Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu is being criticised for being intolerant of dissent after his Telegu Desam Party government in Andhra Pradesh foiled a candlelight protest that was to be held on Republic Day to demand special category status for the state.

The silent demonstration, to be held at Visakhapatnam’s Ramakrishna Beach with the support of Opposition leaders, was inspired by the week-long protests at Chennai’s Marina Beach earlier this month to oppose a Supreme Court ban on the bull-taming sport of jallikattu.

However, the police imposed section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure in Visakhapatnam, which bans the assembly of five or more people in an area. YSR Congress leader Jaganmohan Reddy was detained at the airport runway as soon as he reached the coastal city on January 26 and thousands of youngsters, who tried to enter the beach, were bundled into waiting police vans.

The government used force perhaps because it did not want to scare investors away from the Confederation of Indian Industries-Sunrise Andhra Pradesh partnership summit being held in Visakhapatnam the next day, to pitch the state as an investment destination.

Curfew-like conditions prevailed in and around 10 km of the beach in Visakhapatnam on January 26 as security forces fanned out to prevent protestors from entering the beach road to participate in the proposed silent protest. All roads leading to the Ramakrishna Beach were blocked, 24 hours ahead of the investor summit and even morning joggers were kept out of the beach.

A peaceful march scheduled by Mudragada Padmanabham, a leader of the agrarian Kapu caste, at Ravulapalem about 220 km away was also stalled by the police. Padmanabham and his supporters were kept under house arrest.

“Chandrababu Naidu’s action has exposed that his political ambitions are larger than the declared intentions of development of Andhra Pradesh,” wrote political columnist T Ravi on January 29 in a column in the Andhra Jyoti newspaper. “Both Narendra Modi and Naidu have reneged on their promise of Special Status to Andhra Pradesh.”

Inviting further criticism for the Telegu Desam Party, Union Minister of State and party leader Sujana Chowdhary shunned the planned protests saying that if the protesters were really fond of jallikattu, they were “free to take part in cock fights” and “pig fight competitions.” He went on to challenge support for the special category status, a highly emotive issue in the state. He later apologised for the comment.

Special status demand

The Centre awards special category status to states based on certain criteria, including economic or geographical disadvantage. With this, states get financial assistance, grants and tax rebates from the Centre. Andhra Pradesh has been demanding special status on grounds that the state’s bifurcation in 2014, to carve out Telangana, crippled it financially, especially because it lost its capital city of Hyderabad to the newly created state.

In the run-up to the general elections that year, the United Progressive Alliance government had promised that residual Andhra Pradesh would be granted special status for a few years. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party brought this up in their pre-poll pitch.

However, the BJP instead announced a “special package” for financial assistance to the state for five years. While the Telegu Desam Party, which is part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the Centre, accepted this, Opposition leaders said they would settle for nothing short of a special status.

When the financial package was announced last year, time, actor-turned-politician and Jana Sena founder Pawan Kalyan had likened the offer to giving “two stale laddoos” to the state. On January 27, he stepped up his attack on the Telegu Desam Party and the BJP, also lashing out at Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu for changing his stance on the special status issue as he had spoken in favour of it in 2014, as an opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha.

Kalyan’s attack on the Telegu Desam Party and the BJP is siginificant as his Jana Sena had supported and campaigned for them in the state during the 2014 Assembly elections. This has given Opposition leaders more grist for their mill. “When we spoke about Naidu’s political intolerance and undemocratic acts, no one paid heed. YSR Congress leader C Ramachandraiah to “At least now let the people of AP realise what kind of demon they have patronised.”

From master of protests to turn coat

During his stint as opposition leader between 2004 and 2014 in undivided Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu had led several protests and demonstrations against the then YS Rajashekhar Reddy-led Congress government. In 2007, the Telegu Desam Party chief participated in a night-long sit-in the Assembly with 32 MLAs, demanding increase in the Minimum Support Price for paddy.

He also staged a 11-day hunger strike at the MLAs’ Hostel in 2010, demanding more funds for scheduled castes and had to end the fast after he was forcibly hospitalised. And in 2013, he led an indefinite fast him in Delhi to protest the planned the bifurcation of the state. “Congress is playing dirty politics over Telangana and doing things against the spirit of the Constitution,” he had declared then.

Former Telegu Desam Party leaders claimed Chandrababu Naidu had a dictatorial attitude and said his party too did not function democratically. “Naidu always preached righteousness and principles, but barely practiced them,” said Dadi Veerabhadra Rao, a senior leader from Visakhapatnam who quit the party in 2013.

Former party leaders point to the aftermath of the internal coup that Chandrababu Naidu staged against his father-in-law and then Telegu Desam Party chief, NT Rama Rao, as the best example of this. In 1995, Chandrababu Naidu had revolted against NTR, as the then party chief was known. The next year, NTR died of a heart attack and his family blamed Naidu for the death. “Naidu refused to give an MLA seat or even MLC ticket to Harikrishna [NTR’s son] after this,” said S Ramachandra Reddy, a former Telegu Desam Party leader of Hindupur.

Asked to comment on Naidu’s perceived intolerance, Nageswar Rao, a senior political analyst who covered the the chief minister’s party for popular Telugu daily Vartha, said the leader is cannot take criticism from the party and also by media. “The present scenario wherein none of the loyal party leaders or veteran scribes are allowed access to him shows that Naidu’s policy was ‘use and throw’,” he said.