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Pepper-spray MP’s shadow lingers on Vijayawada

Lagadapati Rajagopal

Lagadapati Rajagopal insists he has quit politics. And physically, he’s absent from these elections.

But the lingering shadow of Rajagopal, the two-time Vijayawada MP who gained national notoriety after he sprayed canned pepper fumes in the Lok Sabha to protest the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, is defining two key coastal contests in this election.

In Vijayawada, the two principal candidates battling for the Lok Sabha seat are trying to emulate Rajagopal’s political beginnings. And in neighbouring Machilipatnam, 310km from Hyderabad, a sitting MP who fell victim to Rajagopal’s pepper-spray act in Parliament is trying to cash in on sympathy to ride to victory again.

Machilipatnam fish seller Maheshwara Prasada Rao had made up his mind last year to vote against his caste-cousin and sitting MP from the Telugu Desam Party, Konakalla Narayana Rao, this time.

But on February 12, Rao suffered a heart attack in the Lok Sabha in the melee after Rajagopal unleashed pepper spray on fellow parliamentarians.

Rao was one of 16 MPs, including Rajagopal, eventually expelled for preventing the House from functioning through their protests against the creation of Telangana.

But by then, Andhra Pradesh television channels had repeatedly broadcast images of a collapsed Rao being stretchered out of Parliament, transforming him from a standard mustachioed MP into a local folk hero.

“He almost sacrificed his life for a united Andhra,” said fish seller Rao, as customers and fellow salesmen nodded in agreement. “How can I now vote against him?”

The MP from Chandrababu Naidu’s Desam is contesting against an alliance of Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress and the CPM, which has traditional popular support among the organised autorickshaw sector in Machilipatnam town.

Just 70km away in Vijayawada, Rajagopal’s influence — on the city and its politics — is impossible to miss.

Andhra’s richest MP in the outgoing Lok Sabha — Rajagopal declared assets worth Rs 299 crore — built on the success of his infrastructure conglomerate Lanco Infratech, which registered revenues of $2.3 bn (Rs 14,000cr) in 2013-14.

Lanco is headquartered in Gurgaon, but it is Rajagopal’s firm — and not any municipal authority — that greets visitors to Vijayawada, 240km from Hyderabad.

Rajagopal, who declared he was quitting politics after he failed to stop Parliament from passing legislation to create Telangana, has since stayed away from the public glare, though he initially had indicated support for a new party set up by former Andhra chief minister Kiran Kumar Reddy.

He did not respond to repeated telephone calls and text messages from The Telegraph, and his office in Vijayawada said he was intent on steering clear of the news this political season.

“He’s just travelling between different factories and hubs of the company, keeping himself busy with his business,” an aide in Vijayawada said.

But the two principal candidates fighting for the Vijayawada seat are trying to follow in his political footsteps — at least up to the point when Rajagopal brandished a pepper spray can in Parliament.

The candidates from the Desam-BJP alliance and the YSR Congress are hoping they benefit from a repeat of Rajagopal’s success in 2004 when he came in cold into politics from big business to win in Vijayawada. The Congress, Rajagopal’s party till he was expelled, is widely viewed as lagging the Desam and the YSR Congress in Vijayawada and the rest of coastal Andhra because of its decision to carve out Telangana.

Kesineni Srinivas, the Desam candidate, is the founder of Kesineni Travels, one of southern India’s largest travel and tourism firms. “Vijayawada needs someone who understands the importance of investments to develop,” city Desam leader Rami Reddy said. “Rajagopal succeeded, and Srinivas is offering the city the same.”

Koneru Rajendra Prasad, the YSR Congress nominee, is the founder of the Dubai-based Trimex Group — one of the world’s largest mineral export companies. His supporters too cite Rajagopal’s career to explain their confidence in the candidature of a political novice.

“If he (Rajagopal) could do it, why not Prasad?” asked Ventaskesh Rao, a campaigner for the YSR Congress in Vijayawada. “And unlike Rajagopal, who was betrayed by his own party, Prasad has the full support of the YSR Congress.”

But then, Prasad hasn’t brought out pepper spray yet.

Vijayawada and Machilipatnam voted on May7