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Saturday, November 03, 2012

The trouble that began for the Congress in 2009 now threatens to breach the party’s poll prospects in 2014. Krishna Sairam has the larger picture

While the Congress is under pressure in several states, nowhere is the situation as piquant for it as in Andhra Pradesh. In 2009, the state was a major contributor to the party’s Lok Sabha kitty, a walloping 33 out of 42 seats. Now, experts predict, the results would be quite the contrast. The rising unpopularity graph of the Congress has been put down to a cocktail of heavy taxes, soaring fuel prices and deadly political instability stemming from the proposed creation of a separate Telengana state.

If the recent byelection results and various surveys on the functioning of Congress government are anything to go by, there are disturbing signs ahead. Of 18 Assembly seats that went to the bypolls, Congress just about managed to retain two in addition to losing the important Nellore LS seat. In a pointer to what may happen in the foreseeable future, all these seats, barring Tirupati, were represented by Congress MLAs since 2009.

The party’s hard luck story in Andhra, post-YSR Reddy, continues. Dyed-in-the-wool Congress representatives in the constituencies going to the bypolls, one fine day and without any preliminaries, switched their loyalties to YSR Congress, launched by the late chief minister’s son Jaganmohan Reddy. The candidates may have lost the preliminary membership of the Congress but more than made up for it with thumping wins on the YSR Congress tickets. Today, without a shadow of doubt, the YSR Congress has emerged as a strong third force capable of delivering body blows to both the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP).

And that is precisely what it has done. It secured 46 per cent votes in the bypolls and that in multi-cornered contests. The fledgling legacy of YSR is fast spreading its base among the three prominent political regions in Andhra Pradesh – coastal Andhra, Telangana and Rayalaseema.

What has hit the Congress really hard is the Telengana issue: does the party and state government support the creation of a separate state carved out of Andhra, a long-standing political demand? The issue has virtually split the Congress vote bank with divided regional loyalties. By and large, party leaders in coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema favour a united Andhra. In contrast, the people of Telangana are in ferment, their agitation for a separate state growing in magnitude by the day.

The Telengana issue has now become a mill around the party's neck. The party had 'promised’ to sympathetically look into the demands in the run-up to the 2004 and 2009 general elections. In reality, it has done very little. In contrast to the BJP, the Congress remains ideologically opposed to the idea of small states and has since 2004 pursued a meaningless policy of wait and watch. The BJP-led NDA government had presided over the bifurcation of UP and Bihar into Uttarakhand and Jharkhand respectively. If that was not bad enough, under acute local pressure, the Congress committed a grave error in December 2009 by recklessly announcing that the process for the formation of Telangana would be initiated. The announcement started a huge flap in coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema.

Political analysts say that the central government succumbed to the pressure exerted by ‘muscled’ coastal leaders, whose interests are intrinsically linked with affluent Hyderabad and the central leadership of the party had no option but to go back on its somewhat tentative announcement. The results are there to see. From 2009 till date, the Congress has lost all elections in Andhra with huge margins. For the same period, the state has been virtually on the boil.

Says S Sudheer Kumar, an IT executive in Hyderabad, "The government has been unable to control agitations, leaving the people to fend for themselves against mobs. Obviously, people are seeking alternatives. Why should I vote for Congress again?’’ Kumar’s view is representative of the public ire.

Economically, too, the state is in a mess. In the last decade, Andhra Pradesh rarely witnessed power cuts in the monsoon season. Now for the first time, an 8-hour power cut in rural areas and 6 in urban, have added to people's frustration. Power holidays for industries are being enforced. There is no new industrial policy. Employment opportunities have fallen drastically and sales tax on fuel products are the highest in the country leading to all-round discontent.

The Telengana-driven political instability has kept investors away; not too long ago, this largest state in south India was a preferred destination for entrepreneurs. Slowly, many corporate offices are moving to Chennai, Bangalore and New Delhi, what with agitations and strike calls vitiating the working atmosphere to a significant degree.

The year 2009 can be considered a landmark for the Congress. "Since the 2009 elections, there have been three chief ministers but until the Telangana issue is settled, there will be no progress in the state. Either way, the government should take a call on the bifurcation and forcefully stand by its decision,’’ says Sethuraman, a Tamil merchant.

Inflation is a bugbear. "In the last three years, prices of essential commodities, including milk, oil and vegetables, have doubled. Why should I vote this government?" questions an indignant T Janaki Rani, a homemaker. Some preliminary poll surveys have given the Congress nine Lok Sabha seats out of 42. The worry is that if this trend continues till 2014, it will make its return in the state and perhaps even the centre, difficult.

The party’s high command is seized of the issue and the people's strong anti-Congress sentiments. Once Andhra paved the way for the formation of UPA government in 2004. But, in 2014, it shows all the signs of becoming a victim of deadly anti-incumbency.

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