDP,” he said. “To woo voters across castes, the TDP has created caste corporations and further divided society,” says Modugula Venugopal Reddy, the Guntur West MLA who recently defected to the YSRCP. The party is fielding him in the Kamma-dominated Guntur Parliamentary constituency against industrialist and sitting MP Galla Jayadev. Reddy says he felt sidelined in the TDP. “Reddys do not have any discretion within the party. They may be given plum posts when they defect from the YSRCP but they are eventually made powerless,” he says, over breakfast with locals at a community event in Guntur. Can the TDP, chafing under the trappings of power, beat the anti-incumbent cast of mind, both within the party and among the people? Could YS Jagan Mohan Reddy lose what he never had? It’s a crucial fight, both for a chief minister with an unfinished agenda, and for a party that may not live to fight another day.