Naidu’s National Ambitions Come to Naught, Jagan Sweeps All in AP

Leading in all 25 Lok Sabha seats in AP, the YSRC is set to become the third-largest party in the 17th Lok Sabha.

6 min read
YSRC chief Jagan Mohan Reddy is set to become the next Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh.

In what is going to go down as a historic day for the YSR Congress Party, the party is currently leading in all 25 Lok Sabha seats in Andhra Pradesh and in 152 out of 175 Assembly seats. The YSRC will form the government in Andhra Pradesh for the first time, with its party chief Jaganmohan Reddy all set to become the state’s next chief minister.

Reddy, a former Congress leader who left the grand old party eight years ago, will be taking over the reins from TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu, will hold the top post in the state for the first time as well. The YSRC is also going to be the third-largest party in the 17th Lok Sabha after the BJP and the Congress, if current trends hold.

Given the extensive efforts undertaken by Chandrababu Naidu to forge a pan-India unity of Opposition parties against the BJP, till as late as after the last phase of polling, it is almost ironic that the TDP may end counting day without a single MP in the 17th Lok Sabha.

Did Naidu spend too much of his time focussing outside the state and on his national ambitions while Reddy orchestrated a campaign that reduced the incumbent TDP to a clean slate?

Wrong Focus, Poor Strategy: Factors That Worked Against Naidu

Naidu spent considerable resources trying to forge an alliance of Opposition parties against BJP.
Naidu spent considerable resources trying to forge an alliance of Opposition parties against BJP.
(Photo: IANS)

The TDP was in an alliance with the BJP when it swept the simultaneous Assembly and Lok Sabha polls in Andhra Pradesh in 2014. But over the next few years, Naidu drew criticism from his political opponents and voters alike on the following two grounds.

  • The Special Category Status (SCS), that had been promised to Andhra post bifurcation by both Congress and BJP, was not being delivered. Instead, Naidu accepted a watered down Special Package from the BJP government, with reduced benefits. Later, when Naidu realised that people in AP were miffed with his compromise, he renewed demands for SCS and eventually broke off from the NDA in March 2018. But was it a case of too little, too late?
  • Naidu focussed a lion’s share of his efforts as CM chasing the dream of building a magnificent capital in Amaravati, but progress there has been slow and the TDP government does not have much to show there despite the tall claims made about a grand capital.
Late during his tenure, the CM spent considerable resources trying to forge an alliance of Opposition parties against BJP, even inviting leaders such as Arvind Kejriwal, Tejaswi Yadav and Mamata Banerjee to campaign for the TDP in Andhra Pradesh.

But in a campaign strategy that had seemed quite baffling even then, Naidu was relying on leaders who did not have a base or popularity in Andhra Pradesh to help him get re-elected to power in the state! And if his party’s strength in the Lok Sabha was going to be the basis for his national ambitions, then maybe he should have first worked harder on ensuring that he won a number of Lok Sabha seats to even have that bargaining potential.

Padayatra and Voter Connect: Factors That Worked in Favour of Jaganmohan Reddy

First up, Jaganmohan Reddy’s 341-day padayatra was an election game-changer. In the footsteps of his father, former Andhra CM YS Rajasekhara Reddy, Jagan had undertaken a padayatra across the state from 6 November 2017 to 9 January 2019, covering a distance of 3,648 km by foot. It spanned 134 out of the 175 Assembly constituencies.

Prof E Venkatesu, who teaches Political Science at the University of Hyderabad and is the Lokniti-CSDS coordinator for its surveys in Andhra Pradesh, had predicted that the padayatra would be a crucial factor in swinging the election. He had argued, “The padayatra has mobilised people and increased Reddy’s grassroots connect. It helped him raise the issues of farming communities and speak about agrarian distress more effectively. It was a way of establishing the perception that Reddy is closer to the people than Chandrababu.”

While speaking to the media after it became clear than a landslide victory was imminent for him in Andhra, Reddy made sure he referred to the padayatra as one of the key reasons for his win.

Starting the campaign early: By launching his padayatra as early as November 2017, the YSRC’s campaign efforts for the 2019 polls began at least one and a half years before when the elections would actually be held.

The I-Pac Edge in Getting the Messaging Across

Reddy had joined hands with Prashant Kishor’s political consultancy Indian Political Action Commmittee (I-PAC).
Reddy had joined hands with Prashant Kishor’s political consultancy Indian Political Action Commmittee (I-PAC).
(Photo: Twitter)

Reddy had joined hands with Prashant Kishor’s political consultancy Indian Political Action Commmittee (I-PAC), which worked with the party on their campaign for the past two years, with one team located at the YSRC headquarters in Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills and another bunch of people working from the I-PAC office nearby. I-PAC also had one Assembly Constituency Coordinator in each of Andhra’s 175 seats, aiding the YSRC candidates on the ground and providing daily feedback to the central team in Hyderabad.

I-PAC team members working at the YSRC headquarters in Hyderabad.
I-PAC team members working at the YSRC headquarters in Hyderabad.
(Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

I-PAC helped develop the party’s campaign messaging, something it has done successfully in the past for Modi’s 2014 campaign and Nitish Kumar’s 2015 re-election bid in Bihar, among others. For example:

  • It helped the party reach out to around 60,000 influencers in society (like teachers and social workers, not social media influencers) through the Jagan Anna Pilupu (Jagan Anna Is Calling You) initiative
  • Ideated and executed the Ravali Jagan Kavali Jagan anthem which now has more than 20 million views
  • Structured campaigns like Ninnu Nammam Babu (We Don’t Trust You, Babu). The Ninnu Nammam Babu campaign for instance, was “aimed at highlighting the biggest failures of Chandrababu Naidu’s government.” All 175 YSRCP AC-Coordinators visited 20 villages each and conducted village-level meetings focusing on Chandrababu Naidu’s failures.

It is in the conceptualisation, planning and execution of such campaign initiatives that I-PAC has been instrumental.

TDP’s Personal Attacks at Reddy Failed to Connect With Voters

A primary aspect of TDP’s campaign was the repeated allegations against Jaganmohan Reddy of being subservient to the TRS and the BJP. On the campaign trail, Chandrababu Naidu had said, “KCR is giving money to Jagan to fight elections as the Telangana CM has set his eyes on projects and reservoirs in AP.” In another rally, Naidu arguably touched the lowest point of the campaign trail by calling Jaganmohan Reddy and KCR “Modi’s pet dogs.

“Shameless Jaganmohan Reddy is eating dog biscuits, he is distributing them to us also. Jaganmohan Reddy and KCR are pet dogs for Modi, they will be at his feet for a single biscuit. Jagan is going to share those biscuits with you too, beware.”
TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu at an election rally

By making personal attacks against Jaganmohan Reddy such a core component of the TDP’s messaging to voters, Chandrababu ran a largely negative campaign, focused on trying to scare voters about Reddy’s “criminal nature”. Sample this line from our interview with Chandrababu’s son Nara Lokesh, who was IT Minister in AP – when asked if Reddy had a better connect with the people thanks to his padayatra, Lokesh replied, “Where is Jagan connected to the people? He has just gone around kissing people. What is his commitment to the people? I mean, he's a man who's been 16 months in the jail, has 31 cases against him.”

What the campaign revealed was that the TDP could not rely on its own achievements to post a strong bid for re-election. Reddy, with his padayatra and indefatigable campaigning had managed to make this election more about him than the incumbent Chandrababu.

As Jaganmohan Reddy swears in as the next Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, the margin of his victory – at the time of writing this, YSRC is leading in 100% of the Lok Sabha seats and in 87% of the Assembly seats – might just signal that the TDP, with zero Lok Sabha MPs and 22 MLAs (as per current trends) may face five of its bleakest years in Andhra politics.

It’s quite the climb-down for Chandrababu Naidu, who less than 48 hours ago was at the forefront of trying to stitch together an alliance that hoped to oust Narendra Modi as prime minister.

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