Thursday was one of those rare occasions when all the political parties in Andhra Pradesh came together to support a bandh call. Not surprising considering the target of attack was the BJP at the Centre, that is seen as not having delivered on promises made in the AP Reorganisation Act, framed prior to the bifurcation of the state in 2014. The Union Budget presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley last week, was seen as having dashed hopes that any more money will be given to the residuary state of Andhra Pradesh.
Despite being the ruling party in Andhra, the Telugu Desam has in a politically smart move occupied the opposition space by criticising its ally, the BJP. This has put the YSR Congress under pressure to get its act together. So far in Parliament, what is on show is MPs of both parties trying to outdo each other vis-à-vis their protest against the Centre. But the TDP thanks to a higher degree of showmanship - both in Vijayawada on Sunday and in Parliament this week - has come across looking like the real protector of Andhra interests, occupying more airtime on Telugu media.
The YSRC is convinced that a break-up between the TDP and the BJP is not happening in a hurry, despite Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu's lack of enthusiasm in continuing with the alliance. It believes the divorce will happen closer to the elections, to ensure the BJP does not get enough time to hit back. It will also help Naidu convey that he gave the BJP a long rope in Andhra's interests.
So, what is YS Jaganmohan Reddy's strategy going to be, in the run-up to the elections in 2019?
The YSR Congress wants to ensure it portrays Naidu as having compromised on the Special Category Status. That was the promise made both by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Parliament and also by BJP leaders during the 2014 poll campaign. The YSR line of attack is that since the BJP found Naidu amenable, it went a step ahead and did not deliver on the other promises made in the Act. The intention is to show that Naidu cannot be trusted with ensuring Andhra's interests are safeguarded.
After the Budget, Jagan criticised the TDP but refrained from attacking the BJP. This along with his statement that if BJP were to grant Special Category Status to Andhra, he would support the national party, has been taken as proof that he is wrangling for a deal with New Delhi. The suspicion is that this could be in the nature of a quid pro quo, since Jagan has corruption cases against him. This has created a trust deficit for the YSRC in the mind of the common man on the ground in Andhra.
The YSRC dismisses all talk of going soft on the BJP and insists it would never cede its political space for legal considerations.
Its defence is that it sees no point in criticising the BJP, which is a party of no consequence in Andhra. Its political rival is the TDP and it believes that while sharing power with the BJP both in Andhra and in Delhi, it is Naidu's responsibility to ensure Andhra gets its due share of funds. Blaming the BJP after enjoying power for four years, the YSRC says, smacks of political hypocrisy and opportunism.
Strategists in the YSRC also pooh-pooh talk of a poll alliance with the BJP. If the TDP is dumping the BJP because it is seen as an ally whose stock is going down in Andhra, why would we catch a falling knife, goes the argument. The party, however, believes that even if there is political chatter that the BJP may be looking to ally with YSR Congress, it works to its advantage as it means the regional party is wanted.
Also, from the point of view of its vote bank - SCs, STs, minorities and Reddys - an alliance with the BJP would be out of character. Jagan's core constituency is likely to feel betrayed should he formally join hands with the BJP.
There is another reason for exhibiting reluctance in criticising the BJP. Criticism of PM Narendra Modi by the likes of Arvind Kejriwal, the argument goes, is not taken too well by the urban electorate. YSR Congress does not want to make the same mistake pointing out that when you punch above your weight, there is a risk of getting hurt.
The TDP is in the enviable position of gaining either way. If the Modi regime accedes to some demands, Naidu can claim victory. If it does not, Naidu gets the perfect excuse to exit and target the Centre as a betrayer. That leaves Jagan with no option at this stage.
For close to three months now, Jagan's padayatra has managed to steady the party ship that was witnessing an exodus of MLAs to the TDP. The mood in the party was not upbeat, particularly after the loss in the Nandyal byelection last year. Jagan's outreach and visibility among the voters has ensured that the feeling that “we are out of the game” is gone.
With Andhra Pradesh witnessing deft political manoeuvring in the run-up to 2019, it is all about who plays the smarter game on the political chessboard now.