Whoever says politicians aren’t a grounded tribe ought to visit Andhra Pradesh now. You are likely to run into a neta on a padyatra in just about any region or district of the state. ‘Woo them on foot’ is the mantra that politicians across the spectrum have embraced, a good 18 months before elections in 2014.
Not that padyatra as a tool for charming the voter is new to the Deccan. The late YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s 1475 km walkathon across Telangana and coastal Andhra Pradesh in the harsh summer of 2003 fetched him dividends a year later as the voters logged Chandrababu Naidu out of power and plugged in the Congress. Which is why just about every politician is attempting to do a YSR, hoping to earn an appreciative punch on the EVM on D-day.
First off the blocks is Chandrababu Naidu, who is attempting to out-walk YSR in terms of distance. The Telugu Desam supremo who started his 2300 km long journey from Hindupur in Anantapur district on 2 October will breast the finishing line in Srikakulam after 117 days on Republic Day. Naidu is already talking in detail about the roadmap for Andhra Pradesh if he comes back to power. His attempt is to present himself in a new pro-poor avatar by promising many sops. The TDP has not won a single byelection since 2009 and Naidu is aware the next election will hardly be a cakewalk. It will be a decade out of power for the TDP in 2014 and the party cannot afford a hat-trick in the opposition. Telangana and Jaganmohan Reddy will be speedbreakers on Naidu’s route to the Secretariat in Hyderabad, which is why he needs to hit bull’s eye with this padyatra.
The immediate competition to Naidu comes from YSR’s daughter Sharmila, who is attempting several firsts. Her padyatra that started today from her father’s cremation site in Idupulapaya in Kadapa district, will be 3000 km long and will be the first one to be undertaken by a woman. Sharmila taking the road less travelled was in a sense, dictated by the Supreme court’s refusal to grant bail to her brother Jagan. Realising the party was turning into a listless organisation with its chief behind bars, the padyatra is a desperate attempt to reconnect to the people. Sources close to Jagan say the party is more wary of Naidu covering lost ground and considers the Congress, more as a party on a weak wicket combating ten years of anti-incumbency.
One of the reasons for Jagan’s success in the byelections in June also was the Odarpu yatra he undertook since 2010. Using the pretext of meeting people who apparently died due to shock after YSR’s death in a chopper crash in September 2009, Jagan travelled to the interiors in several districts, establishing himself in the public eye as a man of the masses. Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy is now trying to emulate the rural connect with his Indiramma baata programme, that sees him travelling to the hinterland three days a week. Jagan is aware his undertrial status threatens to undo his first mover advantage.
Sharmila’s padyatra has its pluses and minuses. Along with her mother Vijayamma and Jagan’s wife Bharathi, who would put in guest appearances, Sharmila would obviously appeal to the women and youth voters in Andhra Pradesh and the TDP plans to keep an eye on the crowds that throng her roadside meetings. She would also converse with the people in a non-political lingo, that would come from her not being a full-time politician like Jagan, Naidu or Kiran. But the absence of clarity on issues of governance could also be her Achilles heel as just harping on the YSR name and blaming the Centre for letting the CBI loose on her brother may not be enough to sustain her from Kadapa to Srikakulam.
But then the YSR Congress looks at Sharmila as only a stop-gap arrangement till such time that Jagan comes out on bail. If he does come out post-March 2013, the padyatra will become a relay padyatra, with Sharmila handing over the baton to her brother.
Along with the mega versions, there are scaled-down versions of the padyatra as well. Revenue minister Raghuveera Reddy who is one of the Congress strongmen from Anantapur plans to walk across the district, primarily to neutralise the damage Naidu has done to the Congress by starting his padyatra from this Rayalaseema district.
Likewise Telangana activists also see the need to embrace this route to achieving statehood for the region. On the drawing board is a proposal to persuade Prof Kodandaram, the chairman of the Telangana Joint Action Committee (TJAC) to walk through the ten districts. However Kodandaram is well aware that the TJAC is a house divided, with different political parties like the TRS, BJP and the CPI looking to further their own political agenda and none of them would want him to grab the spotlight.
One thing that just about every political padyatri agrees on is that the next elections in Andhra Pradesh will go the distance. Going by the present mood, they mean it literally as well.