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With a luck-filled seven years and seven months in office, Chandrababu Naidu has become the longest-serving chief minister of the state, or as he likes to call it, the CEO of Andhra Pradesh Inc. There are theories galore on the secret of his 'cult status' and longevity in office. Even his opponents agree that Naidu thrives on his intuitive ability to pounce on issues that win him political capital. And he has the knack of turning adversity into advantage, as after his flip-flop on Gujarat. By cleverly sitting on the fence, he let the Vajpayee government off the hook in Parliament and in turn demanded—and was gifted—31.5 lakh tonnes of rice by the Centre, almost 90 per cent of the total rice allocated under the Food for Work programme. Such shrewd manipulation has won him grudging admiration. But, how good has Naidu's governance really been?
Hyderabad's middle class loves him. But in rural Andhra, the CM is accused of having singularly lavished all his attention on the capital, earning him the unwanted epithet of 'CM of Cyberabad'.
His skewed priorities are reflected in the financial mess his state is in. Official figures put government debt at Rs 49,922 crore, or 30 per cent of the state's gdp. The much-touted software boom has not taken off as expected and accounts for only one per cent of the state gdp. The software export growth rate has, in fact, nosedived in the last seven years, from 177 to 42 per cent. The agriculture sector is in a mess, with 10 lakh acres of cultivable land rendered infertile due to the government's failure to implement irrigation schemes.
Even the FDI inflow has been a mere trickle. The projected foreign investment in 2001-2003 was Rs 63,641 crore. But only Rs 4,507 crore has actually come in. Of the 1,502 projects announced, only 335 have actually taken off. In fact, AP has attracted only about 3 per cent of the total FDI flow into the country.
But all seems well in Hyderabad where Naidu routinely issues impressive press-kits about e-governance. But while his cyberspace miracles and laptop federalism have helped build Brand Naidu, the tdp supremo knows that IT alone won't win him the votes beyond Hyderabad.
So, keeping a 'third eye' on the elections, Naidu is also carefully projecting his populist face. Says Gautam Pingle of the Hyderabad-based Administrative Staff College of India, "Naidu has learnt to cultivate two completely different faces. One is targeted at the urban middle class and foreign audiences, the other is aimed at wooing rural votes." Naidu's aggressive championing of women's self-help groups, ranging from micro-credit to water conservation, are all part of the strategy.
However, Naidu's now finding it increasingly tough to keep rural Andhra happy. The state faces its worst drought in 40 years, affecting almost 1,041 mandals in 22 districts and about 80 per cent of the population. Over 20 lakh hectares of cultivable land has been left unsown this year, affecting the livelihood of 1.38 crore agricultural labourers. Worse, the Centre has been tight-fisted in its allocation of rice for drought relief programmes. While Naidu has been demanding 25 lakh tonnes of rice, the central allocation has been a meagre 5 lakh tonnes.
So it doesn't really amuse migrants from these villages to see the cleaning and greening of Hyderabad or the mushrooming of glitzy cyber towers, flyovers and swanky shopping malls. Hit by drought for the fourth year running, it hurts them to see the luminescent waterfalls and the overflowing tankers tending to the water-guzzling carpet lawns adorning road dividers on the city's busy thoroughfares. The irony of this 'cinematic' contrast is too stark for those whose debt-trapped families are driven to suicide.
One doesn't have to travel far to encounter this urban-rural divide.In the Mahboobnagar district adjoining Hyderabad, the drought has become so endemic that summer after summer entire villages empty out following the en masse migration of able-bodied men and women. Says 65-year-old Rupla of Dharmaiya Tanda whose four sons left him to search for work in Mumbai, "Why should anyone stay here? Every well and handpump here has run dry. Forget cultivation, it's a daily battle just to find water to drink."
On a visit to Mahboobnagar last fortnight, Naidu, for the umpteenth time, promised to speed up irrigation projects. But no one takes him seriously anymore. The Kalwarkuty Lift Irrigation Project and the Nettampadu project were sanctioned before the 1999 state assembly polls, but nothing much has happened since. "The people are tired of empty promises. The drought has exposed Naidu's lopsided policies. Drought-hit villagers want to know why the government is investing so much on city roads or telecom and so little on irrigation," says K. Balagopal of the Human Rights Forum.
Naidu's urban-centric tendencies are reflected in his power reforms programme. Since he initiated the World Bank-aided schemes, output has increased by almost 80 per cent to touch 9,261 MW. But while the cities have no dearth of power, the government has failed to keep its promise of supplying nine hours of electricity every day to rural areas. With most shallow wells and handpumps having dried up, farmers complain they can't even run the deep borewells because of erratic supply.
If that's the story of Andhra's villages, its small towns are no better off. A World Bank study of the state's Class one towns (with a population of over one lakh, and excluding Hyderabad, Vijaywada and Vishakhapatnam) shows that though AP is not particularly urbanised, it has the country's second largest population of slum-dwellers. Not only that, its stated 5 million slum populace is probably far less than the actual figure since it does not factor in the fresh migrations to towns since the 2001 census.
Drought, of course, has led to migrations, but agriculture too is fast becoming an unviable proposition. Traditionally, 60 per cent of Andhra farmers survived on dry land farming but the introduction of new crops by the agriculture department has made farming over-dependent on irrigation. Says P.V. Satish of the Deccan Development Society, "While migration has been going on for generations, in the last seven years it's been a state-sponsored accelerated migration." According to him, when Naidu in his Vision 2020 document talked of weaning away 40 per cent of the 70 per cent population currently dependent on agriculture, he exposed "his warped understanding" of Andhra villages. "It shows that Naidu's understanding of agriculture comes from computer screens, not the field," says Satish.
End result is, the pressure is mounting on small-town infrastructure. Job prospects are becoming grim. Of the 1,907 industrial units which have come up in the state since 1991, 1,154 are located in and around Hyderabad. This has not helped generate jobs in the rest of the state.
All this is readymade fodder for the Opposition. Congress legislative party leader Y.S. Rajashekhara Reddy is on a padayatra to highlight "the misery of the people and the neglect of the government".
However, no political analyst is willing to write off Naidu yet. Says a senior bureaucrat who's worked closely with him, "One of Naidu's biggest assets is that he's among the few politicians who have their ears to the ground."
Naidu claims development remains his primary concern. "People voted me in to bring development," he says. The CM is the first to admit that playing CEO has not been easy. "I've never had a good night's sleep ever since I came to power," he recently remarked.Looks like he'll have many more sleepless nights if the Centre and the rain gods don't bail him out.