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National - Elections 2004 Printer Friendly Page   Send this Article to a Friend

Outcome hinges on incumbency, Telangana factors

No matter what the opinion and exit polls might say, Andhra Pradesh is one State where the race is too close to call, say Yogendra Yadav and K.C. Suri

For once, there is a State that can challenge Uttar Pradesh for the title of the being the decisive electoral battleground. Andhra Pradesh this time is arguably the most interesting electoral battle to watch. Although only 42 Lok Sabha seats are at stake here, compared to 80 in Uttar Pradesh, the range of possible outcomes is wider — it could be a thumping majority for the NDA or for the Congress. The poll outcome in the State will have a direct bearing on the equation at the Centre. There is still an element of suspense in Andhra Pradesh, when the contours of the outcome are beginning to become clear in other States. The entry of a dark horse in the form of the TRS, the possibility of a split verdict along regional lines and the complexities of alliance arithmetic, make the story of Andhra Pradesh a psephological thriller. This State could become the graveyard for many a poll forecast.

Besides its obvious national effect, the outcome of the electoral race here can change the long-term course of politics at the State and the regional level. The Assembly election, that is being held here simultaneously, will decide whether the TDP gets a third term in the State. N. Chandrababu Naidu, the TDP president and the Chief Minister of the State, opted for dissolution of the Assembly in November 2003 after surviving a deadly landmine blast engineered by the People's War (PW) naxalites near Tirupati. The Election Commission's refusal to oblige him with early polls did not allow Mr. Naidu to gain from the sympathy wave following the attack. If he succeeds despite this, it would establish TDP hegemony in the State, akin to the dominance of the Left in West Bengal or that of the BJP in Gujarat. Conversely, if the Congress manages to lose yet again, it could set in motion the process of long-term decline of the party in the State. The electoral performance of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi will determine not only the fate of this new political formation, but also whether a State of Telangana comes into being or not. If the Congress does win in Andhra Pradesh, it can still ensure that it does not fall below its national tally in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, notwithstanding the current poll forecasts.

It is not going to be easy for the Congress. The TDP has dominated State politics in the last two decades, ever since the dramatic entry of NTR in the Assembly elections of 1983. Although the first victory of NTR had a lot to do with his charisma, subsequent victories were achieved through a carefully forged social coalition of castes, class appeal among the poor and political alliances with non-Congress parties, especially the Left. Consequently, the TDP has won all the Assembly elections since 1983, with the sole exception of 1989, when the Congress won in a simultaneous election to the Assembly and Parliament. True, the Congress has still managed to retain a decent vote share and has not fallen below the threshold of viability. The party has also tended to do better in the parliamentary elections and has taken the lion's share of the Lok Sabha seats from the State. Yet it has not quite succeeded when it mattered most.

The 1999 election, another simultaneous election to the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabha, illustrates how the Congress lost an election that it should have won. The BJP had achieved a major breakthrough in the previous Lok Sabha elections held in 1998 by securing 18 per cent of the total votes and was set to emerge as a third force in State politics. The shrewd decision by Naidu to abandon his traditional allies, the Left parties, and enter into an alliance with the BJP robbed the Congress of what looked like a certain victory. He drove a hard bargain with the BJP in terms of the number of seats and the new allies ensured a successful transfer of their respective votes. As a result, the TDP-BJP combine swept all but six Lok Sabha seats in the State and the TDP secured yet another term in the State. The Congress could not even strike a deal with the Left parties that could have softened the blow of this defeat.

The TDP-BJP alliance continues this time, despite muted demands by the BJP State leadership for a larger share of the seats, as the BJP's need at the Centre matches the TDP's need at the State level. The alliance would seek to re-create the special social alliance forged by the two in the last elections. The TDP has, over the years, enjoyed core support among the Kammas, one of the dominant peasant communities with early access to modern education, and has edged the Congress out among other backward peasant communities, while taking a chunk of the traditional Congress vote base among the Scheduled Tribes and the Muslims. Thanks to NTR's legacy of populist policies, the TDP has enjoyed considerable support among the poor and the very poor. The BJP complemented this social base by bringing the Brahmin, Vaishya and other upper caste voters along with solid upper class support to this alliance. As a result, the Congress was squeezed from both ends. The party did get strong support from the Reddys, Dalits and Muslims, but that was not enough to match the social coalition of the TDP-BJP combine.

While social coalitions continue to be significant, it is unlikely that the elections will be decided here by any big shift in the voting pattern of the major social groups. The TDP hopes to swing the Madigas — a major Dalit community that got a separate sub-quota in job reservations for the Scheduled Castes — its way but it may be too early for that. Similarly, the Congress will be hoping to take away the Muslim support of the TDP, but the TDP has been careful to distance itself from overtly communal activities of its partner. The TDP used to hold a major advantage among women voters, but that was considerably reduced by the 1999 elections. It is more likely that both the parties will retain their core social base, and that the electoral battle will be centre round making the most of the given vote base or marginally improving it across all communities.

The Congress' strategy is to make the most efficient use of the anti-TDP votes in the State by forging a coalition. This time, it has learnt from the past and opted for an alliance with the Left parties and the newly-formed Telangana Rashtra Samiti. Now, for the first time after about two decades, there is a complete polarisation of the electoral contest in the State. While the CPI renewed its alliance with the Congress after a gap of more than 25 years, this is the first time the CPI (M) has a seat adjustment with the Congress in the State. The Left parties have grown weaker over time, but they still have enough clout in some districts to influence the outcome in alliance with another major party. They are strong in the Khammam and Nalgonda districts in the Telangana region, and their very presence could add a progressive aura to the alliance.

The most significant and controversial decision of the Congress was the move to ally with the TRS, which was launched in April 2001 by a rebel TDP leader, K. Chandrasekhara Rao. A faction of the BJP, led by its MP, Narendra, too joined it. In the elections to the panchayats held in August 2001, the TRS polled about 20 per cent votes in the region, eating into both the Congress and the TDP support base, and proving that it has the capacity to translate its support into votes. This is what prompted the Congress to ally with the TRS and give it 42 Assembly and six Lok Sabha seats. The alliance poses a formidable challenge to the TDP-BJP combine. Besides, the PW naxalites have vowed to defeat the TDP and are doing whatever they can in their strongholds to prevent the TDP and the BJP leaders from canvassing and winning.

The second part of the Congress' strategy is to create an anti-incumbency climate in the State and convert it into votes against the ruling formation. The Congress is focusing mainly on the `misrule' of the TDP government, including corruption and the condition of the poor and farmers in the State. Although there appears to be no significant ideological and programmatic differences between the TDP and the Congress in the State, the Congress will be hoping that it can tap into the underlying resentment against the Naidu Government.

The TDP's election campaigning is mainly an attempt to anticipate and counter the issues the Congress is raising. Its campaign hinges upon three things: its claim of bringing development and economic reforms to the State, managing the law and order (read naxalite) problem, and the need to keep the State unified in the face of attempts to create a separate Telangana. The first two are aimed at countering anti-incumbency, while the third is a counter-offensive aimed at neutralising whatever advantage the Congress may get in Telangana by aligning with TRS.

As yet, the TDP's slogan of a unified State does not seem to have evoked a strong response from the electorate in the Andhra region. Mr. Naidu accuses the Congress leaders of opportunism in aligning with the separatist TRS. But this has not had much impact, since he himself had aligned with the BJP, which strongly advocated the bifurcation of the State earlier, only to sweep it under the carpet because of its alliance with the TDP.

The Congress-Left-TRS alliance has its own problems. The TRS has fielded candidates in all the constituencies where the Left parties have put up candidates, protesting against the Left's inability to take a clear position in favour of a separate Telangana.

The TRS and the Congress are also locking horns in three key Assembly constituencies in the Telangana region, namely Choppandandi, Kamareddy and Karimnagar. The leadership issue is another difficult area for the Congress. Mr. Naidu has challenged the party to name its leader, which the Congress has not done though Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy appears to be the front-runner. The TDP too has its factionalism, but there is no leader competing with Naidu for the chief ministership. The presence of a large number of rebel candidates, more from the Congress than from the TDP, with the accompanying drama of resignations, threats of defeating the official candidates, dharnas, threats of self-immolation and the like introduces another element of uncertainty.

In the last instance, then, the outcome will depend on how these two factors play themselves out — on whether Mr. Naidu suffers from a serious incumbency disadvantage and whether the Congress' advantage in Telangana is neutralised by a backlash in the rest of the State. Going purely by statistics, the Congress may have lost badly last time, but it does not have a huge gap to cover. If one puts together the votes secured by the Congress and the Left in 1999, the alliance can snatch three Lok Sabha seats from the NDA and increase its presence in the Assembly to 107. But this is not sufficient to dislodge the TDP.

The entire game changes once the TRS comes into the picture. If the panchayat election figures of 2001 are treated as the baseline estimates of the ground strength of the parties in the three regions of the State, and the Assembly and Parliamentary outcome worked out on that basis, a radically different picture emerges. The Congress-led alliance sweeps the Telangana region and overtakes the TDP-BJP alliance in the Lok Sabha and secures a clear majority in the Vidhan Sabha.

This of course assumes that the alliances work perfectly, that there is no incumbency advantage or disadvantage for the TDP and that there is no anti-Telangana backlash in the rest of the State. Once we introduce these possibilities, other scenarios open up. If there is a swing away from the TDP across the State, then the Congress alliance can look forward to an emphatic victory in the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections.

But if there is only a mild `backlash' in Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra, we could be looking at a cliff-hanger with both coalitions close to the majority mark in the Assembly. A stronger backlash, anything more than 2 percentage points, will of course see the TDP back in the saddle.

At this stage, the evidence from the opinion polls puts the TDP-BJP ahead. But this has to be taken with a pinch of salt, for opinion polls all over the world tend to underestimate a new and upcoming political formation like the TRS in its first election. The situation is more complicated in India for the voters take time getting used to the symbol of a new party, something that pre-election polls cannot estimate. No matter what the polls and the exit polls say, this is one State whose result you want to watch on counting day. That is what makes Andhra Pradesh so fascinating in this election.

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