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Campaign Trail/Sunil Sethi

Travels with the Millennium Man

Anyone visiting Hyderabad, the premier city of the Deccan, after a few years is in for a surprise. Gone is its leisurely pace and old-world ruminative air, and obscured from view the arabesque of natural rock formations and dreaming domes that once made it the pride of the Nizams. Highrises and deluxe hotels lean above the old familiar shapes of old Hyderabad's skyline. A dozen flyovers rear their concrete heads at major intersections and a sweeping two-lane corniche has replaced the slow-moving road along central Hussainsagar lake.

The inner city around the famous landmark of Charminar has been overhauled and a vast state-of-the-art film city to outshine Bollywood has erupted on the outskirts. There is a buzz and bustle about new Hyderabad that sets it up to rival the silicon chip-and-shopping mall smartness of Bangalore.

Chandrababu Naidu, the youthful chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, supremo of the ruling Telugu Desam Party and convener of the United Front coalition in New Delhi, likes to take the credit for much of the change. "You won't see any encroachments in Hyderabad," he says proudly as he launches his state-wide campaign from the temple town of Tirupati. "You will also note that I discourage wasteful election expenditure on garlands, banners and free dinners on my tours."

Despite his halting command of English, the 47-year-old Naidu likes to project himself as the chief minister of the new millennium. Hard-working, media-savvy and keen on information technology, he rattles off figures of increased foreign investment in the state and shows off the vast databank he has collected on his PC at his home in Jubilee Hills -- everything from the daily output of every power plant run by the loss-making state electricity board to each child's subject-wise performance in all state schools to TDP workers's grievances in every district. "I want to change the mindset of the people," says Naidu impressively. "I want to introduce a new work culture."

Naidu's critics, however, consider his ambition limited and dismiss his achievements as little more self-aggrandising bluster. Demand in the power sector far outstrips supply and Andhra Pradesh is sometimes known as Andhera Pradesh (State of Darkness). "The way to reform the electricity board is not by keeping tabs on output of power stations but by laying off some of its mammoth workforce of 125,000 employees," says a senior bureaucrat.

More immediate and tragic have been a sensational spate of deaths by cotton-growing farmers in Warangal district in recent weeks. As many as a hundred farmers were driven to taking their own lives as a result of crop failure due to use of spurious pesticides.

In the absence of safe agricultural credit of crop insurance schemes, cotton-growing farmers were forced to borrow at huge interest rates, and found themselves at the mercy of money-lenders. The bizarre cycle of suicides, apart from hitting the national headlines, are an apt reflection of the agricultural economy in the country's fourth-largest state. "The cotton farmers's deaths are a burning election issue," admits Naidu's finance minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju.

Naidu's party is likely to be hit by other factors in the coming election. Other than his ending appeal as the greatest matinee idol of Telugu cinema, Naidu's father-in-law and founder of the TDP, the late N T Rama Rao, sustained, power through reckless populist gestures -- subsidised rice at Rs 2 a kg for the poor; virtually free power to farmers and a blanket enforcement of prohibition in deference to newly-empowered women voters.

Naidu inherited a state on the verge of bankruptcy after he usurped power from his father-in-law in September 1995. Demonstrating vaunting ambition in a ruthless palace coup he herded 150 of the 212 TDP legislators into the Viceroy Hotel, owned by his friend and current party treasurer P P Prabhakar Reddy, and took over the reins of the state. (NTR died a broken man shortly afterwards with a curse on his lips for his son-in-law, calling him "traitor" and "backstabber").

Naidu's chickens may now be coming home to roost. To put back the economy on the rails he has had to lift prohibition, and increase power rates as well as the price of rice. All three actions have aroused widespread discontent and could cost him substantial chunks of traditional TDP votebanks.

The chief minister is further beleaguered by the "widow syndrome" of Indian politics -- he is required to ward off not one but two. Lakshmi Parvathi, NTR's young widow, who heads her own Telugu Desam splinter group, may be a spent force politically (her proposed alliance with the BJP has failed) but she remains a potential thorn in his side. More threatening has been the appearance of Sonia Gandhi on the Congress party's campaign platform. The unpopular withdrawal of subsidies, and more recently the farmers's suicides, had helped promote Congress unity in Andhra Pradesh.

Sonia's arrival has galvanised the party to take the TDP head-on. Her meeting in Hyderabad last week evoked the strongest response in her campaign so far. By comparison, the United Front's rally hosted by Naidu with top national members including Prime Minister I K Gujral, Chief Ministers Jyoti Basu, M Karunanidhi, Farooq Abdullah and others was a long and listless affair, often disrupted by protests, catcalls and jeers.

The TDP holds 17 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Andhra Pradesh. Pessimists predict that if his party's tally goes below ten, Naidu will have to bow out. But the chief minister is not a pessimist. "I guarantee you I will get 30 out of 42," he says with a broad smile.

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