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February 17, 1998


Campaign Trail/J Sesha Sai

Voters play hide-and-seek in Tenali

A roaring hit in the mid-'70s, featuring 'Urvashi' Sarada, sums up her present political predicament rather aptly.

Titled Sarada, the film revolves around an innocent woman who is kept in the dark about her husband's death (played by Shoban Babu who paired with Sarada to gave the Telugu film world several hits in the 1970s). The whole village knows about the tragedy, but no one dares inform her.

Tadiparai Sarda seems to be in a similar situation now, contesting the Tenali seat for the second time -- she won the 1996 election on a Telugu Desam Party ticket.

The whole constituency knows who they are going to vote for, but very few are willing to talk. And, if they do, they vent their spleen on the selfish politics and politicians crippling the nation. "People are disgusted with all the parties," said farmer P Bose who voted in the eleventh hour, abandoning his initial plan of a poll boycott. "Let one party come forward and announce publicly that they are not corrupt, that they have not taken any decisions which go against the people's will."

Others are not as vocal. In fact, they seem to be playing their cards rather close to the chest, making quick electoral assessment virtually impossible.

Their indifferent views are rather shocking, considering that Tenali has been madly in love with dramatics and the theatre world. Instead of lacing their reactions with that 'extra drama' that would have gone rather well with the place's hoary theatre tradition, the people seem to mumble out 'no idea', 'can't say', 'very difficult to assess'.

Sthnanam Narasimha Rao -- the legendary actor who used to play female roles so well that men would constantly chase him -- must be turning in his grave. Like Sthnanam, several stars including Jamuna, G Krishna and Sarada and character actors Gummadi Venkateshwar Rao and Jaggiah hail from the area.

The town, with a population of about 150,000, still boasts of nearly a dozen theatre companies which draw decent crowds.

But seeing the present state of politics, even Sthnanam may not grumble. After the death of several good leaders in the 1960s and the 1970s, Tenali seems to be experiencing a drought of stalwarts. One name would perhaps sum up the area's agony best -- Nadendla Bhaskara Rao who had betrayed then chief minister Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao in August 1984. Bhaskara Rao is contesting the Lok Sabha election from Khammam on a Congress ticket.

"Nobody knows Congress nominee and former Union minister P Shiv Sankar," said government employee R Govardhan Reddy. "The glamour factor is not as strong as in the last election as far as Sarada is concerned. In the case of the BJP, the symbol is attractive, but the candidate is unknown."

But rickshaw-puller Malli gave a different picture. "Sarada has done a lot of work for us. She had provided our colony with drinking water and power. We voted for the TDP because of her, not because of Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu. What does he know about administration?"

Asked to comment on the criticism that she has been spending all her time in Madras, Delhi and Hyderabad, giving little time for the constituency, Sarada laughed, "I do not know who is spreading such lies. I have sacrificed all my comforts to live here (in her brother's rather modest house in Tenali), and have done a lot of things -- improved the railway station, ensured that some express trains would stop here..."

Claiming that women have voted en masse for her, Sarada said the fair sex flooded the polling booths on Monday morning. Officials at several booths, however, said that men outnumbered women voters in the morning.

Asked if she would give up her acting career if she was re-elected, she told Rediff On The NeT, "I am not a Mahatma. But I will devote more time for the constituency."

Her rival Shiv Shankar's son P Sudhir Kumar was equally optimistic about the Congress chances. Dismissing the charge that they are outsiders, the former MLA said, "So is Sarada who has lived all her life in Madras. At least we have lived in the state."

Shiv Sankar is banking on Sonia's charisma and his Kapu community. And Sarada on the chief minister's 'good work' and her dominant Padmashali caste (weavers).

Tenali, which went to the polls on Monday, has already sealed its fate in the ballot box. Sarada is perhaps praying that Sonia shouldn't create another broken heart' climax, as the '70s film!

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