Jaganmohan Reddy on way to do a YSR with 3,000-km padayatra, but is it enough to pip Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh?
Jagan is hoping the anti-incumbency against the TDP rule, anger against many unkept promises, inability to get special category status for Andhra Pradesh, allegations of corruption would come home to roost Chandrababu Naidu.
Step into north coastal Andhra and the question you are likely to hear the most is whether Jagan@3000 will walk into the Andhra Pradesh chief minister's office after the Assembly elections in the summer of 2019. The reference is to YS Jaganmohan Reddy completing 3,000 km during his outreach programme, the Praja Sankalpa Yatra in Vizianagaram district.
Jagan started walking from Kadapa district on 6 November 2017 and by the time he ends the padayatra exactly a year later on 5 November at Ichchapuram in Srikakulam district, he would have clocked another 250 km. Ichchapuram is where his father, the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy had completed his 1,475 km long padayatra in 2003.
In terms of carbon footprint, Jagan's walkathon is impressive. His PR machinery informs you that over the last 270 days, he has touched 116 of the 175 Assembly constituencies in Andhra Pradesh. He has walked through 1,650 villages and by the time he stops walking, Jagan would have interacted with two crore people, close to 40 percent of the total population of the state.
The optics along the route have added meat to the Raavali Jagan, Kaavali Jagan (Jagan should come, we want Jagan) narrative being stitched by the YSR Congress. The crowds have shown an inclination to see Jagan in flesh and blood and that would enthuse the party. The question, however, remains how much of the crowd is mobilised and how much is spontaneous local enthusiasm. Both the Telugu Desam and police intel sources claim much of it is hired crowd. But privately even they admit the response in both the Godavari districts and Visakhapatnam, would worry Chandrababu Naidu.
But then crowds are never an accurate barometer of how a political party is likely to fare. In the 2009 elections, popular Telugu actor Junior NTR, the grandson of the legendary NT Rama Rao, campaigned for the TDP, attracting huge crowds. Even while the TDP exulted expecting a sweep in the constituencies Junior NTR toured, YSR dismissed the crowds as a mere curiosity to see the star up close. He proved right as the Congress managed to defeat the TDP in the elections. The crowds had not translated into votes. A decade later, that would be Jagan's dilemma as well.
In 2014, the people of Andhra Pradesh fresh from the wounds of bifurcation chose to invest in Naidu, banking on his experience as an administrator. Jagan now is hoping the anti-incumbency against the TDP rule, the anger against many of the unkept promises, inability to get special category status for Andhra, allegations of corruption would come home to roost for Naidu.
But the question is will that be enough? From Jagan's point of view, he has made several gains in the last eleven months that he has been on the road.
The purpose of his padayatra was to reinvigorate his cadre, stop the migration of his MLAs to the TDP and remove the perception that he is an arrogant, authoritarian and inaccessible leader. There was also an emphasis on following in his father's footsteps, literally, because Jagan knows there still exists in Andhra Pradesh a YSR vote bank.
"He can dip into the goodwill that exists for YSR, who was seen as a mass leader who understood the pulse of the people. Jagan's Telugu newspaper Sakshi may not have the circulation of an Eenadu but YSR's photograph daily on the masthead is a constant reminder. In many senses, YSR is like the MGR of Andhra, with similar appeal,'' says Prasanna Kumar, a Vizag-based political analyst.
What will work for Jagan is that with his padayatra, he has cultivated an image of a leader who is willing to suffer hardship to be close to the people. It helped that on Monday when he breasted the 3,000 km mark amid villagers in Desapatrunipalem in Vizianagaram, Naidu was in the US, at a United Nations event. Jagan wants to reinforce the contrast -- look like a sun-tanned people's person versus the CEO of AP Inc. It worked in 2004 for YSR and Jagan is simply borrowing the template.
What has helped Jagan is that Naidu has focused his energies on battling the BJP ever since he withdrew support to the NDA in March, allowing him to indulge in people-connect without the TDP breathing down his neck.
Jagan set a deadline for making YSRC MPs resign over the denial of special status and competitive politics made Naidu quit the NDA sooner than he planned to.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was right when he told Naidu that he had walked into the YSRC trap.
With the Congress down and out, both TDP and YSRC are wary of how much of a dent Pawan Kalyan will make. The actor-turned-politician has focused on the Kapu vote (15 percent of the population) and the youth. The Kapu community went with the TDP-BJP-Jana Sena combine in 2014, benefiting Naidu. The loss of these votes will leave a gaping hole in the TDP kitty. The assessment on the ground is that the youth who may have otherwise voted for Jagan, may get attracted to Pawan's charisma, hurting YSRC in the bargain. In 2014, Jagan polled 44.4 percent of the vote as against Naidu's front that got 46.3 percent.
With elections due in April, Jagan has six months after his padayatra to plan his strategy and execute them on the ground. His detractors believe he has peaked too early. But the real work is on working on the gains made during the people contact by ensuring that his booth committees reinforce the connect which will make all the difference between Jagan staying as Leader of Opposition and graduating to the chief minister's post.
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