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Victory not at push of a button

When I first came to India there was a director of All India Radio who came from Vijayawada. He advised against visiting his hometown which he called Blazewada. So I had always regarded the largest city of coastal Andhra as a place to pass through in the train, not a desirable destination. But when last year I did finally get out here I realised what I had been missing. What impressed me most was the vibrant civil society, and in particular STRIVE, a new citizens’ action group. It doesn’t, like so many NGOs, claim to rival the government services, but hopes to prod them into action. So after two days in Telengana I was looking forward to visiting Vijayawada to see how coastal Andhra felt about the Telengana Rashtra Samiti (TRS)’s campaign for a separate state, which is being backed by the Congress, too.

At a breakfast meeting with STRIVE and other leading citizens of Vijayawada I was not surprised to find little or no support for the partition of the state even when I suggested that Vijayawada might be the capital. I was told: “They have built up Hyderabad. If we lose that, the loss will be ours.”

Nor did anyone seem to believe the state would be divided. Those with memories of the Telengana movement that started in the late sixties and indeed the separate Andhra movement thought nothing of the TRS. They remembered the days when trains couldn’t pass through Vijayawada because of the violent movements.

The opposition to Chandrababu Naidu in these elections is accusing him of being the chief minister of Hyderabad, so I expected the citizens of Vijayawada, which was once selected as the capital of Andhra, to be resentful. Some did resent the lack of investment in their town. But others felt that Vijayawada should eventually be able to benefit from the fact that the new Hyderabad had put their state, once regarded as the Bihar of the South, on the map.

It was thought unfair that Hyderabad should be becoming the biotech capital as well as the centre of the IT revolution. Naidu didn’t come in for as much blame as I expected on this count. One businessman felt it was the fault of the local politicians who didn’t fight for the region. Others felt Vijayawada still suffered from its reputation as a hotbed of militant communism, although those days were long gone.

The greatest grievance against the government was its failure to obtain an adequate share of the Krishna water. When I asked why Naidu, being so crucial to the NDA government, had not been able to put this right, a retired journalist shot back “the BJP is very hopeful in Karnataka” — an explanation I had never had the brains to think out for myself.

I was surprised to hear that Naidu’s much vaunted e-governance was not being pushed by the Telugu Desam in this region. It was suggested Naidu realised that although work had speeded up in government offices, corruption had not declined. A former chartered accountant had found less corruption in sales tax and pointed out that there were now surveillance cameras in offices where money had once changed hands. Loud laughter greeted the businessman who replied: “Yes and now the transactions take place outside the offices.”

It’s generally believed that e-governance is still an urban phenomenon in Andhra Pradesh. However, driving to Vijayawada I stopped in the small town of Nandigama where I was told computers were now issuing land records and ration cards at the mandal headquarters. To my surprise a local spokesman for the Congress admitted this had made officials “more responsive”.

Further afield, some distance from the highway, I also found an improvement in governance. A labourer living in the Dalit section of the village of Perakallapadu told me: “The officials are now working well.” In the heart of the village, opposite the temple, a prosperous farmer said: “The government is better organised now than it was before, and that helps me with land records and records of my crops.”

But in every village I visited I found the real success story was the government scheme for setting up women’s self-help groups. In Perakallapadu, for instance, the Dalits told me, with pride, they had as many groups as the main village. A lady communications consultant, who was among those I met in Vijayawada, believed the woman’s vote would go to Naidu. She had been studying the chief minister’s statements about women on television. When I asked whether propaganda or empowerment schemes would make women vote for the chief minister, she said: “Fifty-fifty.”

Opinion also seems to divide fifty-fifty in coastal Andhra on who will be the first past the post in the two-horse race between the Telugu Desam and the Congress for the Assembly which here, like Telengana, is much more important than Parliament. Naidu may be the darling of Bill Gates, the most favoured chief minister among international businessmen and women, but back home e-governance has not guaranteed him victory.

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