A reporter’s diary from Nandyal: From AK-47s and crude bombs in 1991 to outpouring of venom in 2017

Few assembly by-elections in recent years have seen as much political cussedness, pathos, name-calling and strategising as the one in Nandyal, which the Telugu Desam wrested from YSR Congress.

This jogs my memories—not very happy ones—of the November 1991 by-election in Nandyal in Andhra Pradesh which sent PV Narasimha Rao to the Lok Sabha after he became the Prime Minister. I was there for a month to cover that election, in which crude bombs and AK-47s played as much role as the saris and dhotis that were distributed to the poor.

I got a taste of the shenanigans that passed off as election campaign only minutes after I checked into a lodge in the town one afternoon. When I opened the window, I found myself looking at a bunch of lungi-clad men carrying AK-47s in the backyard of a “guesthouse”. I was told they were Congress “workers”.

After speaking to the police, political busybodies and others, I wrote a report on Congressmen going around with AK-47s in Nandyal to ensure Rao’s victory. Then as advised by political and police friends for my own security, I changed my hotel.

A reporter’s diary from Nandyal: From AK-47s and crude bombs in 1991 to outpouring of venom in 2017

File image of PV Narasimha Rao. Reuters

There was never a doubt that Rao would have a cakewalk in Nandyal. After Telugu Desam announced it was staying away from contest, it was a virtual one-horse race with only a BJP candidate and three Independents left in field. But the Congress didn’t take risks. A party leader told me they wanted nothing less than the biggest winning margin in the country’s electoral history for the Prime Minister. In the end, Rao won with a whopping margin of 5.8 lakh votes by polling 89.5 per cent of the votes.

To accomplish the goal, the party used a carrot-and-stick policy. But the problem was that for each carrot there were a hundred sticks. While freebies and cash flowed like water, Congress goons stormed into villages and thrashed people who they suspected might not vote for Rao.

An accomplished polyglot, Rao maintained a sphinx-like silence about these atrocities in all the 17 languages he knew.

And when there was tension in a place called Allagadda, I travelled through the region in the car of a police officer. We heard a loud explosion behind us when we entered a village road. I turned back to see smoke billowing from a hut.

“Don’t you want to stop and investigate?” I asked the officer.

“Oh, no,” he said, dismissing my question with a wave of hand, as if I asked if it was raining. “Somebody must be making a bomb, and it must have gone off accidentally. It’s pretty common here.”

I learnt later that the villagers in the region made crude bombs with the same ease as they made jowar roti and brinjal chutney. I wrote a report on all this, and changed my hotel.

The next day, I went over to the Collector’s office in Kurnool to see what sort of a Returning Officer there was for this “VIP election”. As I approached the gate, I saw a mad scuffle going on there. A dozen stocky men with bodies that wrestlers would be proud of were beating a couple of emasculated, middle-aged men black and blue, as policemen stood, along with a crowd of passersby, as silent spectators.

I watched in horror as the goons caught the hapless men by the scruffs of their necks, and tossed them into a truck as if they were sacks of potatoes. I learnt that the ruffians were Congress “workers” who were stopping Independent candidates from filing their nominations.

Under Section 52 of the Representation of People Act–1951, as it was in force then, the death of any candidate, even an Independent, would lead to the countermanding of an election. The Congress didn’t want the death—natural or otherwise—of candidates to jeopardise Rao’s election, so it was trying to remove or minimise such a possibility by stopping too many Independents from filing nominations. (As amended in 1992, Section 52 now necessitates the countermanding, only if a recognised party’s candidate dies.)

I went in to talk to the Returning Officer, who had apparently been watching the spectacle through the window.

“Action, did you say?” he asked. “I can’t take any action, unless there is a complaint.”

He reminded me of the apocryphal joke about a newspaper reporter, who was soaking wet, refusing to write about the rain because the weather office was not confirming it.

I wrote my report, and changed my hotel room.

Flash-forward to Nandyal, 2017

In the days of cell phone cameras, viral videos and a watchful Election Commission, Nandyal is somewhat different. Guns and knives are tucked inside pockets, and are not brandished like clubs by aboriginal tribes of forests. Bombs don’t go off, accidentally or otherwise, as often as they did in the past, though political murders are still common in the dog-eat-dog, feudal culture of the Rayalaseema region.

The focus now is more on strategy. Months before the election day, Telugu Desam chief and Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu began to pamper the Nandyal assembly constituency with developmental schemes. He divided the constituency into more than a dozen territories for easier election management. He appointed teams of legislators and ministers, allocating to them territories and responsibilities. They travelled to all nooks and corners, identifying people’s problems and solving them in double-quick time. The villages and communities that they suspected were inclined to support the YSR Congress Party were showered with favours of all kinds. And in true corporate style, a back office of sorts was at work to coordinate all efforts.

If freebies and cash rained on voters in the past, they were now a torrent of flood. And worse, the outpouring of venom was nastier. The worst verbal onslaught came from YSRC leader Jaganmohan Reddy, who said there was “nothing wrong if Chandrababu Naidu is shot dead in the middle of a road”. Reddy paid the price for it, and his party suffered a defeat that it deserved.

Yet, for Chandrababu Naidu, the huge victory in Nandyal is no guarantee for a cakewalk in the assembly elections two years from now. Despite his hard work and a methodical approach to governance, Naidu has a remarkable talent for making enemies and keeping vast sections of people unhappy.

Naidu should know by now that there is no one-size-fits-all recipe to win an election in any region at any time. In politics, one plus one seldom equals two.

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Updated Date: Aug 31, 2017 11:16:50 IST

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