Competitive populism dominates the agenda for all political formations in upcoming elections in Andhra Pradesh.
The opposition parties, including the Telugu Desam party (TDP), the left parties and the Telengana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), in the state have formalised a grand alliance against the Congress party. This is a similar coming together of the opposition parties against the ruling incumbent, as had happened five years ago against the then ruling TDP.
In the 2004 assembly and Lok Sabha elections, the TDP had an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main constituent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). And the seat sharing between the Congress and the TRS as well as between the left parties and the Congress helped these parties to collectively overcome the TDP, which received a trouncing, retaining merely 47 assembly seats and winning only five parliamentary seats. The broad alliance of the opposition was able to capitalise on the widespread resentment with the economic reforms followed by the TDP and also managed to win the support of large sections of the populace, particularly from rural areas with populist promises such as free electricity for farmers.
During the tenure of the Congress government however, a gradual withering away of the alliance took place with the TRS coming off it owing to the non-realisation of its goal of a separate Telangana state and with the left parties adopting confrontationist positions, particularly in the course of a land struggle. Within a few years into the tenure, the TDP disavowed any relations that it still had with the BJP, changed tack from its “reformist” past and adopted populist slogans, and soon enough found itself in alliance with the left parties. The TDP also managed a volte-face on the Telangana issue, endearing the TRS into the grand alliance as it stands today.
The Congress government led by Chief Minister Rajasekara Reddy has been successful in projecting a populist image of itself during its tenure. Owing to measures such as the free provision of electricity for agriculture, steps taken in building irrigation capabilities across Andhra Pradesh, or the Indiramma housing schemes for the homeless, the Arogyashree health scheme, the government has achieved a semblance of popularity and retaining of support base across the state. The opposition has duly adopted a strategy of scrutinising these schemes and protesting the deficiencies in them. And despite the opposition's legitimate criticisms of malfeasance by the government, the incumbent's success in delivering a populist message in comparison to the “reformist” predecessor has been there for all to see. And in that sense, there has been an instrumental reason for the coming together of disparate and erstwhile rival political parties such as the Left, the TDP and the TRS in coalition against the Congress.
The left parties reason out their political stance in the state as flowing from their national goal of preventing the Congress and the BJP from coming to power. Locally, they affirm that their electoral strategies would not affect their political campaigns and socio-economic struggles, which has seen an increase in support for them. Whether that is indeed the case is questionable as disparate alliances determined by electoral criteria have not helped the Left in retaining their ideological influence on governments formed after elections. Even if the success of the coalition is assumed, it is indeterminate if the TDP (as the largest party in the bloc) would be any different in its stances on socio-economic matters and development trajectories from the others in the ruling class segments.
What prevents the elections from becoming a two-horse race – the Congress versus the grand opposition (the BJP has been relegated to a minor presence in the state) is the dark horse presence of the newly formed political outfit, the Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) anchored by the popular film actor Chiranjeevi. Despite overtures and discussions between the PRP and the Left, the latter decided to throw in their lot with the TDP as the PRP refused to join the grand coalition. With a purported support base of youth, and other marginalised sections of the populace, the PRP hopes to make a significant dent in its first attempt in electoral politics. Unsurprisingly the political language of this party also draws from populism and concern for the poor.
Electorally however, considerations such as identity, as in particular caste combinations still play an important role in determining the success or not of such coalitions. The PRP is expected to draw a good chunk of votes from the Kapu community, assumed to favour the Congress party traditionally. And in that regard, the relatively popular Congress party faces a formidable challenge posed by the grand alliance and the PRP.
The biggest loser even before the elections, seems to be the BJP. The party has been able to neither carve a presence nor befriend a regional ally in the state – a trend that resembles the situation in other southern states excepting Karnataka, surely affecting the overall prospects of the NDA in the parliamentary elections.
Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly