No faith in YSRCP or TDP-JSP-BJP alliance: Andhra’s Visakha Steel Plant workers

Visakha Ukku Parirakshana Porata Committee which is protesting against the disinvestment of the Visakhapatnam Steel Plant is campaigning in support of INDIA Bloc candidates.
Vizag steel plant workers taking out a rally
Vizag steel plant workers taking out a rally
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The Visakha Ukku Parirakshana Porata Committee (VUPPC) has been protesting against the disinvestment of the Visakhapatnam Steel Plant (VSP) for more than three years. The workers who had earlier decided to boycott the upcoming Lok Sabha and Assembly polls in Andhra Pradesh to express their dissent towards the Union and state governments are now planning to vote in favour of the INDIA bloc.

According to the workers, they were left with no option but to call for a boycott of the elections after the state's opposition parties, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Jana Sena Party (JSP), formally allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is for complete disinvestment of the public sector unit. However, VUPPC has chosen to mobilise the plant workers and are urging them to vote in support of INDIA Bloc candidates.

VUPPC is a committee of steel plant workers associated with trade unions – AITUC, CITU and INTUC – protesting against the Union government’s decision to privatise the steel plant. In January 2021, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) gave preliminary approval for 100% disinvestment of the VSP. Subsequently, Expressions of Interest (EoI) were called through Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Ltd (RINL), the corporate entity of the steel plant on March 27, 2023.

During protest rallies, all major parties in the state – YSRCP, TDP, JSP – extended their support to VUPPC workers but the BJP stayed away. BJP leaders have repeatedly stated that the Union government has decided to stop the disinvestment plans, but they failed to gain the trust of VSP employees. CM Ramesh, a former bureaucrat and BJP’s candidate for Anakapalli Lok Sabha Constituency, recently reiterated the same.

“The management has not informed us anything as the BJP leaders claim. Modi has visited Andhra Pradesh in recent times but avoided speaking on VSP. Nobody believes state BJP leaders' statements unless Prime Minister Modi or Union Minister Amit Shah announce it. Otherwise it is a political stunt,” said KM Srinivas, Visakhapatnam district president of CITU. 

The steel plant is spread across Gajuwaka and Anakapalle Assembly constituencies and is a part of the Visakhapatnam Lok Sabha constituency. As per the seat sharing agreement (between TDP, JSP and BJP) M Sribharat from TDP is contesting for Visakhapatnam Lok Sabha seat. Former MLA Palla Srinivas Rao of the TDP is contesting from the Gajuwaka Assembly seat.

All political parties pledge to save VSP

On the ground, all political parties are campaigning with promises to stop the steel plant privatisation. VUPPC members question why no party has been able to assure the same in its manifesto. 

YS Sharmila, Andhra Pradesh Congress president, said that the Congress is committed to saving VSP from privatisation and strategically chose Trishna Grounds in the steel plant to make the announcement. In a meeting held on March 16, she alleged that CM Jagan and TDP chief N Chandrababu Naidu, who support the NDA government, failed to make demands regarding VSP.

In February, Nara Lokesh, while campaigning in Visakhapatnam, said the party would strive to protect VSP from disinvestment. When YSRCP president and Chief Minister YS Jagan organised an election campaign meeting with party cadres last week, VUPPC members met the leader. “We were told that if the party wins the majority of seats, it will be independent to be able to take decisions and exert pressure [on the Union government],” said U Ramaswamy, VUPPC member. Speaking about alliance parties Ramaswamy said, “TDP leaders told us since they are part of NDA, they can propose to BJP, their alliance partner.” 

Steel plant sentiment and elections

Gajuwaka constituency is dominated by Kapu community, which is classified as Other Classes (OC) or forward caste. It also has a considerable population of Yadava community, categorised as Backward Class (BC). The TDP candidate, Palla Srinivas Rao, who is from Yadava Community, is also likely to gain support of Kapu community through his alliance partner Pawan Kalyan, a Kapu by caste. Political observers believe that TDP had a chance to campaign in the steel plant if it had not formed an alliance with the BJP, considering caste equation in the constituency and anti-incumbency towards ruling party. 

“Both YSRCP and TDP are at a disadvantage now. Caste factor may work in other parts of the state but it is not the case in VSP. The sentiment for saving VSP is much stronger. It will not only affect Gajuwaka, but other vibrant industrial areas in Anakapalle. The same can be expected in the Visakhapatnam Lok Sabha constituency. However, this is limited to a few thousands,” political analyst DAR Subrahmanuayam said. 

As a part of alliance deal with the Congress, Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate, Maradana Jaggunaidu, a former VSP employee is contesting from Gajuwaka and is set to face TDP candidate Palla Srinivas Rao and Industries Minister Gudivada Amarnath from YSRCP. For Visakhapatnam Lok Sabha constituency, Congress has nominated Pulusu Satyanarayana Reddy, a film producer. Satya Reddy had recently made a film, Ukku Satyagraha in Telugu, depicting the protests of steel plant workers.  M Sribhharat from TDP and Botsa Jhansi Rani from YSRCP are contesting for Visakhapatnam LS seat. 

Trade union members in VSP are also campaigning across Visakhapatnam, to remind the public of the Steel Plant sentiment – Visakha Ukku Andhrula Hakku (Visakha Steel is the right of people of Andhra).

“In the last 10 years, the plant utilisation has decreased. Many appointments in the management were done after 2014 by the Union government, who are working according to the government’s plan. From officers to contract workers in the steel plant, all are aware of this and are against the disinvestment plan. Around 10,000 employees are affiliated with trade unions and we are expecting to mobilise and send a strong message against privatisation by voting for INDIA Bloc candidates,” Ramaswamy said.

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