Andhra Pradesh Roads and Buildings Minister Dharmana Krishna Das recently said that TDP president and former Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu will soon lose his status as the Leader of Opposition in the state Assembly. Krishna Das said this soon after TDP MLA from Guntur-West, Maddali Giridhara Rao, met with CM Jagan Mohan Reddy. And looking at the numbers and the state of affairs in Andhra, Krishna Das’s words do seem to be more than political grandstanding.
To begin with, Chandrababu Naidu’s party didn’t really do well in the Assembly elections held last year. His status as Leader of Opposition literally depends on the loyalty of six MLAs.
More importantly, it depends on how charitable Jagan Mohan Reddy is feeling. And considering how Naidu poached MLAs from YSRCP when he was in power just a few short months ago, all signs point to a Jagan who is looking to pay back in kind.
The Mavalankar rule
A Leader of Opposition in any House of the Parliament or state Legislature enjoys the same privileges as a Cabinet Minister, including salaries and allowances, security, and the most intangible of all, ‘rank’. Chandrababu is under the NSG (National Security Guards) cover ever since he escaped an assassination bid by Maoists in 2003. He will have to forego the security cover extended by the state government, which the a Leader of Opposition is due to receive, if he loses such a status.
The law that defines these privileges is the Salaries and Allowances of Leader of Opposition Act, 1977. But while this law only says that a Leader of Opposition is the leader of the largest party in opposition – there is an unwritten rule that the Parliament and state Legislatures have to contend with. The first Speaker of Lok Sabha in independent India, GV Mavalankar, decided that a person can be Leader of Opposition only if at least 10% of the members of the House are from their party.
This means that in the Andhra Assembly, Chandrababu Naidu needs at least 18 MLAs to remain Leader of Opposition.
In the Andhra Assembly elections held last year, TDP ended up with just 23 seats in the 175-member House. The state elections were held simultaneously with Parliamentary elections, and Jagan Mohan Reddy swept most of the seats in both polls. With the Mavalankar rule, or the 10% rule, stipulating the need for a minimum of 18 MLAs on his side however, Chandrababu Naidu became the Leader of Opposition in the House.
But his position may just slip soon, if enough MLAs choose to defect. And the trend of defections has already started. The first to jump ship was Vallabhaneni Vamsi, representing Gannavaram in Krishna district, and now it’s Maddali Giridhara Rao. A few more TDP legislators are expected to seek greener pastures in the YSRCP shortly, commented a senior YSRCP leader, wishing to stay anonymous.
The anti-defection workaround
When Vallabhaneni Vamsi, representing Gannavaram in Krishna district, met Jagan and started making noises about joining the YSRCP, the TDP expelled him. But the expulsion may just have been a hasty decision. In his expulsion, Vamsi found a novel way out of the anti-defection law: Speaker Tammineni Sitaram allowed him to continue as a member of the House, unattached to the TDP, since he hasn’t technically ‘defected’.
And this has shown the way for other MLAs from his former party to work around the toothless but cumbersome anti-defection law. Maddali Giridhara Rao has met Jagan and posed for a photo with him, but he has neither quit from the TDP nor joined the YSRCP, leaving no room for the TDP to ask for his disqualification. And in order to maintain some semblance of a status quo, the TDP will not expel him like they did with Vamsi.
The threat of an exodus is only too real for the TDP – because Jagan is simply following Naidu’s own playbook from when he was Chief Minister. Chandrababu Naidu, during his tenure, had engineered the defection of 23 MLAs from the Jagan’s party, and inducted four of them into his Cabinet. And despite Jagan crying hoarse about the issue, the then-Speaker in Andhra had not disqualified the defectors.
The legacy war unleashed by Jagan ever since he became Chief Minister leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind how he will deal with this particular issue.
The TDP is accusing the Chief Minister of employing arm-twisting tactics to force its legislators to defect. Senior TDP legislator Gorantla Butchaiah Chowdary, speaking to the TNM, accused Jagan of misusing his power, and using a carrot-and-stick strategy to either coerce or woo TDP MLAs to jump ship.
For instance, the liquor businesses of a TDP legislator in Visakhapatnam have been subjected to frequent raids by the Excise and Prohibition Department; and Maddali Giri was lured with the release of pending government grants for his spinning mill in Guntur district, Chowdary alleged.
At least seven MLAs from TDP are on Jagan’s target, according to sources. This includes two from Visakhapatnam, two from Prakasam, and one from Anantapur district. TDP MLA Gottipati Ravi Kumar from Addanki in Prakasam district is allegedly under pressure with his granite quarrying units facing closure after a series of raids by the Vigilance and Enforcement Directorate personnel. Ravi switched to the TDP after getting elected on a YSRCP ticket in the last Assembly elections in 2014, and is engaged in a bitter internal fight with the intra-party faction headed by Cheerala MLA Karanam Balaram Krishna Murthy.
Gali Nagaraja is a freelance journalist who writes on the two Telugu states. Views expressed are the author's own.