IT’S a last ditch bid to grasp the bull by the horns and resurrect the fading fortunes of the Telugu Desam Party (NTR). The decision of party president Lakshmi Parvathi to contest the Patapatnam assembly byelection has come as no surprise to her bete noire, Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu. Parvathi’s first attempt to enter politics, through N.T. Rama Rao’s proposal to field his wife in the August ’95 Tekkali byelection, had been balked by Naidu. The shrewd Naidu pitted NTR’s rebel son, N. Harikrishna, against Parvathi. And NTR was left with no option but to allot the ticket to a local candidate, Hanumanthu Appaiah Dora.
Naidu used the Tekkali issue to engineer his final coup against a wobbly NTR. The next decisive turn came this January with NTR’s sudden death. Taking over as faction leader, Parvathi failed miserably to cash in on the expected sympathy wave in the Lok Sabha elections that followed. She was also unable to keep her depleted flock from crossing over to the ruling camp. From 40-odd legislators at the time of Naidu’s departure, the demoralised party is now down to just seven members.
Hence, the election battle in which Parvathi is taking on the Naidu Government in a desperate attempt to rejuvenate the party rank and file and her political standing. Perhaps the most crucial decision in her political life so far. A defeat at Patapatnam could mean the end of the road for her politically. But a win would help rebuild the party. "I am aware of the consequences. But I am confident that the people of Patapatnam will not allow Naidu to succeed in his evil designs," asserts Parvathi.
The people of Patapatnam, meanwhile, are considerably upbeat. This constituency in the backward Srikakulam district on the east coast, where no visible development has taken place since 1956, has suddenly come to life. Says a local party activist and agricultural labourer, Dindi Ramulu of Balda village, bordering Orissa: "Amma gelupu khayam" (Her victory is for sure).
The Patapatnam byelection follows the disqualification of TDP candidate K. Mohan Rao by the Chief Election Commissioner for violating the election code during the 1994 polls by putting up huge cut-outs of NTR as Rama and Krishna. In the Lok Sabha elections that followed, people overwhelmingly voted for Yerram Naidu of the Naidu faction, now a Union minister. This despite NTR’s claim of having an enviable hold over the backward coastal district.
Yet, Naidu is a worried man. More so, because of the running battle between Yerram Naidu and his Cabinet colleague, Tammineni Seetaram, both from Patapat-nam. Naidu has given down-the-line instructions to partymen not to panic or express their feelings openly. And, in public, he expresses confidence about a TDP sweep. Argues an aide: "In the Lok Sabha polls, the people overwhelmingly voted for the Naidu-led TDP. People are with us and this will be proved once again in the elections to the 11 assembly seats and the lone Nandyal Lok Sabha seat."
As Naidu’s coterie is painfully aware, political equations are likely to change if Parvathi manages even a slender win at Patapatnam. Her supporters in the constituency claim that unlike the Lok Sabha polls, in which the Election Commission allotted the official party symbol of the ‘cycle’ to Naidu, and the ‘lion’ symbol to Parvathi’s party, thus confusing voters, this time the voters are aware of which faction is the ‘real’ Telugu Desam.
Says Kaviti Viswanath, a leading lawyer and Parvathi supporter in Patapatnam: "The Naidu Government’s decision to dilute the Rs 2 a kilo rice programme and do away with power subsidy to the farm sector have angered people. By sending her to the assembly, people want Parvathi to force Naidu to rectify these mistakes."
The entry of NTR’s widow into the poll fray has put the Congress in a dilemma too. Its nominee, Narayana Rao, had lost in 1994 by a wafer-thin margin of 274 votes and stands a good chance of a comfortable win this time. However, many Congressmen feel what they could not do to the Naidu government over the past year, Parvathi could. Admits a senior Congress leader: "It’s better for the Congress to ensure Parvathi’s victory, rather than her defeat. Her victory should help bring about the real split in the TDP."
Parvathi’s added strength is her party’s recent alliance with the BJP and the Samata Party. Though both are non-entities in coastal Andhra, Parvathi supporters feel that the BJP cadre could check Naidu’s ‘rigging plans’. Says Parvathi: "I fear large-scale rigging and violence. Naidu will misuse official machinery to ensure my defeat. I appeal to the CEC to send more observers to check the ruling party’s abuse of power."
Obviously, for both Parvathi and Naidu, the Patapatnam battle is crucial.