Is the Congress finished in Andhra Pradesh?

It was as if he was on oath to speak the truth and nothing but the truth. In a rather candid admission, one of the seniormost Congress leaders in Andhra Pradesh was telling me that his party exists today only between Guntur and Srikakulam. For this extremely important person in the Congress state hierarchy to admit in so many words was an indication of how bleak the party's prospects are in this very critical state.

Wonder if he has communicated his prognosis to Rahul Gandhi whose prime ministerial ambitions will hinge on how well the party does in Andhra Pradesh. The state sent the single largest contingent of Congress MPs to the UPA kitty in both 2004 (29 MPs) and in 2009 (33 MPs). A party whose influence has shrunk to half a dozen districts along the coast would mean having a fighting chance in just about 14 Lok Sabha seats.

The leader tried to cheer himself with the results of a recent survey that he had commissioned. He said it showed that YS Jaganmohan Reddy's ratings in urban constituencies are slipping. "Educated people are now aware of the extent of his corruption, so that is a plus for us,'' he said. "But in rural areas, he is strong. And he will do well in Rayalaseema. And Congress cannot fight the statehood sentiment in Telangana.''

But what is significant is that the Congress party does not fancy its chances even in Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy's home district of Chittoor. AFP

But not many in his own party seem to share his optimism that the Guntur to Srikakulam route is clear. Around ten Congress MLAs, all of them from the coastal districts of East and West Godavari, Krishna and Prakasam, are planning to jump ship after Sankranti to the YSR Congress. PCC chief Botsa Satyanarayana is reportedly trying to convince them to stay on but he too knows that even if they change their mind now, they will jump as soon as elections are announced.

And if the Congress leadership does not take a favourable decision on statehood for Telangana, many of its leaders and cadre could meander to greener pastures like the Telangana Rashtra Samiti. Those who are uncomfortable with K Chandrasekhar Rao's style of leadership could even float a separate Telangana front to divorce themselves from the Congress decision.

The past two months have seen some Telugu Desam MLAs and leaders joining the YSR Congress after visiting Jagan at Chanchalguda jail, an act that immediately invites a show-cause or expulsion notice from Chandrababu Naidu. Most of these leaders are trying to fight anti-incumbency by presenting themselves before the electorate in new political clothes (read Jagan's party).

But what is significant is that the Congress party does not fancy its chances even in Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy's home district of Chittoor. And there are good reasons for that. Hardly any MLA from the district is on good terms with Kiran now. The upcoming council and cooperative elections will be key for Kiran's detractors to get back at the chief minister. And for whatever it is worth, the MIM, though on the backfoot, has vowed to damage the chief minister's chances by campaigning aggressively among the Muslim voters in his constituency, Pileru.

But it is not as if the other parties are placed comfortably. With Jagan behind bars and sister Sharmila suspending her padyatra due to surgery, the YSR Congress is in pause mode. Its biggest problem is that barring the YSR family, it is pretty much a faceless, nameless party, and the fear is that it should not become an out-of-sight, out-of-mind party, if Jagan does not get bail.

"Does anyone remember Madhu Koda of Jharkhand now," the Congress leader continued. Providing the answer himself, he added "Jagan's fate will be the same. No one will remember him."

After the TDP's wishy-washy support for Telangana at the all-party meeting on 28 December, the party's stock has improved marginally in Telangana. It may still not be good enough for it to win many seats but the TRS is wary of the Telangana electoral pie being split many ways. Already an ebullient BJP wants to go it alone and a Telangana Congress Front may further crowd the field. With many politicians predicting `too close to call' contests in many Telangana constituencies, KCR's challenge will be to come first amidst all the pro-Telangana competition.

The TDP has been gloating over Naidu breaking the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy's record of 1470-km-long padyatra, which YSR achieved in the summer of 2003. But Naidu also knows a Man of the Match awards counts only when it is for a winning cause. The wily politician that he is, his padyatra must be giving him a good opportunity to do a SWOT analysis in each constituency and that should help him once he completes his walkathon.

The elections in 2014 will, for all practical purposes, determine the political future of Naidu, Jagan and KCR. A third successive loss could mean the death of the TDP. A loss for Jagan could mean being consigned to political oblivion. Ditto for KCR who will fight his third election promising statehood to Telangana.