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The air at the N.T. Rama Rao jaggery market at Anakapalli, in Visakhapatnam district, is heavy with humidity and the cloyingly sweet smell of gur. With Seemandhra going for Lok Sabha (25 seats) as well as assembly elections (175 seats) on May 7, tense anticipation further charges the air. Sugarcane farmers who have come from nearby Chodavaram stick together, much like the product they’ve come to sell, and discuss politics animatedly. They are talking about Y.S. Vijayalakshmi’s road show in Payakaraopet, where a crowd of 15,000 had gathered to hear the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s wife. “Jagan anna thalli paapam endalo baaga kashta padtundi (Jagan’s mother is working hard even in this heat),” Lekkala Demudu and Kolli Appala Naidu say in sympathy while smoking beedis. Offering a piece of jaggery, Darapareddy Sannebabu tells this correspondent, “This sweetness was taken away from us when farmers were treated as third-class citizens. We were in debt, sugar factories were closing down and there was no electricity or water for our crops.” Sannebabu’s anger is directed towards Telugu Desam Party chief Chandrababu Naidu’s rule as chief minister. “Can IT offices generate food?” he sneers. Among sugarcane and paddy farmers of Anakapalli and nearby areas, the fear of watching their crops wither while they are hounded by moneylenders lingers on. The 1999-2003 drought was especially nightmarish.
So when Y.S. Vijayalakshmi talks of the pro-poor measures her son Jaganmohan Reddy will implement when he comes to power, the crowd roars in approval. These include Amma Vodi, where parents will get Rs 500 for two school-going children, pensions of Rs 700-1,000, a Rs 3,000-crore market stabilisation and calamity fund for farmers, waiving of dwcra loans, 150 units of power for Rs 100 and seven hours of free power for farmers. Serisetti Lokeswara, a local worker who mobilises crowds for YSR Congress leaders, explains that almost every family below the poverty line has benefited during the YSR Congress rule—through pensions, fee reimbursement schemes, the Arogyasree health card, low-interest loans for self-help groups or the ambitious Jalayagnam irrigation plan. “The indebtedness they feel towards YSR’s family is incredible,” says Lokeswara, urging women to clap harder as Vijayalakshmi wraps up.
The YSR Congress’s Anakapalli Lok Sabha candidate, Gudivada Amarnath (28), asserts that his party will ride to power on the backs of a huge majority. “People of Seemandhra are angry at the bifurcation of the state. It was Jagan anna who repeatedly spoke for unity. Chandrababu Naidu will be punished for his ambiguous stand. People feel that had Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy been alive, Andhra Pradesh would not have been divided. They know that only a young leader like Jaganmohan Reddy (41) can take Seemandhra forward,” says Amarnath. He points out that 10 YSR Congress Lok Sabha candidates are under 40, and only a few are over 50. “Not even one TDP candidate is less than 30,” says Amarnath.
While Naidu’s ‘development’ vs Jagan’s ‘welfare measures’ roughly follow an urban-rural divide and are much talked about, caste polarisation plays an important role in Seemandhra. In the northern coastal Andhra districts of Srikakulam, Vizianagaram and Visakhapatnam, caste is the key to a complicated election. Generally, the TDP is favoured by the Kammas and YSR Congress by the Reddys. Both parties are striving to woo backward castes such as Kapus, Vada Balijas, Koppula Velamas, Turpu Kapus, Kalingas, Gavaras and Jalaris, who can swing an election. Likewise, both have given tickets to party members from these communities. After the TDP’s alliance with the BJP, the minorities, mainly Muslims, find Jagan a safer bet.
However, in urban, elite segments of the Visakhapatnam Lok Sabha seat, such as Vizag East and West, well-heeled employees of corporate and IT firms feel only Chandrababu Naidu has the immense managerial nous required to build them a new capital to match Hyderabad. The anti-Congress mood has reached such a pitch that punters are betting on how few votes Congress candidates will get. The party’s fortunes are a standing joke.
Kameswara Rao, a retired government officer, laughs out loud as he walks down Beach Road when a Congress campaign vehicle limps along forlornly. His tone changes to one of respect when he speaks of Naidu. “In urban areas, the NaMo (Naidu-Modi) combination is unbeatable. Yes, Naidu antagonised sections like farmers, government officers and anganwadi workers. But if we want infrastructural development, more jobs and graft-free governance in Seemandhra, it is him we need as CM,” he says. Andhra university journalism professor D.V.R. Murthy makes light of all the opinion polls that predict a YSR Congress victory in Seemandhra. “Naidu has the experience and inclination to rebuild the state. The TDP’s poll booth management is strong. While the YSR Congress is leading in rural areas, I’d say the TDP is catching up,” says Murthy.
Visakhapatnam, touted as Seemandhra’s financial capital, is a crucial electoral battleground for all parties.
As rumours do the rounds of crores being spent on the Lok Sabha polls in Visakhapatnam, its importance for the YSR Congress is obvious from the fact that Y.S. Vijayalakshmi is the candidate here. The coastal city with its port, steel plant, naval base, ship-building and repair facilities, fertiliser and petrochemical industries, IT offices and a cosmopolitan population is touted as the financial capital of Seemandhra. Industrialists such as Sravan Shipping Ltd MD G. Sambasiva Rao are unhappy with the UPA government for tarrying over environment clearances for power plants. “Everyone wants power, but nobody wants power plants. Why are parties giving freebies? They are killing the economy. Ninety per cent of the NREGA funds are going waste. It is better to give employment opportunities and subsidies instead of free this and that,” he says.
In contrast, in areas such as Jalaripeta, Arilova and Chepalauppda, where the fishing community stays in slums, many voters are staunchly behind YSR Congress. “Have you ever had a heart problem,” asks Sodu Korlamma, who sells dried prawns along Visakhapatnam’s fishing jetty. “You rich people don’t understand the importance of Arogyasree cards. If my health fails, it is Jagan who will come to my rescue,” says B. Elliam as he strikes a match to light her churuttu. “Jagan is a man of the poor,” agrees Guntu Maseni, saying it is difficult for “city VIPs” to understand the importance of a hike in pensions or free rice. The fishing community is a crucial segment—both the TDP and the YSR Congress want them on their side. Party workers, though, are cautious, and only accost groups they know are confirmed supporters. It is amusing how Vasupalli Ganesh, the TDP candidate for the Vizag South assembly seat, stops in his tracks at the sight of a YSR Congress campaign vehicle. He turns back after meeting his supporters.
The BJP candidate for Visakhapatnam, K. Haribabu, though a local, lacks in charisma and has left much of the campaigning to TDP workers. As the sun sets along the harbour, Haribabu steps out on foot to greet the evening walkers on Beach Road. He emphasises the Modi wave, industrial development, good governance and talks of fulfilling the glorious destiny that awaits Visakhapatnam. Vijayalakshmi speaks on similar lines when she explains to voters the need for increasing the port’s capacity, expanding the steel plant, creating jobs and sezs, developing the pharma and tourism sector, and working for a greener city.
For all their demands for graft-free governance and infrastructure, the young, urban voters of Visakhapatnam smart from the disappointment of the state’s bifurcation. “The decision to create Telangana has hurt us all,” says Dantu Shilapanjani, editor of Yo!Vizag magazine. The 32-year-old recalls how for decades Visakhapatnam was expected to become another Mumbai. “But we are nowhere near it, are we? We need a leader who can build us a Hyderabad,” she says.
In the city’s Gajuwaka industrial area, where malodorous industrial waste and black soot from the Gangavaram port clogs and darkens the air, people gather around a YSR Congress tent playing the foot-tapping Gajuwaka Pilla (Gajuwaka girl). Murthy Mantri, the Visakha Ukku Contract Karmika Sangha president, says that employment for locals increased in the Visakhapatnam Steel Plant under YSR’s rule. “It is respect for YSR that will carry Jagan through. The YSR Congress will bag at least 120 assembly seats (out of 175),” predicts Mantri. But some believe that it won’t be a cakewalk for Jagan, as opinion polls would have us believe. Former Andhra Ranji cricketer-turned-filmmaker R.V. Chandramouli Prasad says it will be a tough fight between the two main belligerents. “People in Seemandhra are insecure after bifurcation and many believe Naidu alone can guarantee stability. So I’d say it is a contest between that insecurity and loyalty (for YSR),” he says.
Back in the sunflower fields of Yelamanchali, which falls under the Anakapalli Lok Sabha seat, Satyanarayana Surisetti and his family sift seeds. Asked about which party is likely to win, his wife Chandramani says she has not yet made up her mind. “When politicians themselves change two-three parties before the elections, isn’t the voter allowed to change her mind accordingly?” she asks archly. Satyanarayana says all the schemes in the world don’t amount to anything as long as his income does not improve. “I need a chief minister who can double my income,” he says simply.