The last time there was a nationwide interest in a bypoll in Nandyal, situated in the Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh, was in 1991, when PV Narasimha Rao was unexpectedly elevated from political retirement and obscurity to Prime Ministership, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, leading to suspension of general elections mid-way and resulting in a sympathy wave that put Congress within distance of forming a government.
When time came for Narasimha Rao to lookout for an entry into Parliament as incumbent prime minister, Congress MP Gangula Prathapa Reddy resigned from one of the safest Congress seats to pave the way for the unexpected, and first, accidental prime minister to take to electoral hustings and finishing the formalities.
Matinee-idol turned politician, the-then president of the Telugu Desam Party, N T Rama Rao, declared support for Rao, even campaigned for him, declaring that the Nandyal Parliamentary bypolls was a matter of pride for the Telugu people.
A nondescript BJP candidate and a handful independents were hardly able to put up any challenge to Rao, even as the people of Nandyal took pride in sending the first prime minister from South India to Parliament with record numbers. Rao won, polling over 6.26 lakh votes, nearly 90 per cent of votes polled.
A small anecdote obscured by time was how Congress workers, in the badlands of Rayalaseema region, comprising the four districts of Kurnool, Kadapa, Chittoor and Anantapur, whose factional violence was immortalized in celluloid by Ramgopal Verma's 'Rakta Charithra', whisked away several independents from outside the returning officer's cabin and threw bombs at the convoy of potential TDP nominee, Bhuma Venkata Nagi Reddy, before NTR decided to withdraw from the fray.
Over 26 Years Later
Many moons later, in an MLA by-election fought more fiercely than the recent Amit Shah-Ahmed Patel faceoff in the Rajya Sabha poll from Gujarat, chief minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu and his challenger, Y S Jaganmohan Reddy, who wants nothing less than the Chief Ministership of AP since his father died in a helicopter accident, are locked in a vituperative, combative, hostile, take-no-prisoners battle for one-upmanship less than two years before the next Assembly elections over a bypoll necessitated by the death of the same Bhuma Nagi Reddy who had wanted to challenge Narasimha Rao.
In a region where factions have a higher loyalty than caste, for the perpetually-at-war Reddy warlords have a use for political parties, but are hardly bound by them. In over a decade, Nandyal politics has been shaped by the rivalry between Nagi Reddy and Shilpa Mohan Reddy, factionist-kings who lord over the area. They interchange parties, only rivalry is permanent.
In 2014, Shilpa Mohan Reddy fought on a TDP ticket and lost. Bhuma Nagi Reddy, who won on the YSR Congress Party, defected to the ruling TDP as an MLA. His sudden death after a heart attack forced today's byelections, where Shilpa Mohan Reddy, now fighting for the YSRCP is taking on Bhuma Brahmananda Reddy, nephew of the deceased Bhuma Nagi Reddy.
The Nagi Reddy family has its bit of ill-fortune. Bhuma Nagi Reddy's wife, Shobha Nagi Reddy, died in a road accident before the 2014 elections after filing her nomination on an YSRCP ticket. Though she died before the elections in a road accident, it was not countermanded and she went on to win posthumously. In the subsequent bye-election, Bhuma Akhila Priya, her daughter of 26 years, won and is now the youngest minister in the Naidu Cabinet after defecting with her dad to TDP.
In a region where factions have a higher loyalty than caste, for the perpetually-at-war Reddy warlords have a use for political parties, but are hardly bound by them.
Several factors cancel out, making this single election a razor-edge thriller. Three factors favour the ruling party, say TDP leaders; traditionally ruling parties win bypolls, a sympathy factor for Bhuma's death at a relatively young age and success of schemes of Chandrababu Naidu, including farm loan waivers, monthly pensions for senior citizens and the quick completion of the Pattiseema project, which brings irrigation and drinking water to the parched Rayalaseema.
The YSRCP, still seething from a close defeat in 2014, has built a momentum and consolidated the anti-government mood through constant agitations and exposures, belying the claims of the Telugu Desam leaders.
At a state-level, farmers who have lost lands for the capital, which has not seen much progress barring a modest temporary government block in disappointing contrast to the grandiose projections made of a global city are angry. Corruption in most departments and wide-spread loot by mafias with impunity has taken away from the sheen of Naidu's claims of morality, consequently, the stigma attached to YS Jaganmohan Reddy's corruption has come down, they claim.
Corruption in most departments and wide-spread loot by mafias with impunity has taken away from the sheen of Naidu claims of morality....
The TDP encouraged defections from YSRCP, and awarding the turncoats with ministry positions has further damaged the Naidu government. Naidu had 102 MLAs in the 175 seat Assembly, and his ally, the BJP had four after 2014 elections, whereas YSRCP had 67 legislators. Within the first two years, 20 of them have defected to the TDP.
The inability to get the Special Category Status for AP from the Centre or a Railway Zone for Visakhapatnam has made Naidu look weak despite being an NDA ally. With YS Jaganmohan Reddy supporting NDA in the Presidential and Vice-Presidential elections, he has removed the 'Centre supports me' aura of Naidu largely.
While normally, a bypoll like this should have been only focussed on hyper-local issues, the prominence given to it by both parties have transformed it into a test of the mood of the people and every issue of State-level significance is also being brought to the fore.
The large-scale anger against the TDP government to fulfill promises at large has given YSRCP a huge boost, its party leaders say. Jaganmohan Reddy has succeeded in transforming the byolls into a referendum on the TDP government and a pointer to which way the 2019 elections will go.
With YS Jaganmohan Reddy supporting NDA in the Presidential and Vice-Presidential elections, he has removed the 'Centre supports me' aura of Naidu largely.
Abusive, Bitter, Corrupt
The high-octane campaign for the bypoll was abusive, personal, polemic, indecent, vituperative and bereft of any decorum, and brought directly head-on the two contenders for the crown – Chandrababu Naidu and Jaganmohan Reddy.
Naidu, a cool calculated politician, lost his temper many a time, including chiding a villager who raised questions at a public meeting, saying, "If you will not vote for me, don't take the pensions my government gives or use the roads I have built. Who are you? A mad man? A YSRCP supporter?"
Within no time, Jagan handed the perception battle back, by asking people to publicly shoot or hang the chief minister for his failures. "It would not be wrong if we hanged Naidu publicly," he said, repeatedly.
This has been going on every day during roadshows, rallies, media interview. Reddy said, "Even if Chandrababu Naidu is hanged, there is nothing wrong." A day earlier, he had hollered, "If Naidu is shot in the middle of the road for his misdeed, there is nothing wrong."
Naidu too lost composure on more than one occasion, belying his nervousness by repeatedly invoking on voters that they duty-bound to support TDP. "You take pensions I give you. You use roads built by us. You take rations, why should you not vote for us?"
Reddy said, "Even if Chandrababu Naidu is hanged, there is nothing wrong."
Estimates of a total spend of over Rs 300 crore for this by-election by both parties and candidates combined are by their very nature rumours, cannot be substantiated. But the scale of money indicates, this bypoll would surpasses reported expenses in recent by-polls in two constituencies in Karnataka.
Off the record, leaders rue having heightened the stakes so high. "The constituency lies in the heartland of YSRCP support. Nandyal was its seat, though the winning candidate defected to TDP. The anger against him for changing parties for power might nullify the sympathy factor. We should not have made it a big affair. With a strong Reddy hold and a majority of voters being Muslim, Christian and Dalits, the very social block of Jagan, a likely loss will be a big egg on our face," said a senior TDP leader currently campaigning in Nandyal.
The YSRCP, which hoped a win in the bypoll would help them wrestle the narrative, are a bit wary of a potential Naidu win, given the political push he has given, having positioned several cabinet ministers and MLAs to woo every segment of voter.
Estimates of a total spend of over Rs 300 crore for this by-election by both parties and candidates combined are by their very nature rumours, cannot be substantiated.
As voting dates get closer, trends both in political circles and betting syndicates show an edge to YSRCP, which will go in for a kill against the TDP. Jagan, set to start a padayatra like his father Dr Y S Rajasekhara Reddy did in to unseat Naidu in 2004, will use a victory as a conch cry for an all-out war.
Telugu Desam will be under intense pressure, with the Centre showing no inclination to increase the seats through delimitation or grant any of the major promises of the formation of Telangana.
The BJP, which has clearly no desire to allow the state to remain an "also-ran", will exploit a weaker Naidu and Jagan, perpetually vulnerable to corruption cases, to become stronger.
Cabinet expansion, arm-twisting Jagan with ED, IT and CBI cases, Central funds and a direct party reorganization after the exit of the most powerful leader, M Venkaiah Naidu, from party politics all give BJP a scope to strengthen itself at the cost of the two.
How much will the monkey benefit by refereeing the battle of the two cats will unfold from August 2 when the votes for the Nandyal Assembly bypoll are counted.
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