With a beaming smile on his face, Srinivasa stepped out of his cowshed in Bondapalli village in the coastal district of Vizianagaram and rang the bell on his bicycle. He was responding to a question on who he would vote for in the upcoming Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in Andhra Pradesh.

The bicycle is the electoral symbol of the ruling Telugu Desam Party. “We need Chandrababu Naidu to protect Andhra Pradesh,” the 36-year-old farmer declared in the first week of April.

Simultaneous Assembly and Lok Sabha elections will be held in Andhra Pradesh on April 11.

In the last two years, the state’s coastal districts have witnessed a much better water situation than the drought-hit southern and central regions of the state.

Bondapalli is the ayacut area (the area served by a waterbody) of the Andra reservoir, which stores water from the river Champavathi. Even when the water levels in the reservoir drop precariously, groundwater – recharged by the reservoir’s stores – helps sustain a two-crop cycle in the region.

“The chief minister has provided every thing we need for farming here,” said Srinivasa.

There is easy access to agricultural credit, an efficient supply of inputs and a market cluster nearby to sell the produce – primarily paddy and vegetables.

His brother, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is a government school teacher, said given the precarious situation Andhra Pradesh is in after its bifurcation in 2014, it was important for Naidu to continue as chief minister as he would protect the state’s interests. “Narendra Modi will swallow Jaganmohan Reddy,” the teacher argued.

Reddy is the leader of the Opposition YSR Congress Party.

Asked if the economic situation was the only factor influencing their voting preference, the brothers pointed out that the region’s Velamas – a powerful backward class community that they belong to – have traditionally backed the Telugu Desam Party.

In the 2014 Assembly elections, north coastal Andhra Pradesh – of which Srikakulam, Vizianagaram and Visakhapatnam are a part – stood firmly behind Naidu, helping him overcome a stiff challenge from the YSR Congress.

Then, the Telugu Desam Party managed to pull ahead with a narrow voteshare lead of less than 1%. It bagged 25 of the 34 Assembly constituencies in Srikakulam, Vizianagaram and Visakhapatnam as well as all three Lok Sabha seats.

In the run up to the 2019 elections, the Telugu Desam Party campaign has focused on three factors on the ground. First, the numerous welfare schemes in the form of direct cash transfers that the Naidu government launched since 2014. Second, propaganda against the BJP-led Union government. Third, a concerted effort to paint rival Jaganmohan Reddy as inexperienced, corrupt and in a secret pact with the BJP.

The party has also taken extra care to ensure that the backward classes vote, of which it has traditionally benefited, does not split.

This story has been reported from three constituencies.

The Telugu Desam Party is, however, facing anti-incumbency. Charges of corruption and high-handedness against party functionaries are all pervasive as are allegations that Naidu was taking credit for schemes launched by the Centre. The Telugu Desam Party also faces a challenge in capturing the Kapu vote, which has been disrupted by the emergence of cinema star Pawan Kalyan and his party the Jana Sena. Kapus form a major vote base in several districts of Andhra Pradesh, particularly in the delta region of East and West Godavari.

Welfare schemes

In Mesalpetta in Saluru, which is part of Vizhianagaram Lok Sabha constituency, Ranganatha, a 55-year-old farmer, is full of pride at the solar panels he has to power the water pump for his paddy field. “We already get full day electricity,” he said. “Even then, Naidu has given us these solar sets.”

The solar panel scheme was launched by the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. The state government contributes 56% of the cost of the solar sets, according to the Andhra Pradesh government website. The farmer contributes about 10% and the rest comes from the Union government. The price of the sets differs according to the capacity of the pumps.

Ranganatha, who belongs to the Turpu Kapu community, a sub-caste of the Kapus but designated as Other Backward Classes, said he has also benefited from the housing scheme launched by the Telugu Desam Party. “The house was ready in just 18 months,” he said.

Given the benefits he has received from the state government, Ranganatha said there was no need for him to even think of an alternative in the upcoming elections. “All six votes in my family will go to the TDP [Telugu Desam Party],” he said, smiling.

The Andhra Pradesh NTR Housing Scheme is the flagship project of the Telugu Desam Party government. The scheme offers a housing subsidy to beneficiaries. The subsidy is shared by the state government and the Centre. The state share is pegged at Rs 1.5 lakh in rural areas and Rs 2.5 lakh in the cities. Naidu has promised to build 18 lakh of these houses in the coming years.

Varying in sizes, the largest of them – which people refer to as “rich bunglows” – has a carpet area of 750 sq ft, with three bedrooms and a living room.

S Simhachala, a farmer in Srikakulam, said though the cost estimate of Rs 6.5 lakh for the three-bedroom unit was an underestimation and the subsidy of Rs 2.5 lakh was meagre, the scheme helped fulfill a long time dream.

Credit: PTI

In Visakhapatnam city, S Anand Kumar, a real estate middleman, said following demonetisation in November 2016, the sector was devastated as nobody was willing to construct or buy houses. “Everything came to an abrupt halt,” he said, adding that this forced him to take loan on a parcel of land outside the city and start a small tiffin centre.

However, he said a decision Naidu had taken in March 2016 to provide free sand for construction in the state had helped revive the real estate sector. “So many middle class people stopped the construction abruptly,” he said. “The policy saved their money.”

The free sand policy was the result of large-scale complaints of bias and corruption in sand allotment in the state. Under this policy, the government only charged people for transportation, which worked out to about Rs 3,000 per load, said Kumar.

In Rajam, a town in Srikakulam district, 34-year-old Jaiprabha said self-help groups have received a big boost under the Naidu regime, with access to credit being made quicker and easier.

She was also enthused by the launch of the Pasupu-Kumkuma scheme in February, under which the state government has promised to provide Rs 10,000 to each member of self-help groups across the state. “Many in the region have already got the money,” she claimed, adding that this will have a silent impact – in favour of the Telugu Desam Party – among women voters.

What Naidu’s detractors say

While such policies have received a positive response, several voters who complained of corruption accused the Telugu Desam Party of taking credit for schemes launched by the Narendra Modi government.

In Karada village in Bobbili Assembly segment in Vizianagaram district, P Anand proudly showed off the new air compressor he had bought for his puncture repair shop in the centre of the village.

Anand said he applied for a loan under the Prime Minister Mudra Loan Yojana, the Union government’s flagship job creation programme, which was sanctioned within a month. He did not pay any commission to anyone and bought the air compressor within two days of the loan being sanctioned.

A paddy farm in Vizianagaram with solar-powered pumps. (Photo credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan).

However, he said Telugu Desam Party leaders who campaigned in the area included such loans under their achievements. He even confronted a group of Telugu Desam Party workers on the issue a week ago. “I know who gave me what,” he said.

In Gotlam village on the Visakhapatnam-Vizhianagaram border, Talapudi Venkanaidu has been unemployed since 2016. He was among almost 10,000 workers who were left in the lurch after several jute factories in the region suddenly shut down.

The jute industry was once the pride of coastal Andhra Pradesh. Venkanaidu claimed that the state government has done nothing to revive it. Adding to the woes of workers like him was the fact that several ferro alloy factories in the region were also shuttered.

“But look at the pamphlets the TDP [Telugu Desam Party] gives, it is as though this area is Singapore,” said Venkanaidu.

His friend, S Srinu, said the village will vote for the YSR Congress this time.

Asked about the Telugu Desam Party’s accusation that development in Andhra Pradesh had stalled as the Centre did not provide the state with special category status, Srinu said he agreed with the claim but did not think that the denial of special status was the only reason for the lack of development.

“Naidu should have never allowed the state bifurcation,” he said. “And now he has joined hands with the Congress.”

Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh under the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.

Special category demand

The voter preference in the three districts was clear from their response to the Telugu Desam Party’s campaign on special category status for the state.

Those who felt Naidu had a point support the ruling party, hoping that Naidu will force the next government at the Centre to heed the demand.

On the other hand, those who were unhappy with the state government’s performance over the last five years dismissed Naidu’s claims as grandstanding.

In Burujola in Srikakulam district, AR Subramanya, a farmer, said the BJP took the support of the people of Andhra Pradesh in 2014 but backstabbed them once it got a majority at the Centre.

Velamas in Bondapalli are gearing up to vote for the Telugu Desam Party. (Photo credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan).

He recalled that in 2014, while campaigning in the state, BJP leaders had specifically referred to the special category status issue, promising great prosperity for Andhra Pradesh if Narendra Modi was voted to power. “All those promises were fake,” he said.

Asked about the YSR Congress charge that Naidu took a U-turn after spending over three years in the BJP alliance, the farmer said this was the difference in experience between Naidu and Jaganmohan Reddy. “If he had snapped ties immediately, even the little Andhra got would have been denied,” he said.

A few kilometres away in Keesara, Dalit farm worker Champaka said she did not bother about the special category status. “We voted TDP [Telugu Desam Party],” she said. “Whose responsibility is it to help us?”

She added that the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, a Union government scheme, has been shoddy in the last two years. “We don’t get enough work and the payments are always delayed,” she said.

In Gajapathinagaram Assembly segment in Vizianagaram district, Abdul Hameed, a grocery shop owner, said if the Telugu Desam Party was so confident about its performance, it should not distribute cash for votes. “Both the TDP and the YSR Congress are giving money,” he alleged, adding that the price of a vote was now Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 depending on the caste and community background of the area.

Over the past week, election officials have seized at least Rs 7 crore in cash in the north coastal region.

Local residents said cash was being distributed by both parties after sunset.

Election officials checking vehicles in north Andhra Pradesh. Cash for votes is rampant in these areas, voters allege. (Photo credit: Sruthisagar Yamunan).

An election official manning a check post near Bobbili town said Rs 5.10 crore was confiscated from a Andhra Pradesh Road Transport Corporation bus. The cash was found stuffed in gunny bags beneath a layer of vegetables.

The Income Tax department has also conducted raids on Telugu Desam Party candidates, forcing Naidu to sit in protest in Vijayawada on April 5, accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of vendetta politics.

Balancing act

With the YSR Congress hoping to sweep the Rayalaseema region in southern Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu Desam Party is banking heavily on north coastal Andhra to repeat its 2014 performance.

With a sizeable backward classes and Dalit vote, the ruling party is hoping that there will be a counter-mobilisation of these communities against the Kapus and other forward castes, who are being wooed by the Jana Sena and YSR Congress. Kalyan is contesting from Gajuwaka in Visakhapatnam.

The election is also test of Naidu’s strategies in the last 18 months, when he snapped ties with the BJP in March 2018 and embarked on a propaganda blitz against the Centre for denying Andhra Pradesh special category status.

Party leaders believe that the chief minister’s biggest strength is the number of direct benefit schemes he has launched in the last five years. These schemes have put money directly in the hands of the people. Naidu has promised to augment these schemes and provide new ones. The party manifesto released on Saturday promised cash transfers of Rs 2 lakh to poor families.

Also read:

The Kapu vote: Why Pawan Kalyan’s rise is a big challenge for Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh

How Jagan Reddy walked 3,000 km to build a robust campaign against Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra