Vangaveeti Radhakrishna’s driveway is swarming with reporters. Like corpuscles rushing to a fresh wound, we coagulate around the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) leader and former MLA who is about to announce his departure from the party. We are here to verify a rumour that has spread like a patch of oil over Andhra Pradesh politics. “Are you joining the Telugu Desam Party?” ‘Radha’ neither confirms nor denies it. “Why?” a woman, speaking for a group of loyalists who seem ill-disposed towards the development, wants to know. Involuntarily tearing up, Radha replies, “Because there is no alternative.” They cannot fathom his reasons for befriending a party that is thought to have backed the murderers of his father Vangaveeti Mohana Ranga Rao. Ranga, an MLA and a popular leader of the 1980s, was sharply critical of the TDP’s pro-Kamma bias, and gave voice to the demands of Kapus, the single most populous community in the state who are, to this day, fighting for Backward Class status. On December 25th, 1988, Ranga was on indefinite fast demanding land rights for residents of Vijayawada when he was assassinated by members of a rival group allegedly led by TDP legislator Devineni ‘Nehru’ Rajasekhar. Over 40 people were killed in the caste-fuelled violence that ensued. Nehru surrendered, and the gang rivalry that had seen blood spilled on either side moved into the political space. Today, two smiling TDP leaders exit Radha’s office, obviously thrilled to have an important Kapu leader bury the hatchet. Radha reportedly wanted to contest from the Vijayawada Central Assembly constituency, but Jagan Mohan Reddy, YSRCP founder and the leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly, overlooked him for another candidate. Could this signal a departure from customary caste rivalries in a state where surnames determine poll outcomes? Does it mean that the contest between Jagan Mohan Reddy’s youthful charm and Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu’s experience and self-aggrandising ambition is not as close as it seems? “Jagan does not know how to keep his flock together. He does not try to make leaders feel at home in the party. I have known him for years, but I don’t see a future for myself in the YSRCP,” Radha says.
Whatever his personal motivations, Radha’s decision to make a fresh start is in line with Chandrababu Naidu’s political philosophy. Since bifurcation, Naidu has marketed the state as a promised land where the past goes to die. The future, he wants you to believe, will belong to dreamers and visionaries, not to antagonists singing old tunes: actor and Janasena founder Pawan Kalyan and his seemingly uncontested claim over the Kapu vote upon his departure from the BJP-TDP alliance of 2014; Jagan, who is trying to surf the populist wave that crested when his father, the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy, won a second consecutive term as Chief Minister in 2009; and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, Naidu believes, still harbours a grudge against him for his disapproval of Modi’s leadership in the aftermath of the Godhra riots. Accusing him of pettiness unbecoming of a prime minister, Naidu, since pulling out of the NDA in March 2018, has railed against Modi for denying special category status to the newly- carved state. He has accused the Centre of tampering with the aspirations of his people by stalling demands for a new railway zone in Andhra Pradesh, a steel plant in Kadapa and a port at Dugarajapatnam in Nellore district. For a leader who considers himself a head and shoulders above other regional satraps, letting go of the NDA’s coat-tails was as much emotional as it was strategic. Having endorsed Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s assurance that Andhra would get a package equivalent to that given to Special Category states, he felt betrayed and belittled when help did not come. With the opposition back home putting him on the stand for failing the state, he had to act swiftly or start planing the boards for his political coffin. In an election year, raking up resentment against the BJP was a stone that could be used to kill two birds—to win back his dignity and the trust of his people, and to reinvent himself as a hero siding with anti-BJP forces to arrest the decline of Indian democracy. Andhra Pradesh sends 25 members to the Lok Sabha, and by projecting Modi as the villain from the north, the TDP, which won 17 seats along with the BJP in the 2014 General Election, wants to edge the national party out of the state.
With pre-poll surveys giving an edge to the YSRCP in the Assembly elections, however, Naidu’s propaganda machinery is in overdrive, headlining his achievements despite having to scrabble for funding, and calculating high approval ratings with data collected for a satisfaction survey spanning all government schemes and departments. “We have come a long way from NT Rama Rao’s slogan of food, shelter, clothes in 1982,” says Kesineni ‘Nani’ Srinivas, the TDP MP representing Vijayawada in the Lok Sabha. “We are not just building a capital, we are building a civilisation.” The city, spread over a 217 sq km area on the banks of the Krishna river, is an uncompromising utopia that will cost Rs 48,000 crore to build and accommodate 3.5 million people. Its tallest structure, the AP Legislative Assembly building, will be 68 metres taller than the Statue of Unity—a symbol of Naidu’s vision against Modi’s. “He does not see local leaders as threats or even as competition,” says a source close to him. “He is banking on Amaravati and the Polavaram irrigation project to do the heavy-lifting for him this election. If Kaleswaram decided the outcome in the Telangana polls, Polavaram, where 65 per cent construction has been completed, should definitely help us. This is why the CM closely monitors the project and wants the trial run, scheduled for May 30th, to go without a hitch.” The Chief Minister’s fixation on the capital’s development, however, could hurt the party’s prospects in outlying districts, he says. “We are perceived as pro-urban and our cadres are working hard to establish a foothold in Rayalaseema [a region comprising the four southern districts of Anantapur, Chittoor, Kadapa and Kurnool where the TDP won just 12 of the 52 Assembly seats in 2014, 10 of them from Anantapur]. We cannot afford to put all our eggs in one basket.”
Hoping to score electoral points, rival leaders have been attacking Naidu on the cash-for-vote scam, delays in capital development and his government’s failure to get financial assistance from the Centre
Accusing Modi of running a despotic regime and of being a “publicity-hungry leader” while himself purporting to construct a perfect world, Naidu is selling what is little more than a pipe dream today. The state has only managed to raise funds to the tune of Rs 11,300 crore—less than a fourth of the projected cost—towards building the city. According to an official at the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA), the nodal agency for the construction of the Greenfield city, projects worth Rs 27,000 crore are underway in Amaravati. SRM University, XLRI and the top names in five-star hospitality have been allotted large parcels of land. What you see on the ground, however, is a desolate valley, with a single road cutting through hills of moist river sand and excavated mud on one side and lush banana plantations on the riverfront. JCBs, trucks, concrete mixers and cranes, helmeted workers from West Bengal and Bihar and farmers with swanky cars who made crores selling their lands to speculators share this landscape. While the Andhra Pradesh government, soon after bifurcation, swung into action to acquire 33,000 acres via land pooling from 29 villages, construction has been slow, beset by revisions in plan, a severe cash crunch, litigation, environmental concerns and other external factors. Less than 40 per cent of the road infrastructure is ready, sources in the capital say, and no major buildings have come up.
In Penumaka, one of the last holdouts against forcible land acquistion by the government, an elevated road ends abruptly amidst fields. Driving a tractor through clouds of dust, Guntaka Naveen Kumar Reddy, 28, ploughs over a standing crop of onions. “Fetching a market price of Rs 4 a kilo, it’s not worth tending to. We lost Rs 95,000 an acre on onion. But the banana crop is doing well,” says Naveen, an engineer who started tending to the four-acre family farm after failing to land a job. “With land as fertile as this, one has an assured income every year. We can absorb losses arising from price fluctuations,” adds Naveen, a YSRCP supporter. Youth are among the target votebanks this election for both the TDP and the YSRCP. Naidu hopes he can win them over with his unemployment benefit scheme, Mukhyamantri Yuvanestham. As of January 2019, of the 1.6 million youth who had applied to avail the monthly assistance of Rs 1,000, over 350,000 youth had benefited from the Yuvanestham scheme.
Jagan, who ended his 341-day, 3,648- km padayatra—his father’s tried-and- tested way of making mass contact—in Srikakulam early this year, is seen as a youth and backward caste icon in the state, having won 67 of the 175 Assembly seats in the 2014 elections. The TDP won 102, polling only 2.06 per cent more votes than the YSRCP. In 26 seats that the YSRCP won and 14 seats that the TDP won, the margins were slender. Hoping to close the gap, Jagan has been attacking Naidu on the cash-for-vote scam, delays in capital development, and his government’s failure to get financial assistance from the Centre. YSR, one of the most popular leaders the state has ever produced, and the architect of Rajiv Arogyasri, a landmark health insurance scheme, had fended off the TDP-led four-party alliance and actor Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam Party to emerge a hero in 2009. “By deciding to echo his father’s promises and contesting alone, Jagan wants to prove that he is just as capable of winning an election,” says a senior YSRCP leader. “If he had set aside his ego and joined forces with Pawan Kalyan, who may swing the Kapu vote this time around, together we would breeze through.”
Jagan Mohan Reddy does not know how to keep his flock together. He does not try to make leaders feel at home in the party, says Vangaveeti Radhakrishna, former MLA of YSRCP
SOCIALLY OVERSHADOWED by Kammas and Reddys, Kapus make up about 27 per cent of the state’s population and hold away over coastal districts in central Andhra, from East Godavari to Guntur. When Pawan Kalyan’s brother, megastar Chiranjeevi, flung his hat into the ring in 2009, Kapus in these districts, who had traditionally voted for the Congress, saw a glimmer of hope, but allegations of cash-for-seat and party mismanagement spelled a swift end for the Praja Rajyam Party. The Kapu vote, however, now stood split between the Congress and the PRP. In 2014, the TDP made an effort at consolidation by promising 5 per cent reservation to the community and seeking the Janasena’s support. Kapus have since mounted shrill protests against the government under the leadership of former Kakinada MP Mudragada Padmanabham. In December 2017, the TDP government was pressured into passing a Bill that gave reservation to Kapus by creating a new ‘F’ category in the list of Backward Classes. BCs enjoy 29 per cent reservation in the state, with another 15 per cent and 6 per cent set aside for SCs and STs respectively. The proposal to add 5 per cent for Kapus would take the total reservation pie up to 55 per cent, necessitating an amendment to Schedule-IX of the Constitution. Now, with the Centre’s newly-passed Bill to give Economically Weaker Sections (EWSs) of the General Category 10 per cent reservations in jobs and education, the TDP has taken another crack at the Kapu reservation puzzle by promising the community half that new quota for the state. “It is obviously a poll gimmick that won’t materialise—at least not before the state votes,” says YSRCP spokesperson Ambati Rambabu. “There are two ghosts that will haunt the TDP this time around. The issue of Special Category status, and denying Kapus BC status.”
In mid-2018, addressing a rally in Jaggampeta in East Godavari in the course of his Praja Sankalpa Yatra, Jagan made an unexpected move. “I cannot assure you that I will extend reservation to Kapus,” he said, a statement that has been variously interpreted as a blunder, a misquote, and a brilliant ploy to attracts SCs. “The 29 SC constituencies hold the key for the YSRCP. It could be looking at making serious gains in the north-central districts, even as the TDP tries to woo back Muslim voters and hopes to see the results of the new projects and schemes benefiting Rayalaseema,” says a strategist working with the ruling party. The TDP hopes that parts of Rayalaseema which have seen water for the first time in years thanks to the Pattiseema Lift Irrigation project to pump water from the Godavari to the Krishna, will cast a favourable vote.
The TDP has been sidling up to Pawan Kalyan, who is yet to pick an alliance partner, while accusing Jagan of being “cultivated” by the Telangana Rashra Samithi (TRS) and the BJP. “We have been careful to keep a distance from the BJP. It is toxic to be associated with them in Andhra,” says Rambabu. After the disastrous alliance with the Congress in the 2018 Telangana Assembly elections, the TDP, too, is careful not to seem too close to the national party. “With the country polarised between Rahul Gandhi and Modi, there is a sense that national parties will only bring us down in the Assembly polls. This is a new era in Andhra Pradesh politics where we are each fighting our own battles,” says a senior TDP leader.
While Naidu waits for Amaravati to take shape, the party will use investments in bifurcated Andhra Pradesh by marquee companies like Kia Motors, Isuzu, PepsiCo, Apollo Tyres, Foxconn, Greenply and Suzlon Energy as grafts on the stump. “Development may not win an election, but it gives a ruling party the confidence to go to the people,” says Kesineni.
Naidu’s confidence, however, stems from his ability to negotiate the information battlefield. And he does it from a futuristic facility housed in the temporary secretariat in Amaravati, where he measures his own popularity across a 68-ft- wide screen. The Real Time Governance Centre tracks satisfaction levels among the state’s 45.9 million population, using a complaint redressal and feedback loop to assign scores to each of the government’s 26 flagship programmes, 2,624 projects, 23 departments and 130-plus schemes. The centre employs over 200 people, including subject matter experts and data scientists, whose job is to spot leaks in the public benefits system, report on the socioeconomic status of every household enumerated in the government’s Praja Sadhikara Survey, predict and respond to natural disasters using cameras and weather satellite data. Adding another layer to the information hub is the 1100 call centre network, where 179,72,386 grievances have been recorded till date. Each grievance is sorted under the relevant department or scheme, and a callback is arranged upon resolution to ensure the complainant registers her feedback on the system. These calls are then used to calculate the satisfaction level of the department concerned. The public distribution system, for instance, had an abysmal satisfaction rate until a couple of years ago; after leakages of Rs 1,600 crore were plugged using RTGC- generated data, it has climbed to over 80 per cent now. “The CM is particular that the overall approval ratio of his government should be 80 per cent or more. It is at 76 per cent at the moment,” says a data scientist working at the Centre.
There is no way, though, to measure the public erosion of trust in Chief Minister Naidu following his volte-face on the need for Special Category status for Andhra Pradesh. Step out of the secretariat, with its golf carts and dummy electric car stations, to look into the gaping excavation pits of Amaravati, and you can’t help but wonder who can fill the political vacuum in Andhra Pradesh.