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September 14, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ J S Sai

Royalty, TDP lose sheen in Srikakulam and Vizianagaram

Countless impressive Hanuman temples dot the Vizianagaram landscape, but there is no trace of Goddess Lakshmi anywhere. Is she terribly disappointed with the district? How can that be possible when Andhra Pradesh Finance Minister P Ashok Gajapathi Raju represents Vizianagaram in the state assembly?

Time seems to have hardly left any imprint of development on the district. There are no roads, only long muddy stretches filled with dirty puddles of water. There is no drainage system, only stinking open-air drains. There are hardly any impressive structures, only crumbling edifices that cry for a coat of paint.

But for the impressive educational and music institutions left behind by its erstwhile ruler P Vijayarama Gajapathi Raju and singers Ghantasala Venkateswar Rao and P Suseela it gave birth to, the district has little to boast of.

Despite this, it is virtually impossible to hate Vizianagaram. In fact, one begins to love it, especially because of its people.

Known for their laid-back style that would give Hyderabad's nawabi culture a run for its money, the people are still loyal to the erstwhile ruling family. In an era when people do not hesitate to stab their best friend in the back for the most meaningless benefit, the district's loyalty to its erstwhile rulers is unparalleled.

Such were the favours doled out by P V G Raju (whose uncle P Vijayarama Gajapathi Raju, better known as Vizzy, once captained India) to his citizens. Acres and acres of land have been donated to his subjects, more than a dozen colleges have been gifted away to trusts and countless tenants still pay peanuts for sprawling commercial buildings controlled by the royal family.

"Such is the people's loyalty that even a dog will effortlessly win an election if Vizianagaram is told the pet belongs to the royal family," says Patri Ramakrishna, a retired lecturer at the Maharaja Autonomous College.

"The family has donated a lot of its property, unlike several other rulers who converted their palaces into five-star hotels," he says.

Despite such unflinching loyalty, Ashok has been facing criticism for ignoring the district.

"Compare Vizianagaram with Kuppam," says another retired lecturer. "What has Ashok done despite being the second in command in the Telugu Desam Party government? Despite being elected from the constituency for more than two decades (he won the seat in 1978 as a Janata Party nominee; he has been representing the constituency as a TDP legislator since 1983), what has he done for us? See this colony, there is not even a road."

A subtle wave of resentment is seen all over the district against the Rajus for being inaccessible and not pursuing any development plans for the district.

"People are obligated to the family, and they cannot raise their voice against Ashok," says P Venugopal, advocate, Vizianagaram. "They want service-oriented people who will at least hear their problems if not do anything. But he seems to be overconfident of his vote bank."

"What did he do for us?" asks A Krishna, a rickshaw-puller. "Many, like me, will criticise him. But they won’t ditch him and vote for the Congress."

The Congress nominee from the constituency is K Virabhadra Swamy, who is trying his luck against Ashok for the third time after having lost the 1989 and 1994 assembly polls from the constituency.

Ashok may not lose the election, but the resentment against its star candidate in the district may come as a rude shock to the TDP which considers the area its bastion.

In the 1994 assembly poll it won all the six seats – Bobbili, Chepurupalli, Gajapathinagaram, Sathivada, Terlam and Vizianagaram – in the district. These six assembly segments besides Sathivada in neighbouring Srikakulam district comprise the Bobbili Lok Sabha seat.

In the 1996 Lok Sabha election, the Congress could secure a majority in Sathivada. In the 1998 Lok Sabha election, the party improved its position by capturing more votes in the Cheepurupalli and Vizianagaram segments.

That is perhaps the reason why the TDP is worried. Its nominee for the Bobbili Lok Sabha seat, AP Minister for Women and Child Welfare Padala Aruna (she represented Gajapathinagaram in the dissolved assembly) has a tough time against the Congress's Botsa Satyanarayana. The latter lost against the TDP's Kondapalli Pydithalli Naidu in both the 1996 and 1998 Lok Sabha elections.

While the TDP polled 276,282 and 298,830 votes respectively in the 1996 and 1998 polls, the Congress got 255,270 and 271,962 votes. The Bharatiya Janata Party increased its tally from 7,633 in 1996 to 105,872 votes in 1998.

The developments seem to have shaken Ashok, and he has for the first time resorted to door-to-door campaigning in his constituency.

The situation seems to be no different in neighbouring Srikakulam district, with H Appayya Dora of the Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao-Telugu Desam Party joining the Congress. Dora secured 200,217 votes in 1998 against the TDP's K Yerram Naidu (286,582 votes) in the Srikakulam Lok Sabha constituency. The Congress was relegated to the third slot in that election with 175,762 votes.

However, Dora (contesting from the Tekkali assembly seat) is expected to improve present Congress nominee K Viswanadham's chances in Srikakulam. Both belong to the Kaalinga caste, and analysts feel Dora's entry might improve Congress prospects.

However, others feel Yerram Naidu's good work in the constituency may help him sail through. ''I will vote for the Congress in the assembly poll, but Yerram Naidu will get my vote,'' says a voter.

Though the Congress won the seat nine of the previous 12 times -- the TDP edged out the Congress in 1984 (when Dora defeated B Rajagopala Rao of the Congress), in 1996 (when Yerram Naidu defeated NTR's son N Jayakrishna) and in 1998 -- the area has been considered a TDP bastion as far as the assembly election is concerned. The TDP won 11 of the 12 assembly seats in Srikakulam in 1994.

''There is a very tough fight this time,'' says T Venkat Rao who works with the Food Corporation of India in the Amadalavarsa assembly segment. ''In NTR's absence, there is no wave in the area and the Congress seems to have improved its position.''

''We want (Congress president) Sonia (Gandhi)'s government,'' says K Narsimappa, a farmer of Shermohammadpuram, near Srikakulam. ''How can you call her a foreigner? Once you marry an Indian, you are an Indian.''

''Why are you telling him (referring to this correspondent) all this?'' screams Narsimappa's friend. ''You had said we should keep this a secret!'' But Narsimappa continues his argument after explaining to his friend the importance of the media.

N Eashwar Rao, a tea shop owner at Amadalavarsa, says, ''The TDP will win, though the margin may come down. The party has done good work -- laid roads, cleaned canals, distributed cycles, etc.''

P Eramma, a poultry farm worker in a village near Srikakulam, says she may not vote. ''What will they do for us? We have to continue our struggle as workers… They will run after us till they get our vote. Yes, NTR has given us rice at Rs 2 a kilogram. What else did he do?''

Many leaders and analysts in the district say the TDP owes its success in the district to NTR.

Before the TDP was founded in 1982, Srikakulam favoured non-Congress parties like the Krishikar Lok Party, the Swantantra Party and the Janata Party led by noted freedom fighter Gouthu Latchanna.

"At a time when people were fed up with the Congress, NTR emerged on the scene. His dramatics had won him instant popularity, and he further consolidated his position with welfare schemes like subsidised rice,'' says advocate Srinivas Rao.

"The TDP has always been more acceptable because of its welfare schemes like subsidised rice," says Y Venkataramaiah, a businessman in Vizianagaram. "No one has a good opinion of the Congress. Moreover, Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu has shown a lot of improvement. He has, unlike Congressmen, shown he has the power to plan and think for the people."

"The TDP may lose a little majority because of Sonia Gandhi (she addressed a meeting in Vizianagaram on Thursday)," says Venkataramaiah. "But it may not lose any seats."

"Yes Sonia has definitely improved the Congress chances," says Venugopal Rao. "There is a dissenting voice against the TDP because of hi-tech schemes and apprehensions that the state could land in a debt trap because of the loans being taken by Chandrababu Naidu. People fear there could be a financial crisis soon. But when did we not have such a crisis? The world media has acknowledged his leadership... But it is very difficult to assess the people's mind."

"It is the first assembly election the TDP is facing without NTR," says Dr C V Raja Reddy, a leading medical practitioner in Srikakulam. ''Let us see how it fares. Chandrababu Naidu claims he is a working CM. What work has he done? Let someone come and identify the projects and programmes.''

''Yes, there is a silent wave favouring the Congress,'' says Srinvasa Rao. ''Traditionally, the Congress gets at least 25 per cent of the votes. It may improve now.''

Bhadriprashad P Sanghi, a businessman who migrated to Srikakulam from Hyderabad 20 years ago, says, "People now feel, 'We have tried TDP for 20 years. Let us give the Congress a chance.' But it is very difficult to say whether the Congress has created a big enough dent to win seats in the district."

The Congress seems to be gaining because of the concerted efforts being made by local leaders sinking their differences. Another reason is several locals feel the TDP schemes have benefited only its party workers.

''The change in outlook began last year when the TDP started branding certain villages as Congress bastions, and started denying them developmental programmes,'' charges K Narayana Rao, a businessman. ''Moreover, in many villages on the coast between Srikakulam and Vizianagaram, people still vote as per the advice of their leaders. They blindly follow their leaders like cattle.''

''But the same cannot be said of those in the towns, who seem to be playing their cards very close to their chest,'' says N K Choudhary, president of the Srikakulam district cable television association. ''Whoever wins, the margin will be in hundreds, not even thousands.''

''Normally, if the people are voting for the ruling party, they say so. But there not saying that now. They praise the TDP, but go to the meetings of all parties,'' says Dr Reddy. ''Moreover, non-Congress votes have split. The Communists, who used to corner a fair share of the votes, are for the first time not with the TDP. The BJP is not a major force in the district.''

Whoever wins, Srikakulam will still be starved of leaders. ''Srikakulam has so many politicians, but no leaders -- the last two great leaders being G Sriramulu Naidu and K Punnaiah, father of AP Education Minister K Prathiba Bharati,'' says Srinivas Rao.

Is that why the district has been bracketed as backward though it looks prosperous?

"No, Srikakulam is not backward," says Ramakrishna. "It is backward only in terms of political awareness."

"Who says Srikakulam is backward?" says Narayana Rao. ''It is one of the richest districts. The rich here don't flaunt their wealth. They are reluctant to invest their money in any project and prefer stashing it away in banks or god knows where.''

That is why Srikakulam is still very grateful to the late AP chief minister, Jalagam Vengal Rao, who hailed from the district. If the district today has enough water it is because of him. ''He was the only leader who brought projects like the Modavarasa reservoir, Nagavalli left and right canals, and Vamsadara,'' says Srinivas Rao. ''NTR did nothing despite the people's unflinching loyalty.''

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