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September 24, 1999


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The Rediff Election Interview/Y S Rajasekhar Reddy

'Chandrababu is totally bankrupt. He wants to cling to any straw that comes his way...'

The Congress has been in an upbeat mood in Andhra Pradesh with party president Sonia Gandhi drawing huge crowds at her recent meetings in the state. Besides the Gandhi family charisma, it is 'Cuddapah Tiger' and AP Congress unit president Yedugoori Sandinti Rajasekhar Reddy's promise of providing free power to farmers that has made a significant difference to the Congress fortunes in this election.

Reddy is confident that the Congress would win back power from the Telugu Desam Party. But his detractors including one-time close friend and Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu have been gunning for him. They allege that the state would turn into a Cuddapah with bombs and faction wars becoming the order of the day if Reddy becomes the CM. They also allege that the Congress would undo Naidu's ''good policies.''

J S Sai grills Reddy on the allegations and tries to zero in on his priorities as he tries to stretch his feet at the end of a hectic poll schedule.

Reddy tries to make the chat lively though he looks tired, though a couple of calls update him on the crucial details of the final phase of polling in the state on Saturday last.

''How can we make such a mistake?'' he chides a caller mildly. ''We have to be careful.''

''Doesn't matter,'' he tells another caller. ''We have made it.''

At the end of the exclusive interview, as he sees off's correspondent with a firm handshake at his Banjara Hill residence in Hyderabad, he tells a colleague, ''congratulations in advance.'' Excerpts:

How many seats are you winning?

I am quite sure that we will cross the 200 mark. We will get a good number of seats in all the three regions of the state -- Andhra, Rayalaseema and Telangana.

Even in the TDP strongholds like Srikakulam and Vizianagaram?

Yes, even in those areas.

What gives you such confidence when there seems to be no strong anti-incumbency wave against the TDP?

The way the people have been responding to our meetings, the youth are joining our ranks. There is a strong anti-incumbency wave... Politically, the TDP has lost ground because the Communists have left them, the minorities have deserted them. There was a divide among the Dalits in the last election with the Malas supporting the Congress and the Madigas backing the TDP. Now both are with us. Moreover, the so-called tie-up with the Bharatiya Janata Party has failed to pay any dividends.

But mathematically, the BJP-TDP alliance seems to have an edge, considering that together they had polled more votes than the Congress in the state in the last election.

Mathematics never works in politics. It is always chemistry.

Chemistry of what -- corruption?

Anything ( laughs)! At times it is combustible chemistry, a combustion, an explosion takes place. Anything will happen.

You say there is a strong anti-incumbency wave. But is it visible all over the state?

It is very much there. The first thing we ask people at our meetings is: Did you vote for Nara Chandrababu Naidu in the 1994 assembly election? ''No, no, no,'' they scream in chorus.

Then we tell them that Naidu had backstabbed his father-in-law Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao to come to power and that he had scrapped the three poor-oriented schemes launched by the TDP founder -- Rs 2 a kg rice, subsidised power and prohibition... They agree with us fully.

When Naidu says anything against us, there should be a spontaneous response. There was no such thing at his meetings. There was no spontaneity at his meetings. But there is so much spontaneity at our meetings. That makes all the difference.

Are you getting good response in the urban areas too, where the TDP seems to have won many supporters in the recent years?

O yes!

But the middle classes seem to favour Naidu.

Despite the anti-incumbency factor, Naidu will continue to retain his vote bank. The committed voters will always be there.

But even those who had been indifferent to politics till now seem to be praising Naidu. Is it not a positive sign?

Somehow Naidu could create a good impression amongst the people who read newspapers and see television often because of his publicity.

Not backed by performance?

Absolutely not. The fellow used to spend about Rs 3.5 billion on publicity. Even the Centre does not do spend that kind of money. When the Congress was in power in the state, the publicity expenditure was just Rs 150 million. Where is Rs 150 million, where is Rs 3.5 billion?

But he is one of the few Indian politicians to get wide Western media coverage.

The way his profile has been built up the outside world thinks he is someone really big, really great. It is not so. People at the grassroots level have seen what he really is.

Another important thing is that our tirade against him, our padayatras, our efforts have really churned the people. They have really made people see whether Chandrababu Naidu has made any contribution to their lives or not.

There is a fear that there would be a hung house in the state. In case there is a hung house, are you likely to form a coalition?

There is no question of a hung house. We are winning at least 200 seats.

There is an allegation that successive AP chief ministers demolish their predecessors' policies instead of building on them and ensuring the state's faster development.

We won't disturb whatever is good, in the interest of the people.

Which of his policies are good?

I'm trying to find out. I have taken a big lens to study his policies ( laughs). Most of his policies are absolute duds. Let's see. Whatever is good I will not disturb them.

But I believe he has done a great deal for the Information Technology industry?

What is it that he has done ( raises his voice in anger), except build some sort of high profile for himself. He has not done anything.

He has built up infrastructure including Hi-Tec City.

What Hi-Tec City I say! What is the occupancy rate there?

A senior official claims 80 per cent of the space has been booked.

Go and check it up.

You don't agree with the figure?

It is not even 30 per cent. Not even 30 per cent has been occupied.

You were confident of victory right from the word go?


Then why did you make the promise of free power for farmers?

We thought it would do a lot of good for the state and the Congress.

How would you manage the additional burden of Rs 5 billion on the state exchequer?

What do you mean an additional expenditure of Rs 5 billion. That is not a big thing for the state when people are dying. No, not dying, but killing themselves.

But that [cotton growers' suicides] happened in 1998, not now.

Who said so? Things are so bad even now. There are no suicides now because the crop is yet to be harvested. The suicides will be there the moment the crop is harvested. So everything will have to done to improve the rural economy.

That will be your priority number one?

Yes. Improving irrigation is a part of it. Providing free power is a part of it.

Don't you think this policy of providing free lunches goes against your party's national manifesto?

No. It never says so. It only said the state electricity boards would have to be made more viable. We have to see that they are run on profitable lines.

How can you ensure this when you are giving away Rs 5 billion?

We will see to it that they are profitable. Right now the power loss during distribution is very high -- about 32 per cent...

It is theft actually, about 40 per cent.

During the Congress regime it was only 18 per cent. We will see to it that we will plug all the loopholes. That saving alone would be enough. If it is not sufficient we will reimburse the board.

Will free power be provided to all farmers or do you plan to limit it to small and marginal farmers?

All farmers.

So the tax-paying public will have to pay more.

What do you mean tax-paying public? The tax-paying public is paying taxes for the welfare of the state. Don't you feel that this measure is in the interest of the state? Don't you think that if the farmer is given an incentive he will produce more foodgrains which is in the interest of the state?

Several farmers, I am told, want not free but interrupted power supply during peak season. What is the use of giving them free power at a time when they do not need it? How do you plan to improve the power situation?

As of now, they are not even getting nine hours of uninterrupted power supply. We have to improve the electricity board's efficiency. During the TDP regime, the Srisailum Hydel Power Project got submerged. The Kothagudem thermal project got flooded... Such things never happened during the 50-year-old Congress rule.

How did that happen?

Their inefficiency.

There is a fear that the Congress would go back to its old ways -- of changing chief ministers often -- in case it is elected to power.

As long as the state gives good governance, the CM won't be touched. Our high command will never think of changing a CM. If in a state, the governance is bad, or if a judicial body issues strictures against the CM, then the high command cannot but change the leadership. Consider Madhya Pradesh and Orissa for instance. In MP the CM was not changed. But don't you think J B Patnaik had to go in Orissa?

You said you would continue all the good policies of Naidu. But you have already made a statement that Janmabhoomi would be discontinued if you come to power.

Janmabhoomi is an absolutely useless policy.

The idea was good. Maybe the government faltered in its implementation.

What good idea! In 99.99 per cent of the cases, there was no contribution from the people. At no place did the people make any contribution. If there was a Rs 100 project, it was inflated to Rs 400.

Who got the money?

The people who did the work.

How come people outside Cuddapah are scared of you while your native district praises your service-oriented outlook?

Look ( laughs) Cuddapah has a factional history. That does not mean I am involved in factional wars. I don't have any factional history.

Maybe you encourage others to do it?

As far as I am concerned, I don't do it at all. Maybe some people who are close to me had a factional background. That does not mean that I am encouraging them or I have got something to do with all those things. But the way people talk, the media projects --- that has nothing to do with me.

Even in Pulivendla, as in the rest of the state, people seem to be scared of you. How do you manage that?

I don't do anything of the sort.

The TDP says that the state would turn into a Cuddapah if you become the CM.

This is the sort of Goebbelian propaganda they are trying to create. I am quite sure that the people of Andhra Pradesh do not believe such things.

How do you feel when you hear all this?

What do I do? Day in and day out, the CM talks of only this. The fellow knows that I do not have a factional background. He knows me through and through.

You were very close to him at one point of time.

Yes. We were very close.

You were also close to him during the earlier part of his chief ministership. During one of the bye-elections, both of you had allegedly disappeared for two hours leaving even the security men clueless....

No, nothing like that had happened. In one of the bye-elections, we had run into each other and exchanged pleasantries.

So you do have a good equation with him now?

The day he left the Congress I had nothing to do with him. That was January 13, 1983.

What do you think of Vision 2020?

All these things are just high profile things ( laughs). I will give you a very down-to-earth example.

Our irrigation budget in the past four years has been Rs 50 billion. But in the case of a smaller state like Karnataka it was Rs 100 billion. Irrigation is the most important sector. I will see to it that in the next four years the budget will be Rs 250 billion. I will see to it that such priorities would be maintained.

What are your plans for the education sector, which is in a mess now?

We will give the best of governance on all fronts. Our government will be a model government.

How do you plan to create more jobs?

Creating jobs is a very important thing. Promoting agriculture, promoting horticulture, promoting forestry, these three things will be very important for our government. Industry alone is not going to help. As for the industry, we will take measures to bring down the sickness rate in the small scale industry.

What about the TDP's criticism that the Congress has had a secret deal with the Naxals for the election?

Chandrababu is totally bankrupt. He wants to cling to any straw that comes his way so that he does not get washed away in the pro-Congress tide.

Are you going to lift the ban on the People's War Group if you come to power?

The ban will continue as long as the PWG does not change its old ways. However, we will not consider it as a mere law and order problem. We will improve the welfare measures in the affected areas so that the area sees more development. We will see that the youth of Telangana do not get attracted to Naxalism. So it will be a two-pronged approach.

People allege that Naidu could not implement some of his good policies because of his own partymen. We know that the problem would be much worse in the case of the Congress. How do you plan to tackle such a problem?

As long as one thinks straight, things will be easy. I think Mahatma Gandhi gave the best prescription for such situations. Any measure which is in the interest of the weakest of the weak should be implemented.

Are you saying there will be more subsidies?

I favour productive subsidies, like free power.

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