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|February 16, 1998|
In volatile Rayalaseema, it's only a war of words as yet
J Sesha Sai in Cuddapah and Kurnool
The manly roar of the bus powered his Formula One dreams. But fate left him in the clutches of a bus steering wheel. And the driver emptied his fury on the gas pedal.
Past midnight. Somewhere between Tirupati and Cuddapah. The bus zigzagged at breakneck speed as endless potholes added cacophony to the bus's engine throb. The passengers were taking off in their sleep, and landing wide awake!
Fear sealed one's lips, and a few more grumbles were bottled lest petrol bombs come flying. Such is Rayalseema's reputation.
"Cuddapah, Cuddapah," the conductor screamed, bundling one out on a desolate street at 0300 hours.
The streets were empty. A lone rickshaw-puller rolled himself into an umbilical posture to turn his vehicle's seat into a bed. The silence of his sleep makes one's heart shudder louder. He wakes up with a jolt, and pedals into the killing fields of fear rather dauntlessly.
No sign of gun-toting men with swirling moustaches, bomb-wielding hoodlums with blood-stained lungis and sickle-grinding sidekicks. Has Cuddapah's blood-stained history taken a non-violent turn? Have the faction kings taken a holiday -- how could they afford it just two days before an explosive election?
"The faction leaders hurl vankayalu (brinjals; but figuratively bombs) at each other, killing innocent people," says G Mallesh, the hotel attendant. "I keeping telling my friends that only they would have to pay the price -- more often with their lives -- for the faction leader's ambitions. They fail to understand."
Echoing similar views, shopkeeper and Bharatiya Janata Party sympathiser Surender Rao blasts the Congress and Telugu Desam Party for spreading the 'bomb culture' in the region. Terror stalks Rayalaseema, especially the Cuddapah and Kurnool districts, as even 'imaginary conspiracies' land one in trouble.
The TDP nominee from Nandyal -- then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao was elected from the constituency in 1991 and 1996 -- B V Nagi Reddy's nephew was doing his MBA in Cuddapah. His desperation to head the college student union saw him dragging a bright student into the electoral arena. The latter refused to give in, and Reddy's nephew was seething with rage. Then came the college management's decision not to hold the election.
Blaming the innocent for the development, the budding Reddy leader threatened to finish off his mate. "How dare he defy me?" the student leader seems to have said, grinding his teeth.
Dump such fragile egos into poverty and idleness -- the region is backward and it has less than half a dozen major industries including three major cement units despite its vast mineral resources like barytes and lime -- and one has a Molotov cocktail.
"The people are nice, but seem to be rather irritable," said a former Cuddapah superintendent of police. "What else can you expect when the scorching sun -- it touches 45 Centigrade in the summer -- blasts their scalp, and their dietary habits -- the poor basically survive on porridge laced with red hot chilly powder -- sets their stomachs on fire?"
"But, strangely, bombs are rarely used to kill people," said TDP leader G V Raghava Reddy. "More often -- with exceptions like the murder of 'Bombula' P Siva Reddy in Hyderabad in 1995 during a marriage party -- bombs are used to shock the enemy. They then pounce on him with sickles and swords... Only this gives them the kicks."
A constable agreed. "In some cases, they even sever the victim's head. And take away his blood as a memento."
Elections turn Cuddapah and Kurnool into war zonez, with several companies of central police forces rushing in. Levelling serious allegations against sitting Congress MP Dr Y S Rajasekhar Reddy, his rival and TDP nominee Kandula Rajmohan Reddy says the 'Tiger of Cuddapah' will find it impossible to rig the election this time.
Dismissing the allegation as propaganda Dr Reddy accuses the TDP of roping in favourable policemen to resort to poll malpractices. He has filed a writ against a senior police officer who has been posted in the area on election duty.
Will the war of words trigger another round of bomb attacks during the election? "Almost impossible!" says Deputy Superintendent of Police D Srinivas.
"The guns are missing. The bomb makers have been on the run. And 'faction soldiers' have realised that the wars do little good." Deserving credit for the positive trend is a 32-year old Indian Police Service officer who had given the criminals a taste of their own medicine. "Cuddapah has not seen an officer like Umesh Chandra (who worked as SP between 1995 and 1997) since Independence," says Hyderabad's Assistant Commissioner of Police P Promod Kumar who was Chandra's deputy during the period.
Panic spread among as Chandra systematically rounded up criminals, swooped down on bomb-making units and seized arms and ammunition.
Human rights activists may be up in the arms against his techniques, but Cuddapah hails him as a ferocious cop who forced the faction leaders to turn tail. Statistics add strength to the praise.
Besides, during 1994, four people were killed in bomb attacks including one during the state assembly election. Poll clashes were also reported.
More than the statistics, there seems to be a perceptible change in the people's outlook. The earlier fatalistic approach -- no one dared the faction leaders -- has yielded place to a new optimism.
Agreeing that the situation has improved, TDP candidate Rajmohan Reddy, however, told Rediff On The NeT, "Things are far from normal. Even this election could be rigged."
Asked about the measures the TDP has been taking to stop electoral malpractices, former state health minister S Ramamuni Reddy says, "We lost the 1996 Lok Sabha election due to rigging by our opponent. This won't happen again. We have taken appropriate measures."
Asked if this meant strengthening their factions, the TDP's Raghava Reddy says, "We are not like the Mahatma to offer the other cheek when slapped. We know how to tackle the situation."
As the factional wars continue, Cuddapah and Rayalaseema -- comprising Ananthapur, Chittoor, Cuddapah and Kurnool -- lags behind in development. "There is hardly anything in the region except the Lord Venkateswara temple in Tirumala in Chittoor district. And Satya Sai Baba's Puttaparthi in Ananthapur district," seems to be the criticism.
Agreed that the region is perennially hit by drought. But nature has not been so harsh to merit such harsh criticism. Such are the vast natural resources of the region that no Indian house is complete without the famous Cuddapah stone. Cement plants thrive on the region's lime inputs. But politicians have not been as good to the region which boasts of two chief ministers -- later President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy and Kotla Vijayabhaskara Reddy -- and one prime minister -- P V Narasimha Rao.
Factional clashes suffocated the industrial climate, and TDP MLA G Veerasiva Reddy, for instance, has been charged with attacking a Cement Corporation of India employee.
Ironically, Veerasiva Reddy, who is close to Dr Rajasekhar Reddy, has been suspended from the TDP for backing the Congress candidate in the election.
Even Congressmen, including Dr Reddy, face the same charge. "What can I do if my opponents go berserk because the Congress has given me a raw deal?" the Cuddapah 'Tiger' says.
"Rajmohan Reddy has vowed to teach YSR -- as Dr Reddy is also known -- a lesson after he betrayed the TDP candidate's brother K Sivananda Reddy (sons of the late MP Kandula Obul Reddy) in the assembly election," confides a top TDP leader. "YSR had allegedly supported the TDP to defeat the Congress nominee from Pulivenla, Sivananda Reddy, despite assuring him full support. YSR thrives on such politics. He has always been a dissident, no matter who the chief minister is."
Dr Reddy denies the allegation even as recent developments have strengthened his hands. Besides striking a rapprochement with Vijayabhaskara Reddy, the lone Congress Working Committee member from AP, he has wooed former state minister and faction leader M V Mysoora Reddy into his fold.
The region's leaders have sunk their differences, and pledged to fight the TDP unitedly. But the going may not be easy for Dr Rajasekhar Reddy and Vijaybhaskar Reddy who is contesting from Kurnool -- the home town of G Pulla Reddy whose ghee sweets are most sought-after in Telugu homes the world over.
Considered the toughest political battle in his long career, the election has seen Vijayabhaskara Reddy pursue a rigorous 17-hour campaign schedule since late December. Facing the 78-year-old Congressman is his old rival K E Krishnamurthy who had returned to Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu's fold after a brief stint in the Congress. It might be difficult for KEK, as he is popularly called, to repeat his Telugu Desam colleague E Ayyapu Reddy's feat -- he defeated Kotla in 1984 -- but he is leaving no stone unturned. Kotla has won the seat five times, losing only the 1984 election.
"The old man may sail through unless the TDP resorts to rigging," says Rashid, quashing rumours that the local Muslims, numbering nearly 200,000, may vote against Kotla following the Babri Masjid demolition row. But a Waqf Committee staffer differed with this perception. "Older Muslims will not vote for the Congress while the younger lot is still divided. Only God knows who will get the votes."
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