There is probably no chief minister in India who is sweating it out as much as Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh in the current election season. And Naidu has two elections to win: one to the state Assembly and the other to the state’s 25 Lok Sabha seats. He badly wants to return as the chief minister and also equally badly wants to stop Narendra Modi from returning as prime minister.
Eating, breathing and sleeping elections for almost a year now, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader had been one of the first to jump into election mode. Cornered by main rival Jaganmohan Reddy of YSR Congress Party and ally-turned-enemy BJP and others, and wary of possible anti-incumbency, Naidu is working harder as elections near.
“We have studied hard for five years and now we must write the exam well,” he recently said. That’s what a good student must do. But like a bad student, Naidu is also mugging portions of syllabus before the exam.
Despite some good work after he took over as the chief minister for the third time in 2014 and unwilling to take chances, he is wooing sections of voters by lavishing on them populist schemes of imaginable kinds.
In what amounts to an Indian lollypop version of “microtargeting politics” that American political consultant Alexander Gage once talked about, Naidu is aiming to attract clusters of voters with surgical precision. Sample these:
— Payment of Rs 2,500 cash per acre per farmer on the lines of Telangana’s now-famous Rythu Bandhu scheme;
— Five percent reservation for Kapus (out of the 10 percent that the Narendra Modi government has given to the upper caste poor);
— Raising the number of welfare corporations for backward classes to 22;
— Hiking aid for foreign education for backward class students from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 15 lakh;
— Free electricity for some backward classes;
— Doubling old age pension from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 per month;
— Distribution of sanitary napkins to girl students of classes 8, 9 and 10;
— Gifting Rs 10,000 cash and smartphones to nearly a crore women, who are part of the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA) programme;
— Setting up more “Anna canteens” to dish out subsidised food;
— Unemployment dole of Rs 1,000 per month (which may be increased).
This is just an indicative but not exhaustive list of the sops that Naidu is pampering voters with. There is promise of more to come. And he is not extending assurances that he would make good if voted back to power. He is announcing schemes and executing them before the election.
And in Naidu’s case, the link between dangling carrots and asking for votes is not even camouflaged in some highfalutin ideological shibboleths. Some benefits will, in fact, be distributed to voters by his TDP functionaries. Some will be implemented as close to election days as possible, to ensure that voters’ memories of Naidu’s large-heartedness don’t fade when they go to EVMs. The last of the three installments of the Rs 10,000 he is giving to women, for instance, will come only in April.
Bad economics = good politics?
Naidu is taking competitive populism to a new high or low, depending on whether you side with the politically clever or the financially proper. Ask Naidu about Andhra Pradesh going broke with all this extravaganza. Naidu would ask you about the huge piles of money that the Centre had failed to deliver to the state.
But Naidu’s largesse is only in keeping with the national penchant in general and a southern perversion in particular. In the 2019 election run-up, nobody seems to be able to resist the temptation. After talking about Congress lollypops in derisive tones, Modi himself fell for voter appeasement with his worthless 10 percent quota for upper caste poor. Then, Rahul Gandhi dropped the Universal Basic Income promise, which is as ambiguous as himself.
With phony socialism and the fake slogan of garibi hatao, Indira Gandhi had once been the mother of populism. But Jayalalithaa later snatched the title from her, by introducing a dizzying range of vote-catching stratagems which she named after herself. But as in Bollywood, success breeds imitation even in politics. One ardent fan of Jayalalithaa was Siddaramaiah who, as the Karnataka chief minister (2013-18), reduced the entire process of governance to one long string of pork-barrel schemes.
But the goods train of goodies that Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao (or KCR) had on board many novel election winning ideas, especially in agriculture. And that’s what is giving Naidu plenty of food for thought.
Desperation and carrot-dangling
Desperation to win an election presents populism as a possible key to victory, as in the case of Modi, Rahul — and Naidu. In the case of the Andhra Pradesh chief minister, his political exasperation comes from an uncertain election in which he and Jagan (as Jaganmohan Reddy of the YSR Congress Party is known) seem to be evenly poised.
In terms of vote share, Jagan’s party came close to TDP in the 2014 election, though he lost. This time, he has the support of KCR from across the border in Telangana and its impact in Andhra Pradesh is anybody’s guess. Actor Pawan Kalyan, heading Jana Sena, threw his weight behind Naidu in the last election but has found the fence to be a convenient place to sit on right now.
Naidu’s 2014 partner, BJP, is of course now his bitter enemy. Backing an anti-BJP alliance that includes Congress, Naidu has become a chum of Rahul nationally. But TDP and Congress have decided to fight elections in Andhra Pradesh separately after the disastrous performance of their united effort in the December Telangana Assembly election.
With uncertainty clouding his re-election, a nervous Naidu is doing something similar to what the wise man said about the apple and the doctor. Naidu thinks up one populist scheme a day to keep the defeat away. But trapping voters is never a one-way business. Not sure about his own fate, Naidu’s chief rival Jagan is expected to dangle his own carrots.
Author tweets @sprasadindia
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Updated Date: Jan 31, 2019 21:17:06 IST