Ruling TDP faces tough battle for control of Andhra Pradesh

Above: Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu and leader of the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP) is fighting for his political life against Mr Jagan Mohan Reddy, leader of YSR Congress Party. Left: TDP supporters at a rally in Visakhapatna
TDP supporters at a rally in Visakhapatnam.ST PHOTO: NIRMALA GANAPATHY
Above: Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu and leader of the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP) is fighting for his political life against Mr Jagan Mohan Reddy, leader of YSR Congress Party. Left: TDP supporters at a rally in Visakhapatna
Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu and leader of the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP) is fighting for his political life against Mr Jagan Mohan Reddy, leader of YSR Congress Party. ST PHOTO: NIRMALA GANAPATHY

VISAKHAPATNAM • On the streets of Visakhapatnam, a key port city in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, a large campaign car belonging to the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP) has been making its way through narrow lanes to reach potential voters.

The entourage is accompanied by three types of dancers - including pulivesham or performers whose bodies are painted in tiger stripes - who move rhythmically to persistent drum beats, asking the people to vote for the TDP and its Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu.

This is the colourful and tough battleground for the leader of the TDP, who is fighting for his political life against Mr Jagan Mohan Reddy, the 46-year-old leader of YSR Congress Party. Mr Reddy's late father Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy was a political titan and a two-time chief minister of the southern state.

In Andhra Pradesh, elections are being held simultaneously for the 20 seats in the Lok Sabha, or Lower House of Parliament, and for 175 seats in the state assembly.

A win in the state assembly will return Mr Naidu - who has tapped Singapore's expertise in building the new city of Amaravati and opened up business opportunities for Singaporean companies - to power.

A good showing in the Lower House of Parliament will also ensure he has bargaining power in federal politics as a result of being included in a possible ruling coalition.

But Mr Naidu said he is fighting on multiple fronts and against multiple politicians, including one-time ally Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

 
 
 

Mr Naidu had snapped ties with Mr Modi's party last year, claiming it was because he did not get a special federal package of funds for Andhra Pradesh. Mr Modi shot back, calling him "U-turn Babu" for quitting the alliance last year.

"Now our issue is Modi. He has deprived us of special status (of federal funds)," Mr Naidu told The Straits Times after a rally in Visakhapatnam on March 31.

Of his rival, he said: "And then there is Jagan Mohan Reddy. He has 31 criminal cases pending and he was in jail for 16 months." In filing his election papers, Mr Jagan had declared the multiple criminal investigations he is facing, which include forgery, cheating, criminal conspiracy and a slew of other offences.

Mr Naidu also spoke of the many welfare schemes he introduced over the last few months. "Even the states that are rich are not providing such welfare (schemes)."

He had rolled out a number of welfare schemes since the beginning of the year, doubling pensions for some 4.5 million poor from 1,000 rupees (S$19.50) to 2,000 rupees. He had also provided subsidised loans for different caste groups including the backward classes and Dalits.

Andhra Pradesh remains one of India's top performing states. It was among the fastest growing, with an average annual growth of 10.5 per cent in the last four years.

While the economy is primarily dependent on agriculture, which directly and indirectly employs over 62 per cent of the population, the state has also been ranked the best in ease of doing business in the country by the World Bank.

The bifurcation of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh in 2014, which saw it becoming a new southern state, led to the loss of Hyderabad, an IT hub.

In the 2014 elections, the TDP won 15 of the 25 Lower House seats in Parliament, while Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured two and YSR Congress won eight seats. In the state assembly elections that same year, TDP comfortably won 103 of the 175 seats, the YSR Congress took 67, and the BJP won four.

But opinion polls show this election is a much tighter race, with Mr Reddy possibly having the edge.

A survey conducted by Telugu Samayam showed Mr Reddy ahead at 40.8 per cent, and Mr Naidu narrowly behind at 40.2 per cent. Another candidate, actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan, has 15.9 per cent support.

Opinion polls point to the TDP winning between three and 14 seats, and YSR Congress with 11 to 22 of the 25 Parliament seats.

At the office of YSR Congress, a digital clock counts down Mr Naidu's tenure, which may end in the first phase of voting on April 11. The clock is called "Bye Bye Naidu".

Mr Reddy's strategy has been to focus on how Mr Naidu has not completed many projects, including irrigation works.

He has also worked hard to build up his popularity, even going on a seven-month-long walk between 2017 and 2018 through the villages and towns of Andhra Pradesh to reach out to the voters.

Mr P. Hari Kishore, a 28-year-old shopkeeper at Poona Market in Visakhapatnam, said: "I want to give Jagan Mohan a chance. A lot of people are concerned about the (criminal) cases against him but I am not. I have nothing against Naidu either."

The results in Andhra Pradesh will help determine how the third front of regional parties - which does not include the Congress and BJP - shapes up in federal politics. In India, regional parties play a crucial role when governments are formed, if neither of the two national parties secure a majority.

"There is a strong feeling that it is Jagan Reddy's turn to come to power," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and pro-vice-chancellor of Jain University.

But Mr Kalyan, who is contesting elections for the first time through his Jana Sena Party, may be a spoiler. In an alliance with Bahujan Samaj Party of Mayawati and Left parties, Mr Kalyan has been wooing the backward castes, who hold nearly 40 per cent of the votes in the state.

While Mr Naidu is popular among the Kammas, a forward caste, and Mr Reddy, the upper caste, both men are actively pursing the backward castes as well. Mr Telakapalli Ravi, a senior editor and political analyst based in Hyderabad, described Mr Kalyan as the third force. "He may upset the calculations. The state hasn't yet made up its mind," he added.

Noting that Mr Naidu is facing a tough battle, Mr Ravi said: "Anti-incumbency is there. There is a triangular fight.

"There is not a wave (of support) for Jagan Reddy either. People are still divided."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2019, with the headline 'Ruling TDP faces tough battle for control of Andhra Pradesh'. Print Edition | Subscribe