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Development gamble flops, Sonia’s pays off

Fifteen years after it last won an Assembly election in Andhra Pradesh, the Congress was on the road to power in Hyderabad. The cyber city joined the rest of Andhra Pradesh and gave “the CEO chief minister”, N. Chandrababu Naidu, the thumbs down.

For a Congress fighting to return to centre stage, Andhra Pradesh may well show the way. This adage was true a decade ago when the late N.T. Rama Rao unseated the Congress taking more than two out of three seats.

A decade later, Sonia Gandhi’s Congress put together a rainbow coalition, including the CPI and the CPM and the sub-regionalist Telengana Rashtra Samiti (TRS). The votes of all these groups as seen in the rural panchayat elections of 2001 added up to over 52 per cent. In a sense, the Congress took a leaf from chief minister Chandrababu Naidu’s own book.

Five years ago, he struck a perfect seat-sharing deal with the BJP. They pooled half the votes and restricted the Congress to double-digit figures in the 294-member legislative Assembly. The Kargil war helped the allies in a state with near-universal reach of satellite television.

Five years later, the entire picture has changed beyond recognition.

Already in the winter of 2003, Congress leader Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy’s padayatra or foot march through the rural interior evoked an enthusiastic response. Sonia also chipped in with carefully planned sorties to the families of farmers and weavers who had committed suicide.

The Telengana revolt against the ruling Telugu Desam helped the Congress in no small measure. K. Chandrasekhar Rao, former deputy Speaker and Desam leader, resigned from the party and floated a local outfit to champion the creation of a new state.

The movement ironically got a fillip when the NDA government moved to create three new states in the Hindi belt in 2000.

The Congress moved into an alliance giving Rao’s group as many as 42 seats. As it turns out, the results have put the larger party in the driver’s seat. It has far more seats than the halfway mark of 148.

Though its bargaining power has been reduced and the TRS held in check, the issue of Telengana’s underdevelopment is certain to figure on the agenda once a new government is formed.

The Andhra results will have far-reaching consequences. In terms of the development model he pursued, Naidu was often contrasted to Digvijay Singh of Madhya Pradesh. Both won their first re-election bids, and neither’s government survived a second Assembly poll.

The one common factor, now stressed by party managers, is that both states faced years of repeated drought. But in Naidu’s case, the new institutions of civic self-help did far little to alleviate distress.

The party’s poor performance in the delta of the Krishna and Godavari, the prosperous rice belt of the coast, has left it in a state of shock.

Yet, the continued neglect of irrigation and rural credit has finally caught up with a government that prided itself on connectivity and e-governance.

Naidu’s party has gone below the 50-seat mark in the Vidhan Sabha. This is lower than the figure in 1989 when NTR could not prevent a rout after nearly seven years in power.

The numbers are stark and simple and a warning to the NDA. In 1999, the Vajpayee-led coalition mustered as many as 72 of the 132 seats in the four states and two Union territories of the peninsula.

Half those seats came from Andhra Pradesh. If the Assembly election results are any indicator, the best the TDP and BJP can expect are about 5-6 seats.

Again, the lowest ever was a measly two in 1989. Even as the Congress was swept away in much of north India, it had held its ground in the South. This time, Andhra Pradesh has opened up new and unexpected possibilities for Sonia Gandhi.

There is still a sliver of hope for the NDA. The BJP may have struck a chord its local ally could not. If there has been split voting, the voters may give Naidu and the BJP some reason to smile. Still, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they will be stuck in the second slot.

The stakes are high in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, another drought-hit state where the ruling party is an ally. The BJP and friends picked up 26 seats, but the DMK now leads a formidable multi-party alliance.

The dice is loaded against the NDA. The Andhra results are also important as they point to a new entente between the Congress and the Left parties.

The CPI aligned with the larger party for the first time since 1977. The CPM struck a seat-sharing deal for the first time.

All reports indicate a closely-fought campaign with ground-level co-ordination between the Congress and the Left cadre.

Tamil Nadu and Bihar are other states where they have joined forces.

Though not comparable to the cheerleading role of the CPI for the Indira Congress in the seventies, the relationship has grown and deepened.

In a sense, the day belonged to Sonia Gandhi and her party. Even the first round of opinion polls had given Naidu the edge. But the party president broke with past policies and gambled all on a wider alliance.

As the Congress slips into the alliance mode across the country, the tidings from Hyderabad will give it ground for hope.

The NDA in turn will wait with bated breath. It will hope, as in 1984 and 1989, that Andhra Pradesh is out of sync with the rest of India.

But even a dispassionate look at the numbers will show the best it can hope for will be to crawl across the finishing line. Even that may not be as easy as it once looked.

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