After the sweeping mandate he won in the 1999 general elections, Andhra Pradesh CM Chandrababu Naidu was regarded as invincible. But the tdp's reversal in the recent civic elections has proved otherwise. Despite a personal campaign by Naidu, who traversed the state on a helicopter, and the party machinery going on an overdrive, the tdp failed at the hustings and proved psephologists who predicted a landslide win for Naidu wrong.
tdp insiders admit the long-term political implications of the defeat—the tdp won just nine of the 22 zilla parishads—can't be ignored. The impressive showing by the fledgling Telengana Rashtra Samithi (trs) and the ground recovered by the Congress is seen as a pointer to the fact that Naidu is slipping and that his government doesn't enjoy the confidence it did two years ago.
"The results fall short of our expectations," admits Naidu. At the same time, he accuses the Congress and trs of misguiding the people by promising the impossible, like free power, unlimited employment and irrigation, besides promising a separate state of Telengana. The last was the key plank of the trs although the Congress was opposed to the creation of a new state. But in the post-poll scenario, the trs and Congress have come together and will share power.
For the tdp, the poll outcome is a major reversal, considering its triumphant victory after allying with the bjp in the last assembly elections three years ago. Issues like the steep hike in power tariff, the lack of a reasonable support price for farm produce, the negatives that go with economic reforms and the ubiquitous incumbency factor went against the tdp in many places. "We will do a detailed analysis and take corrective measures," says Naidu. But winning under 10 zilla parishads is a big blow, given that the tdp bagged 21 out of the 22 districts when elections were held last in 1995.
For any party, winning zilla parishads is crucial as it gives them a hold on the pursestrings and say in how funds for development are to be allocated in the district. In contrast, it is the task of the cash-strapped state government to impose fresh taxes and raise funds.
The T factor, as the demand for statehood for Telengana is known, and the rise of the trs is cause for much worry for Naidu. The emotive appeal of the slogan for a separate state worked for the trs and made the Congress and tdp press panic buttons. The Congress went in for an ambivalent approach with legislators from the region supporting the demand for a separate state while the state Congress committee only echoed the view of the aicc, that the party has put the issue on hold. But the tdp made its stand clear, that it was against any division of the state. But that did not go down well with the voters in the Telengana region.
Not surprisingly, tdp leaders like to gloss over the fact that the tdp-bjp alliance did not work like it did in the assembly elections when the electoral arithmetic and party chemistry mixed well. Indeed, some in the bjp even suggested the party go it alone and support the demand for separate statehood while others were wary of the anti-incumbency factor having an adverse impact on the party's polls prospects. The bjp, by all accounts, was only a reluctant ally.
Pushed to the wall, Naidu relied heavily on a personal campaign to reverse the tide. Travelling by chopper during the day and car by night, he addressed 70 meetings in the last 10 days of the campaign. Of the 70 meetings, he addressed as many as 40 in the Telengana region to counter the trs.
Not to be outdone, trs chief K. Chandrasekhar Rao also hired a chopper. His campaign style was flamboyant and his prime target was the tdp. Now that his party has won, the trs chief is pleased. "We achieved our twin objective of strengthening the trs and weakening the enemy of Telengana, Chandrababu Naidu," asserts Rao.
In the coming months, Naidu plans to revitalise his party machinery by organising awareness and training programmes for party activists to counter the trs. What is cause for worry is that the pattern of voting reveals a perceptible decline in Naidu's popularity. Even the performance of a poorly-organised Congress has made the tdp sit up. Naidu the chief minister will now have to don the hat of party strategist to bring his party on an even keel after the poll debacle.
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