Political parties in the Telugu states have often followed the norm of withdrawing from contesting bye-elections against a family member of the deceased MLA or MP.

Chandrababu Naidu Pawan Kalyan and Jagan Mohan ReddyFile Photo
news Politics Thursday, October 07, 2021 - 09:59

Ahead of the bye-election to the Badvel Assembly constituency in Andhra Pradesh, necessitated by the death of sitting YSRCP MLA Venkata Subbaiah in March this year due to ill-health, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party (JSP) have both announced that they are staying away from the contest. With the BJP deciding to contest anyway, claiming to take a stand against dynastic politics, speculation has been rife over a possible rift between the allies BJP and JSP. Both TDP and JSP have cited the “tradition” of not fielding a candidate when a family member of the deceased legislator was contesting the bye-poll, out of respect for the family. While the practice of allowing family members of deceased legislators to win unopposed in bye-elections has indeed prevailed in Andhra Pradesh for decades, political observers note that the undemocratic convention hasn’t exactly been a hard-and-fast rule. Over the past few years, in many instances, this unofficial protocol has been ignored or followed based on circumstances and political convenience.  

Time-honoured tradition

While the TDP has claimed that it was their party that first started the “tradition”, and has now chosen to continue it, it was followed even before the party was founded, according to senior journalist and political analyst Telakapalli Ravi. The first instance he recalls is from 1978, when CPI(M) legislator Guntur Bapanaiah, passed away months after being elected as MLA from Nidumolu in Krishna district. “He was a very respected, highly admired leader. After his death, when the party decided to field his wife in the bye-election, all major parties withdrew out of respect for him,” Ravi told TNM. While independent candidates still contested and the election was held, there was no serious opposition. This practice has been followed by major parties since then, he says. 

In the case of Badvel, BJP Andhra Pradesh chief Somu Veerraju has said that the party is opposed to family politics, suggesting that the deceased MLA’s wife could be appointed to a nominated post rather than being allowed to contest unopposed. The notion of giving up the post of an elected representative on compassionate grounds, and looking at a bye-election as a family affair, has been opposed in the past too, noted Telakapalli Ravi. “There has been a divergent opinion against promoting candidates from the same family. For instance, Lok Satta has contested in such bye-polls when other parties didn’t, as it isn’t a democratic principle,” he says. Questioning the convention, political analyst K Nageshwar has also noted that even when family members are given government jobs on compassionate grounds, it is usually not the same designation as the deceased person. “Any election without a contest must not be encouraged. Popular mandate has to be won by the representatives, and people have to show trust in their abilities,” says Palwai Raghavendra Reddy, another political analyst.

Exceptions to the unwritten rule 

The norm has been mostly followed through the ‘90s and 2000s too, with many instances where family members of deceased leaders won unopposed, or with insignificant competition from independent candidates or minor political parties, Palwai Raghavendra Reddy notes. Notably, following the death of former Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy in 2009, his wife YS Vijayamma was fielded as the Congress candidate from his constituency Pulivendula and was elected unopposed. In 2011, she again contested and won a bye-election from the same constituency, this time from the YSRCP, as the family parted ways with Congress to establish the party. The second time, however, the “tradition” was not followed.  

However, in recent years, it has not been followed consistently, Raghavendra Reddy observes. In Telangana, which has seen a series of heated bye-elections in the past couple of years, the Dubbaka bye-election in November last year had Congress and BJP fielding their candidates, even as TRS fielded Sujatha, the wife of the deceased sitting TRS MLA Solipeta Ramalinga Reddy. She secured the second highest votes, with BJP’s Raghunandan Rao winning with a small margin. Months later, in the Nagarjuna Sagar bye-poll, TRS fielded Nomula Bhagath, son of the deceased TRS MLA Nomula Narsaiah. While Congress and BJP also contested, Bhagath won. While it is presumed that there is sympathy when a candidate dies mid-term, assuring a win for their family member, this is not always the case as seen in Dubbaka, Ravi notes. 

In the case of Andhra Pradesh, in 2014, Bhuma Akhila Priya was elected unopposed from Allagadda following the demise of her mother, sitting YSRCP MLA Shobha Nagi Reddy. In the heated Nandyal bye-election in 2017 following the death of Akhila Priya’s father and sitting MLA Bhuma Nagi Reddy, the convention was ignored as candidates were fielded by TDP, YSRCP and Congress. However, this was an exceptional case, as Bhuma Nagi Reddy had recently defected to the TDP along with his daughter. TDP fielded his nephew and Akhila’s cousin Bhuma Brahmananda Reddy, who won the election. 

The Badvel case 

The TDP had announced its candidate for Badvel more than a month ago before the bye-poll schedule was announced, naming Obulapuram Rajasekhar, who had lost the 2019 election. After the Election Commission of India announced the schedule on September 28, the YSRCP named Dasari Sudha, wife of the deceased MLA Venkata Subbaiah, as its candidate. YSRCP General Secretary Sajjala Ramakrishna Reddy said that the party was sticking to the tradition of giving tickets to the family of the deceased legislator, and if TDP also follows tradition, the election would be unanimous. In the recent Tirupati Lok Sabha bye-poll, however, the YSRCP’s candidate Maddila Gurumoorthy was not from the family of the deceased MP. 

Soon after YSRCP announced its candidate, Pawan Kalyan said that JSP was withdrawing from the contest out of respect for Dasari Sudha’s family, and urged other parties to also make the election unanimous. Soon, TDP also declared that it was stepping back. The BJP has declared that it will contest the election, while Congress has fielded former MLA PM Kamalamma. 

Pawan Kalyan’s decision came as a surprise, as it came on the heels of a meeting with the state BJP leaders to discuss their strategy for the Badvel bye-poll. Reports also suggested that the BJP had agreed to allow JSP to field its candidate, unlike the recent Tirupati bye-poll and GHMC (Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation) polls in Telangana, where JSP merely lent its support to the BJP’s candidates. 

Lately, the convention is being followed as per political convenience to each party, Ravi observes. YSRCP swept Tirupati and all the recent local body polls, routing TDP. TDP had even boycotted the recent MPTC and ZPTC polls, alleging that the elections were not being conducted in a free and fair manner.

Read: TDP calls to boycott ZPTC, MPTC polls but experts say decision is politically flawed

Ravi says that the TDP and JSP seem to wish to avoid the contest, in the guise of continuing tradition. “TDP is struggling to gain support everywhere they contest. This gives them an opportunity to stay away and not let their image get dented by an unnecessary contest while grandstanding in the name of compassion,” says Raghavendra Reddy, adding that Pawan Kalyan also seems to have decided that JSP was unlikely to achieve anything by contesting. While BJP has claimed that they will continue to have support from JSP in Badvel, Pawan Kalyan’s position remains unclear. 

BJP has also been inconsistent in opposing the practice, as K Nageshwar points out. In the bye-poll held to the Lingojiguda ward in GHMC after the death of the BJP corporator, TRS did not contest as BJP leaders requested them to support the BJP candidate, the deceased corporator’s son, on compassionate grounds. 

K Nageshwar points out that contesting an election is a political decision and not a personal one. The so-called tradition is likely being deployed by these parties to hide their weakness and helplessness, he says. 

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