ON A hot summer evening in April 2009, Rahul Gandhi was to arrive at an election rally in Malkajgiri Lok Sabha constituency in the suburbs of Hyderabad. The Congress candidate was Sarve Satyanarayana, who was inducted as an MoS in the recent Cabinet reshuffle. Just as everyone was waiting for the meeting to begin, YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s Man Friday was found grumbling.
Let us call him Mr X here. Mr X started talking about how meetings like these were such a waste of YSR’s time. Such talk coming from a Congressman was surprising because after all, in the Congress school of sycophancy, the Gandhis are seen as the star campaigners and every state leader is expected to fawn over them.
“Rahul’s team has specifically asked for those constituencies where the Congress is certain to win and wants him to address meetings only there. What’s the point? Sir feels that if Rahul really wants to make a difference, he should tour those constituencies where the TDP will put up a stiff fight. But he won’t,” explained Mr X.
Eventually, when the Congress won 33 Lok Sabha seats out of 42, the high command was more than eager to take credit. A Congress leader from Delhi pointed out Rahul’s report card in Andhra Pradesh. He had scored 100 percent, as the Congress had won all the seats he had campaigned in. In the building up of Brand Rahul, AP had played a significant part.
Come 2014, Rahul is bracing to repeat the show. Except that this time he will have to do it all by himself. Which is perhaps why he sent an advance team of a dozen-odd politicians and techies in November to undertake a survey of the Congress’ health in AP. The team has been touring different regions and meeting Congressmen, intellectuals and journalists to get a sense of which way the wind is blowing.
The party has been torn apart by fierce infighting, with the not-so-charitable joke doing the rounds that in AP,Congressman ka haath, chaaku ke saath
Most people have told Team Rahul that it is a case of ‘gone with the wind’ for the Congress. Not that the writing isn’t on the wall. In the bypolls to 18 Assembly and one Lok Sabha seat in June, the Congress won just two Assembly seats. Calling it a terrible performance would be an understatement since all of them were won by the Congress in 2009. The party has been torn apart by fierce infighting, with the not-so-charitable joke doing the rounds that in AP, Congressman ka haath, chaaku ke saath.
The party is caught between a rock and a hard place in AP, the two being Telangana and YS Jaganmohan Reddy. Both problems of its own making.
First Telangana. Delhi cannot but regret blundering along on this highly emotive issue. Announcing Telangana on 9 December 2009 and then retracting on the 23rd showed the Congress was neither thinking ahead nor had any credible political intelligence coming in from the ground. The state of confusion within the party on how to deal with the contentious issue lay naked. Subsequently, it has tried to handle it the Congress style. ‘Manage’ the different stakeholders like the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) and buy time through the Srikrishna Committee first and then hold rounds after rounds of inconclusive talks.
“The Congress politics of procrastination and delayed tactics have been completely exposed,” says political analyst K Nageshwar. “That has led to anger among the people of Telangana. But the Delhi leadership looks at bigger storms it has successfully faced, like the Gujjar agitation, Tikait’s demonstrations, Kashmir, Maoist violence and trouble in the Northeast, and thinks this too can be handled.”
‘The CM is not able to take the rank and file of the party with him. In fact, he is strengthening Jagan in the bargain,’ bemoans Congress MP G Vivek
Its leaders on the ground, however, find no light at the end of the Telangana tunnel if a positive decision is not taken. “It will be very difficult for the party to do well in Telangana if this indecision continues. We are only asking our party to honour the word they gave to the people on 9 December,” argues Madhu Yashki, Congress MP from Nizamabad.
Only if it was such an open-and-shut case. The Congress is only too aware that spelling its stand on Telangana either way will mean it burns its fingers in one of the two regions. Which is why it is trying to stay out and allow the fire to simmer, hoping that by the time the elections come around, the intensity would have reduced.
But realising that the Congress is in the Rahul Dravid mode, the TRS has begun to work on Plan B in the past couple of weeks. Its increasing proximity to the BJP would be viewed with concern by the Congress, which won 12 of the 17 Lok Sabha seats in Telangana in 2009. TRS supremo K Chandrasekhar Rao now finds merit in flirting with the BJP in the hope that either a spurned Congress will react or else a rich harvest of Lok Sabha and Assembly seats in 2014 in Telangana in alliance with the BJP could help him realise his goal.
In November end, pro-Jagan media were full of stories on how the YSR Congress leader had spent six months in jail. If the Congress gamble was to break the party outside by targeting the head, it clearly hasn’t worked. Congress and TDP leaders continue to make a beeline to Chanchalguda prison in what has become the standard operating procedure for anyone wanting to join hands with Jagan.
G Vivek, Congress MP from Peddapalli in Telangana, blames Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy for his inability to prevent senior leaders from leaving the party. “Why has former MP Indrakaran Reddy decided to join Jagan? It is because senior leaders like him are made to feel unwanted in the party by the CM. Kiran is creating groups and sub-groups in districts and is not able to take the rank and file of the party with him. In fact, he is strengthening Jagan in the bargain,” says Vivek.
The CM does not agree. He described such exits as old water getting washed away whenever rain comes. “It brings new water along with new zeal and hope” is how he reacted to dyed-in-the-wool Congressmen leaving the party.
Some of these concerns were raised in a letter allegedly written by Union minister V Kishore Chandra Deo to the Congress leadership in November. In the letter, which Deo denied writing later, he called Kiran “ineffective” and the state party chief Botsa Satyanarayana a “don”.
IN FACT, the biggest failure of Kiran has been his inability to take along his team with him. The Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), which withdrew support to the Congress last month, accused the CM of taking it for granted. “Last year, 12 incidents of stabbing took place around Bakrid in Hyderabad. It was getting difficult to answer people who support us. But the CM was not willing to listen to us. He took it very easy. A series of developments happened subsequently, We decided enough is enough and quit,” explains Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi.
Even though Kiran is putting up a brave front, dismissing the MIM as a Hyderabad Old City party, the exit will hurt the pro-minorities image that the Congress attempts to cultivate. The other constituency that is slowly slipping away is the Reddy community that has been the backbone of the party for decades. It is now gravitating towards Jagan and whatever little success the YSR Congress manages in Telangana will be by riding on the Reddy money and political power in the region.
Realising the tectonic shift in Andhra politics, the Congress too is changing its gameplan. With Satyanarayana and Union MoS Chiranjeevi as its mascots, the Congress will attempt electoral social engineering by wooing the backward Kapu vote in coastal Andhra Pradesh. Also, the Direct Benefit Scheme, which is being launched in five districts of AP from January, is seen as a programme that could bring it electoral benefits.
What happens if the Congress does not decide on Telangana? It could find some of its sitting MPs and MLAs moving to greener pastures like the TRS and YSR Congress. Their exit may not be too much of a loss to the Congress as many of them face two-term anti-incumbency, but the party’s bigger concern should be to shake off the image of a lethargic government on autopilot.
A school of thought in the Congress leadership is that even if the party does not win a majority, both the YSR Congress and TRS, which are expected to do well in Seemandhra and Telangana respectively, can be convinced to support the party in New Delhi to help the formation of UPA-3. The flip side of this complacent approach, however, is that the risk of AP going the Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh way for the Congress looms large.
On the day he completed two years in office, Kiran announced that he is here to stay till 2014. He would do well to look at the questionnaire prepared by Team Rahul. One of the questions lists out over a dozen alternative names and asks the respondents why each one of them would be better or worse than Kiran as chief minister.
Clearly, Rahul has not heard of TINA.