Yatra, yatri and politics

Yatra, yatri and politics

Y S Jaganmohan Reddy’s formal announcement that he would commence his walkathon later this year has jazzed up the political landscape of Andhra Pradesh and has even exacerbated the belligerent political climate that prevails between the warring parties. 

Y S Jaganmohan Reddy’s formal announcement that he would commence his walkathon later this year has jazzed up the political landscape of Andhra Pradesh and has even exacerbated the belligerent political climate that prevails between the warring parties.

As the walkathon proceeds, this environment would further heat up, offering screaming headlines for news-hungry media and television channels, with much-needed soundbites that often dictate ratings. But, the crucial question that remains is how far such padayatras would alter the political situation.

Decades ago, I had put the same question to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It was the time when Chandra Shekhar was on a nation-wide padayatra. The ever-articulating Vajpayee simply replied: “It’s good for health.”

Notwithstanding this satirical comment, political padayatras certainly help in refurbishing the mass contact even in the digital age. Besides, this activity offers the party and the leader an opportunity to galvanise party organisation, articulate the concerns of the people and unleash a blistering attack on the ruling party and the government. In a media-rich political environment, walkathons certainly give huge publicity.

But, padayatras normally show a significant political impact under two conditions: When there is a strong anti-incumbency wave against the government, the padayatras can help in consolidating this antagonism towards the ruling party into a positive vote for the political yatri; and, secondly, when there is an issue on which discontent is simmering, such yatras help in converting stream of discontent into political headwinds for the ruling dispensation.

Therefore, padayatras should be preceded by a concrete political and organisational action to fulfil the aforementioned conditions to fructify the objectives of the yatra. But, the YSR Congress is seriously found wanting on this. Instead, Jaganmohan Reddy resorted to a politically shortsighted move of introducing the political strategist, Prashant Kishor.

Strategist is not a party insider. Openly identifying with party would only mar access to independent opinion vital for formulating strategies. He presented the padayatra as a political strategy to come to power sans any political maturity. Besides, presenting the personal dream of coming to power as a panacea for all the problems of people may also boomerang.

Regarding the first condition to be an ideal setting for padayatra, there is no sweeping discontent over the policies of Chandrababu Naidu government. In fact, there is a sporadic discontent that too among certain sections. But, such discontent over policies does not automatically and spontaneously convert into political discontent.

Quite often the ruling parties could tide over such sporadic discontent over policies through dexterous political management or election eve actions and promises. There is still ample time for the ruling party to effect such a course correction. The ambitious padayatra by the opposition leader can provide the warning signals of an impending crisis for the ruling party. If the ruling party is intelligent enough to nullify this discontent taking cue from the warning signals, it could prove to be a threat converted into an opportunity for it.

The better course for the opposition leader would have been a concerted public action on the issues that caused disgruntlement among people and then proceed on a padayatra to give that dissatisfaction a political expression.

But, the YSR Congress has neither initiated any serious people’s action nor has any moral high ground to articulate on such issues. For instance, there are pockets of discontent over the government’s policies of massive land acquisition.

The major opposition party was seriously lacking in any honest mobilisation on such issues except few headline-chasing visits to hot spots of trouble. Such political pilgrimages hardly help in sustaining a strong resentment that could have a political expression. In fact, such unilateral and indiscriminate land acquisition was the policy legacy of late Y S Rajasekhara Reddy whose rule Jaganmohan Reddy promises to emulate.

Jaganmohan Reddy hopes to create a political climate for his padayatra by making fancy promises like phased prohibition and doubling pensions etc. But, such promises are repeatedly and forcefully linked with his buzz word of coming to power in two years. Whether this strategy creates a confidence in people or turns out into a political spoiler is something to speculate at this point of time. In 2009, Chandrababu Naidu’s much publicised cash transfer scheme failed to convince the electorate.

Caste as a political calculus is an instrumentality in electoral management. Kapu community has emerged as next highest contender for political power in juxtaposition to the Kammas in Andhra Pradesh. This author in his article, “Chandrababu Naidu’s Comeback,” in Economic and Political Weekly (July 12, 2014) analysed: “…he also engineered a successful social coalition.

He tried to rally behind all those social formations which were unconnected with the YSRCP. The Kapus account for a sizeable segment in many constituencies of this region. Chandrababu Naidu attracted Kapu leaders influential at the constituency, district and state level into the party fold by assuring party tickets. Some of them were given tickets as a group, also creating an impression of Kapu exodus into TDP.

The Kapus along with other backward classes were promised a deputy chief minister’s post. Chandrababu Naidu sympathetically responded to the long pending demand of the Kapus for backward class reservation. The Pawan Kalyan support factor also contributed to the drift of Kapu voters towards the TDP-BJP combine. Thus, Kapus for the first time in three decades voted in such large numbers for the TDP. This is evident from the fact that TDP won overwhelmingly in the constituencies where Kapus are numerically strong.”

The Kapu cauldron simmers on as the TDP reneges on the promise of according reservations for Kapus owing to fear of OBC backlash. But, despite initial efforts to creep into the Kapu stir, the YSR Congress did precious little to ensure the caste consolidation in its favour. Perhaps, the party is under the illusion that Kapus disenchanted with TDP would automatically favour it.

Normally, the party should have a reason to win away Muslim vote from the TDP due to the latter’s alliance with BJP, especially at a time of Hindutva resurgence. But, the YSR Congress’s conspicuous understanding with BJP deprives it of any such opportunity.

In 2014, the sense of helplessness strongly instilled in the Seemandhra electorate over what they believed to be an arbitrary bifurcation also generated a feeling that the residual state of Andhra Pradesh desperately needed help from the central government. Jaganmohan Reddy failed to acknowledge this. Chandrababu Naidu demonstrated consummate political skills by arriving at an early understanding with the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Chandrababu Naidu continues to nurture this sentiment quite effectively and uses it to justify his presence in NDA though the latter denied special status to the beleaguered state.

The YSR Congress seems to be clueless on this. It failed to further nurture this sentiment and turn it into a tide against NDA in which TDP is a part. It’s sudden and strange relationship with NDA in the wake of Presidential elections disarms it further. Its campaign for special status thus lost the steam.

Jaganmohan Reddy is yet to properly locate himself in a national political context. Yet, the padayatra offers him an opportunity for political articulation. Such a walkathon needs skillful political engineering rather than organisational management.

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