Politics of democracy, development and welfare
Andhra Pradesh is at a crossroads. A crisis situation has been brewing over the past year. With major political parties in disarray, the situation looks complicated, chaotic and adrift. Even as political players engage in a blame game, few are prepared to sit down and talk, far less have suggestions about how to tackle the crisis. Both the ruling Congress and the main opposition, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), are internally divided over the issue of a separate state of Telangana, and the party chiefs are in no position to rein in the warring factions.
The ruling Congress party has reverted to its traditional mode of political management – fuelling factional rivalries and making frequent leadership changes. Its leaders jockey for the position of chief minister, even as the very future of the state remains uncertain. The MP, Jaganmohan Reddy, has left the Congress because he was not designated as successor to his father for the top post. For the moment he seems to be popular, and the crowds he pulls to his public meetings have become a source of anxiety to other leaders.
The main opposition, the TDP, still to recover from its successive defeats in 2004 and 2009, is at a loose end, unable to fashion a comeback. Meanwhile, the leader of the third largest party in the state, the Praja Rajyam Party (PRP), who had ambitions of becoming chief minister, has suddenly decided to merge his party with its erstwhile chief antagonist, the ruling Congress, admitting that he has no hope of coming to power on his own.
The state has been rocked by large-scale scandals and political corruption, which reverberate in acrimonious debates in the legislature and outside. Even the politicians themselves openly talk about politics as a game in which the leaders ‘capture’ power by hook or crook for personal gain.
What is happening in Andhra Pradesh unfortunately does not seem atypical, with similar forms of politics being played out in other states as well. But the politics in Andhra Pradesh represents this phenomenon in a stark manner. So how do we make sense of the situation and the direction in which the state is heading and understand the options before the political leaders and the people?
The foremost crisis is the imbroglio over a possible bifurcation of the state. What we have in Andhra Pradesh is an extraordinary situation. Members of Parliament from the state, ministers in the state cabinet and members of the legislative assembly are vertically divided along sub-regional lines. While those from the Telangana region demand a separate state, those from the Andhra region are firm on continuing with the integrated state.
For the last 10 years the political, educational and professional elite of the Telangana region has been agitating for bifurcation. The main ground for the separatist demand is that the Telangana region has remained underdeveloped due to neglect suffered at the hands of the Andhra elite who, the agitators maintain, have dominated the politics, administration and the economy of the state. They argue that a separate state of Telangana reflects the democratic aspiration of the people of the region to live with self-respect and that only a separate state can ensure economic development and the creation of job opportunities for ‘sons of the soil’. The demand enjoys widespread support, especially from students, employees and lawyers of the Telangana region.
The statement of the Home Minister of India on 9 December 2009 that the process of creation of a separate state of Telangana has been initiated raised the hopes of the agitators. But faced with a threat of resignation from the MPs and MLAs of the other regions in protest against any such attempt, the Union government had to backtrack. The two other major parties of the state, TDP and PRP, have resiled from their earlier position that they would not oppose a Telangana state, accusing the Union Home Minister of having made a midnight announcement with the sinister motive of splitting the state. The Home Ministry then hastily appointed the Sri Krishna Committee to examine the situation in the state and hold consultations with different sections of the population.
After a year’s laborious effort and extensive consultations the committee tabled a report countering the argument of a development deficit in the Telangana region, the very ground on which the bifurcation demand was originally made. After listing several possible options, the committee recommended a united state as the best option for the development and welfare of people of all the regions. In order to address the core socio-economic concerns about the development of the Telangana region, it additionally recommended the creation of a statutory and empowered Telangana Regional Council with adequate funds, functions and functionaries. Expectedly, while the report was welcomed by leaders from the Andhra region, it was unacceptable to leaders of the Telangana movement.
A divided Congress party is thus unable to move a resolution in the state assembly favouring the creation of a separate state. Even were such a resolution to be moved, its success is doubtful as the major political parties are divided along sub-regional lines. The Majlis party, with a strong presence among Muslims in the capital city of Hyderabad, does not favour a separate Telengana and the ruling Congress does not want to rub it the wrong way on this issue. Given the divided opinion over bifurcation, the Congress high command is unable to take a firm position, fearing that a decision either way will invite a severe backlash and thus mar the party’s prospects in the next elections, if not immediately jeopardize the survival of the government.
Meanwhile, the state has seen far-reaching changes in the way politics is conducted, particularly after the TDP lost power to the Congress in 2004. The TDP originally came to power on the slogans of Telugu pride, democratization, welfare of the poor, and faster economic growth for the entire state and its success was attributed to the democratic and developmental aspirations of the people. It fought the 1994 election on the issue of development vs. welfare, when the then party chief, the late N.T. Rama Rao, said that development for the Congress meant the enrichment of a select few through market reforms, while development for the TDP meant the welfare of the poor.
After a decade in the opposition, the Congress under the leadership of YSR, went to the polls in 2004 on exactly the same plank. YSR accused the TDP of pandering to the interests of the neo-rich and the business classes, recklessly implementing liberalization policies as dictated by the World Bank, and being far too preoccupied with the development of the IT industry in and around Hyderabad at the cost of neglecting the travails of the people in rural areas, especially the farmers. Meanwhile, the TDP under Chandrababu Naidu said that a vote for the Congress would be a vote for degradation, as the Congress notion of welfare would only lead to arresting development. Clearly when a party is in opposition it becomes pro-welfare and when in power it champions development. The ruling party wants the people to judge it by its performance on development, while the opposition appeals for support on its promise of welfare.
The term development, prior to the onset of economic reform policies in 1991, implied economic growth with equity, and the terms development and welfare were seen as mutually complementary. From 1991 onwards, the terms were somehow presented as antithetical to each other, as if people must make a choice between the two. Development now means directing scarce resources into productive investment and giving a fillip to market forces, while welfare implies using resources to provide direct or indirect support to the poor and needy with a view to ameliorate their hardships. In the 2009 elections, the TDP leadership went a step further by promising a cash transfer scheme thereby turning a welfare discourse into a ‘donative’ discourse.
The Congress won a consecutive second term in 2009. For over a decade the Congress party had looked stable and solid under the leadership of Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR). He was perceived as a strong leader who would keep his word and come to the defence of loyal supporters, even if it meant stepping beyond the bounds of law and government. While loved by the people, he was feared by his political opponents, both within the party and outside. The full support he got from the high command, to whom the dissidents usually look for encouragement to unsettle a strong leader in the state, however, forced the different factions and claimants for the CM’s post to keep a low profile. Those who opposed him and the ruling party were threatened with dire consequences and/or subjected to intimidation, both financially and personally, even as incentives, by way of material rewards and plum government positions, were offered to those who were willing to shift from opposition to the ruling party.
During the YSR regime, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, which has been leading the movement for a separate Telangana, was vertically split with half of its members taking the side of the government. The TRS chief, K. Chandrasekhara Rao (KCR), said that dissidence in his party was the handiwork of the Congress leadership bent upon destroying it. Enveloped by fear and despair, some Telugu Desam leaders deserted the party, either preferring to go along with the ruling Congress party or the newly formed PRP.
The opposition parties accused the Congress government of looting public wealth in the name of development, by awarding substantial contracts to party supporters in irrigation works and in the process receiving substantial kickbacks. They also charged the government with granting favours to industrialists and businessmen in the form of licenses, Special Economic Zones, land grants, and mining permissions. The leader of the opposition, Chandrababu Naidu, alleged that YSR and his family had made more than Rs 1,00,000 crore from underhand dealings with business houses and contractors.
The raucous debates in the legislature, politicians’ tirades against each other, and reports of scandals in the media, convinced most people that what we have is crony capitalism and a caudillo-style leadership, operated in the name of democracy, development and welfare. Nevertheless, YSR remained a popular leader. Indeed, the media reported that hundreds of people died of heart attack or committed suicide after hearing about his death, the first of its kind for any politician in the state, perhaps in the country.
His tragic death in a helicopter crash in September 2009 brought the political turmoil in state politics out into the open. Even before his body was laid to rest, a signature campaign to make his son, Jaganmohan Reddy (Jagan), chief minister was launched. A list of 122 signatures (out of 150-odd strong Congress legislature party) supporting him to the post of CM was submitted to the Governor. Other aspirants to the post and the party high command did not take kindly to this ambition of dynastic succession. Some interpreted this move as a desperate but well orchestrated attempt of the coterie that formed around YSR to control the government for ulterior ends.
Since the high command saw Jagan as a newcomer to politics, incapable of handling a complex state like Andhra Pradesh, the choice fell on Konijeti Rosaiah, an old-fashioned politician from the Vaishya community with no factional support, but loyal to the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty. Many saw this as a stopgap arrangement, eventually paving the way for the takeover by Jagan, and MPs and MLAs loyal to YSR kept up their campaign for leadership change.
With core support and leadership coming from the Reddy community, which largely identified with YSR, and with entrenched interests under his regime wanting a dispensation favourable to them, Rosaiah found it difficult to manage the government. The struggle over the CM’s post continued during the entire 14 month tenure of Rosaiah as the CM. The confusion and internal factional warfare of the Congress provided the TRS an opportunity to recover and raise the pitch in favour of a separate state. With a view to stemming the disarray in the party, drift in government, and to handle the anti-Sonia campaign by Jagan, the high command made yet another change in the CM by appointing Kiran Kumar Reddy to the post in November 2010.
The aftermath of the demise of YSR reveals several important aspects of contemporary politics. First, the feature of dynastic succession. Strong political leaders, whether founders of a party or responsible for big electoral victories, see political power as personal property to be bequeathed to close relatives like a son or daughter, especially to a son where available. The management of a party these days involves huge amounts of money, and decision-making in government is so concentrated and personalized that the party chief typically promotes close family members to look after party finances and government matters.
The coterie around the party chief too play this game of siding with the heir apparent, not necessarily because they believe in his or her extraordinary abilities but to serve their own interests. Politics today is like films, professions and businesses, where the children are expected to take over regardless of their talent and experience. In due course they learn the tricks of the game and some even turn out to be successful. Since politics is looked upon as a lucrative profession, which, however, demands fewer entrepreneurial skills and involves less risk, politicians at all levels want their children to take up the mantle of political leadership, and ensure the survival of the family business.
Second, as power is centralized and personalized, regardless of the rhetoric of decentralization and democratization, the chief minister’s position is looked upon as the only one that matters at the state level. All critical decisions on awarding contracts and legal permits, granting licenses and favours to business persons, location of public institutions and facilities, distribution of government grants and benefits, appointment of top officials, etc. are done by the CM. Members of the council of ministers are reduced to a position of satellites to the CM. All that matters is who holds the CM’s post. The struggle for capturing the CM’s post not only explains the power struggle within the ruling party but also the formation of new parties and the making and unmaking of alliances and coalitions.
Third, it also shows the weakness of democratic institutions, both party and governmental. Parties are far too poorly institutionalized to negotiate the challenges of leadership renewal and succession. This is all the more true in parties run by founder leaders who see the party as their child, wish to exercise untrammelled authority, and want to pass on the leadership responsibility to their children. For instance, N.T. Rama Rao, the founder leader of the TDP, not only declared that there is no number two in his party, but that his son would succeed him. No real election takes place to choose the members of the highest decision-making bodies. The leaders around the chief are happy as long as he is capable of winning elections for them. As a result, a second level leadership neither emerges nor is allowed to grow so as to assume responsibilities. This situation prevails in most regional parties of the country.
A similar situation prevailed in the Congress at the time of the death of YSR, and his legacy still haunts the party. The Congress could survive only because it is a national party with provincial leaders present at the central level and factions within the party that were never completely stamped out.
The rise of the PRP and its recent merger with the Congress party reveals another interesting feature of state politics. The PRP was founded by the famous cine-star, Chiranjeevi, a few months before the 2009 election. Primarily, it reflected the aspiration of the elite among the Kapu community to see their man at the helm of the state government. The Kapus, in recent times, have nurtured a grievance that so far under the rule of the Congress and TDP only the other two communities, namely the Reddys and the Kammas, have exercised supreme political power even though the Kapus enjoy analogous social status and are numerically larger than either of these communities. They were resentful of the asymmetry between their rise in social and economic status and their role as junior partners in power. They saw in Chiranjeevi a leader who could transform their aspirations into reality and mobilize enough broad-based support to bring about such a change.
Chiranjeevi, on his part, had visions of re-enacting the feat achieved by N.T. Rama Rao who captured power within nine months of the formation of the TDP. He promised to herald in an era of social justice, improve living standards of the underprivileged and promote equity and equality of opportunity. He declared that the PRP was not just another political party chasing governmental power, but would endeavour to alleviate poverty, remove social ills and promote balanced economic growth.
The party’s manifesto stated that the people belonging to the SC, ST, BC, minorities, poor among the upper castes, and women who constitute the majority of the population, are subjected to discrimination and oppression are now demanding adequate participation and representation in all fields to correct this injustice. As caste-based parties elsewhere have been successful on the plank of social justice and mobilizing the OBC vote, it was believed that the PRP too would succeed with such a strategy. The huge crowds at PRP’s meetings were interpreted as a silent OBC revolution and an expression of the democratic upsurge of the common people in general.
But critics charged Chiranjeevi with turning the party into a family affair from the start, while most parties turn so only after coming to power. Some leaders left the party, accusing Chiranjeevi and his close supporters for selling party tickets to fill their coffers. In the 2009 election, though the PRP polled about 18 per cent of the popular vote, it secured only 18 seats in a house of 294.
The cruel aspect of India’s politics today is that politicians and party activists gather around a leader only if he is seen as capable of winning power, but desert him or her if there is no such hope. That’s what happened to the PRP and leaders began to leave the party once it became clear that the PRP would not come to power in the near future. Also, Chiranjeevi found it difficult to maintain a party since that requires huge amounts of money. Ultimately, he decided to merge the party with the Congress, which was weakened with the exit of Jagan and wanted to refurbish its strength by taking Chiranjeevi into the fold. That a leader could take such a quick decision to disband the party and merge it with another tells us a lot about the nature of politics in our times.
Decoding the rhetoric of democracy, development and welfare provides a key to the nature of contemporary politics. Leaders make public appeals for political and electoral support on the basis of their commitment to democracy, development and welfare. It seems that the more democracy is undermined, the more parties talk about democracy; the more development becomes a source of private gain, the more politicians talk about equity and balanced economic growth; and the more the people are marginalized and pushed into poverty the more the talk about welfare. Everybody seems to have been caught in a vicious circle.
Even politicians concerned about the dangers of crony capitalism claim that since running a party and contesting elections has become costly, they are forced to rely on moneybags, and give party tickets to those who have the capacity to spend huge amounts. Business people say that they have to cultivate close relationships with politicians and government officials in order to survive.
Perhaps this is the only way capital accumulation is possible in the early stages of capitalist development in a country in the age of global imperialism. Perhaps this is the only way parties and politicians can play the game of democracy in a country afflicted with poverty and illiteracy, where traditional values influence the political culture and where people are dependent on government for the fulfilment of their material needs. We need to recall the old doctrine: yatha raja tatha praja. We can now reverse the doctrine to say: yatha praja tatha raja. Probably both are true and reinforce each other.
As the two major parties in the state prevaricate on the issue of bifurcation and the Congress high command procrastinates, the prospects for the state look gloomy in the immediate future. It is a pity that even the top leadership of both parties approach a big issue like this merely on partisan considerations and electoral prospects. Neither the communist parties, whose strength has greatly depleted over the years, nor the Lok Satta Party leader, Jayaprakash Narain, whose electoral support base is small, are in a position to bring any sanity to the political situation.
It seems that all parties in the state have been reduced to a position of significant minorities. There is neither a general will, nor even a majority will, that can form the basis for taking a political decision that is binding on all. Some want the Congress high command to take a clear decision either in favour of dividing the state or keeping it united, some see an imposition of President’s rule as a way out, and the group led by Jaganmohan Reddy wants the crisis to brew further, leading to a mid-term election in the near future.
But one thing is certain. Regardless of whether the state is bifurcated or not, whether this or that party or alliance of parties comes to power, those in government will find it extremely difficult in the coming times to deal with the mounting aspirations of the people for welfare benefits, increasing manipulation of businesses and pressure groups to maximize their interests and unbridled ambitions, and intrigues of political leaders at all levels to grab power and wealth for themselves and their families – all in the name of democracy and development.