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The politics of Andhra Pradesh are in for a wild ride and Pawan Kalyan may well turn out to be the surprise package in this three way contest.

Self goal by Jagan U-turns by CBN Advantage Pawan Kalyan in Andhra
Voices Opinion Wednesday, January 30, 2019 - 17:25

The recent meeting between YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and KT Rama Rao, timed at the end of the year-long padayatra by Jagan and the landslide victory of TRS in Telangana, has created conditions that favour Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party in Andhra Pradesh.

The BJP is not a contender in the state and is unlikely to get any deposits back, thanks to the strong and irreversible perception that they cheated the state with regards to special category status. The TRS-YSRCP bonhomie is suspected to be BJP’s strategic move for potential post-poll arrangements.

There is no point even mentioning Congress party. Despite Rahul Gandhi’s repeated assurances of granting special status, voters are in no mood to forgive the party.

That leaves TDP, YSRCP and Jana Sena as the main contenders in Andhra, and many of the recent polls indicated that YSRCP has an edge, and that there is a strong feeling of anti-incumbency with TDP. But these are early days and a lot can, and will, change in the next 75 days.

TDP is unlikely to retain power as large sections of people are unhappy with the government.  Chandrababu Naidu’s obsession with Amaravati has not gone down well with voters in other districts, especially those in ‘backward’ regions. Reports of mass migration and record enrollment in MGNREGA indicate the severity of rural distress, and that will have repercussions at the ballot box. Chandrababu overhyped the new capital and couldn’t show tangible progress. He is an able administrator and can make the government machinery run – but in this term, that skill seemed limited to managing events and media.

To his credit, the CM did try to pull out all stops to bring investments to the state, and has done well in creating jobs in mobile and automotive manufacturing sectors in a relatively short time.  But the numbers are too little, too late to create positive buzz. The biggest loss of credibility came in the form of the repeated U-turns over special category status issue.

Jagan Reddy of YSRCP will probably get on the Limca Book of Records for being on the longest campaign trail in modern electoral history of India. Having come so close in 2014 and subsequently losing many MLAs to defection, he figured his best strategy is to be on the ground – a strategy that worked superbly for his father, the late YSR. However, his decision to boycott Assembly didn’t go down well with certain sections and will cost some votes.

The strength of YSRCP continues to be YSR who is still revered by many low-income families. Covering the entire state by foot helped not just with people connect but also strengthening party leadership and resolving differences. Jagan’s media, Sakshi, amplified the yatra and created an aura around Jagan as a leading contender. This is reflected in today’s polls.

However, in an inexplicable move, Jagan met with KTR and sent strong signals that TRS and YSRCP are together. This is politically suicidal since the scars of state bifurcation are still fresh, and KCR continues to be blamed for it. Perhaps TRS’s landslide victory made Jagan underestimate the power of negative perception.

While Chandrababu is hoping that the “return gift” as promised by KCR will help him, I believe the real benefactor is likely to be Pawan Kalyan.

In a short time, Jana Sena party has become a mainstream political party in a state that is notorious for its caste and money power in elections, thanks to the mass appeal of Pawan Kalyan. While he is dismissed by some as a ‘film star’, ‘inconsistent’ and ‘part-time politician’, he has shown grit and serious commitment to survive in the rough and tumble of Andhra politics.

While his travels were nowhere close to Jagan’s yatra, he too travelled widely, held meaningful interactions especially with people from marginalised sections, giving them a voice, and building the party in his own unique way. Having learnt from the failed Praja Rajyam experiment, he is selectively welcoming leaders from other parties and highlighting policy failures and talking issues and not personalities.

It is hard to assess the impact of Pawan Kalyan as his party is not organised in the traditional sense. For example, members register with a missed call (party sources claim nearly 20 lakh missed calls in addition to paper and web-based registrations done by party workers) and then sign on to become booth level volunteers (more than 80% of polling booths have Jana Sens presence, according to party sources), through a custom app that connects them to voters in their own polling area for outreach. Besides leveraging advanced technology, the party also held membership drives and outreach events across the state using innovative local campaigns. The party doesn’t own media; one has to follow social media to assess the impact of Jana Sena and their unique approach to party building and voter outreach. Most old school analysts miss these aspects and continue to brush him off as an ‘actor’, and his own earlier association with Modi and Chandrababu Naidu always casts a doubt. Despite repeated, public, emphatic denials, they keep wondering if he will strike a deal with TDP, perhaps to create confusion.

One of the biggest advantages for Pawan Kalyan is low expectations. People are tired of Chandrababu Naidu and skeptical of Jagan. While politics of Andhra Pradesh are always heavy on the caste quotient, they all negate each other. The winner will have to get that swing vote that goes beyond traditional caste-based vote banks.

Thanks to his long sustained superstardom at the box office, Pawan Kalyan is the only mainstream politician today who transcends caste, region, gender and age barriers – this is a huge advantage. Lack of political experience is also a plus point since it also means he is untainted of political corruption and generates hope that better politics might emerge.

Will Pawan Kalyan win? He certainly has a chance to emerge as a surprise package, if and only if, he uses every hour of the next 75 days effectively to build the party, which includes recruiting booth level party workers, projecting a team of 10 state-level leaders and quickly announcing candidates who are dynamic and different from the usual suspects of TDP and YSRCP.

Srinivas is a citizen activist and an occasional commentator on politics. He was an invited speaker at the Jana Sena Fact finding committee in 2018.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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