On April 1, soon after former Chief Secretary Nilam Sawhney assumed charge as the new State Election Commissioner (SEC) of Andhra Pradesh, a notification was issued to resume the stalled poll process to mandal and zilla parishad territorial constituencies. The very next day, TDP (Telugu Desam Party) chief and Leader of Opposition Chandrababu Naidu announced that his party would boycott the elections, scheduled for April 8, objecting to the hurried manner in which the notification was issued, and alleging that the elections were not being conducted in a free and fair manner. Four days later on Tuesday, the Andhra Pradesh High Court issued interim orders staying the elections, based on petitions filed by allies BJP and Jana Sena Party, seeking that the election process be started afresh. Naidu has now claimed that the courtâs verdict has vindicated his decision to have TDP boycott the elections.
Local body polls in Andhra, which were first scheduled to be held in March 2020, are now being held after more than a year. They were first postponed by former SEC Nimmagadda Ramesh Kumar, to the YSRCP government's discontent, when the coronavirus pandemic began in March. Later, they were delayed as differences cropped up and continued between SEC Ramesh Kumar and the Jagan government. Polls for rural and urban local bodies were completed recently, and the YSRCP government has said it is keen on completing the zilla and mandal parishad elections as well, in order to focus entirely on the COVID-19 vaccination drive. However, Ramesh Kumarâs tenure ended on March 31, and Nilam Sawhney, who was serving as advisor to Chief Minister Jagan after retiring as the Chief Secretary, was appointed as the SEC.
Earlier, the YSRCP government had repeatedly alleged that Naidu was using Ramesh Kumar as a âmoleâ in the SEC. Now, Naidu has questioned Nilam Sawhneyâs independence, alleging that âthe SEC has been reduced to a mere rubber stamp in the parishad polls" under the YSRCP government. The lack of coordination between various political parties and the State Election Commission, followed by the decision to boycott elections altogether by the main opposition party, have raised concerns over the democratic process in the state.
Reasons for the protests and boycott
Along with the TDP, BJP and Jana Sena had also objected to the polls being held on April 8, stating the notification was issued by the SEC in a hasty manner, without consulting political parties. The petitioners had argued in court that as the poll notification was first issued more than a year ago, many aspiring contestants who are newly eligible to contest may lose out on the chance. It was also argued that when the Supreme Court upheld the former SECâs decision to postpone elections in March 2020, it had ruled that the SEC must consult the state government before notifying the new dates for the polls, and also reimpose the Model Code of Conduct four weeks ahead of the fresh date of polling.
The TDP has also said that newly eligible voters must also be given a chance to vote by issuing a new notification to start the poll process afresh.
While announcing the decision to boycott the zilla and mandal parishad polls, Naidu said that such a tough decision had to be taken out of distress, alleging that the YSRCP was conducting elections in an undemocratic manner. Naidu claimed that the number of unanimous victories in ZPTCs and MPTCs (Zilla Parishad and Mandal Parishad Territorial Constituencies) had increased dramatically this year, compared to the previous elections held in 2014. He alleged that this was achieved by the YSRCP by coercing and threatening opposition candidates into withdrawing their nominations.
Naidu criticised the YSRCP government for not cooperating with former SEC Ramesh Kumar, who was even briefly removed from the post. The state government in April 2020 changed the tenure and eligibility of the SEC through an ordinance, which said that the SEC must be a retired high court judge. Questioning Nilam Sawhneyâs appointment, Naidu noted that the retired IAS officer does not meet this eligibility criteria.
âI must take the tough decision (to boycott polls) as there is no assurance that our candidates will not be harassed this time too,â Naidu said, while also seeking a notification for a fresh poll process.
Palwai Raghavendra Reddy, a political analyst, says that the decision to boycott parishad elections by Chandrababu Naidu, who claims to have great political acumen, is politically unsound. âBy leaving the battlefield, TDP has not just given a walkover to YSRCP, but has also provided an opportunity for the BJP to increase its vote share in Andhra Pradesh. With TDP officially not in fray, swing voters and those who want to defeat YSRCP might shift towards the BJP,â he says.
Naiduâs boycott decision has even been opposed by senior TDP leaders like former Union Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju. Former MLA Jyothula Nehru even resigned as TDP state vice-president in protest. Senior journalist and political analyst Telakapalli Ravi, however, says that this is unlikely to be a serious rift. âThey know that the lower cadre will participate anyway, rejecting the boycott,â he says, adding that the expression of dissent from senior leaders could be to support the party cadreâs inclination to participate in the elections, so that a larger revolt is avoided. âIn spite of an official boycott, practically they had allowed unofficial participation,â he says. Moreover, before the High Court stayed the imminent elections, withdrawal of nominations wasnât possible, which meant that candidates would have had to contest anyway, he adds.
Following the massive victory of the YSRCP in the urban local body polls, Telakapalli Ravi says that the boycott could also be seen as a way of shrugging responsibility for poor performance. âIf the TDP had not done well, leadership could have denied responsibility and if they did well, they could have still claimed victory,â he says, adding that the decision can only be seen as political, and not about insisting on democratic process. âWhile some instances of highhandedness might have occurred, boycotting elections cannot be appreciated. Already in the see-saw battle between Nimmagadda and the state government, the local body elections affair had become a very murky affair,â he says, adding that the latest incidents continue the pattern.
However, the decision by a major political party to boycott local body elections itself is not unprecedented, notes senior advocate Jandhyala Ravi Shankar. While announcing the boycott, Naidu also stated that calls for boycotting elections were previously given by the AIADMK under the leadership of late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and other leaders. âWhether to contest or not is an entirely political decision. Nobody can force a party to contest and thereâs no obligation,â Ravi Shankar says.
With the court stalling the elections two days before the polling date, the YSRCP government is reportedly set to challenge the single judgeâs order before a division bench of the High Court.