The scale of the Telugu Desam's rout in the Andhra Pradesh municipal elections exceeds that of the party's defeat in the 2004 Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. The message from urban Andhra Pradesh goes far beyond the borders of the State. The more so given Chandrababu Naidu's unchallenged status for years as the poster boy of the 'reforms' in this country. And as "CEO" of a State The New York Times called the "darling of western governments and corporations."

Interestingly, none of the excuses trotted out for his party's disastrous show in the 2004 polls holds good this time. And yet again, the media - even entrenched sections of the Telugu media - missed the public mood. Reports of the great crowds drawn by Mr. Naidu re-kindled illusions last seen in 2004. With the same results.

But first, the score. Winning more than twice the number of wards the Telugu Desam did, the Congress takes the post of chairperson in 75 of 96 municipalities. It won an absolute majority in 68. The TDP managed that in just six. Of the remaining 22 that are 'hung' more will go the Congress way as the smoke clears.

The Congress could end up controlling 10 of 11 municipal corporations. It has won a majority in eight. And it could manage the numbers in two more. The Telugu Desam has taken a drubbing in Mr. Naidu's home district of Chittoor. The TDP has been smashed even where it won Assembly seats in May 2004. In East Godavari for instance, it lost every one of 30 wards in the Tuni Municipal Council. (In 2004 it had annexed the Tuni Assembly seat.) And this despite the sitting MLA, its former Finance Minister, heading its poll campaign there.

This Congress Government has had more than its share of follies in the past year. But the TDP's agenda this election did not go beyond personal attacks on Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy. Given its own record in office, the TDP was unable to push the real issues. Its campaign was more panic-driven. In nine years of Mr. Naidu, the State did not issue a single below-the-poverty-line (BPL) ration card. That is, till just before the last polls. In one year of the Congress, lakhs of such cards were newly made out. This is a State where hunger and food have been huge issues even in urban areas.

In nine years of Mr. Naidu, the State did not issue a single below-the-poverty-line (BPL) ration card. That is, till just before the last polls. In one year of the Congress, lakhs of such cards were newly made out. This is a State where hunger and food have been huge issues even in urban areas.
Also, the Reddy Government has not, so far at least, imposed giant burdens on urban dwellers. Contrast that with Mr. Naidu's Golden Age. In his time, the public were repeatedly hit by hikes in water charges, power rates, and a number of other costs. Also, Mr. Naidu's union-bashing (so richly praised in The New York Times) did not help his party much. The present Government's approach to labour is relatively less confrontational.

Who will Mr. Naidu (and user-friendly columnists) blame this time? The messiah of hi-tech now says the Electronic Voting Machines were partly to blame! He clearly feels no need to introspect.

  • One TDP excuse for the earlier defeats was its tie-up with the BJP. That party's communal taint, the TDP argued, had hurt its own secular image. This time, there was no such alliance. The BJP itself has been obliterated. And the MIM too, has taken a beating. Muslims have voted far less for it this time around. Meanwhile, the Left has greatly improved its position.

  • The second oft-repeated rant was this: "The Maoists helped the Congress party in 2004." Well, now they're at war with each other. And Mr. Reddy has still got his mandate.

  • The third major excuse for Debacle 2004 was the Congress alliance with the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. But there was no such tie-up this time. And the TRS is, if anything, a bigger loser than the TDP. The party holding aloft the banner of Telangana was humbled in that region. With TRS and Congress candidates slugging it out, the TDP should have gained. It didn't. So the plea of the pundits of 2004, that it was all just `electoral arithmetic,' does not wash.

    The Congress also fought the Left in over half the seats the latter contested. Despite a few adjustments at the local level, the two clashed bitterly in many places. As in Kurnool, where the TDP tried to cash in on the fight between Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The attempt failed and the TDP lost even where its enemies were at loggerheads.

  • Nor can we pin it on the failures of lesser bosses of the Telugu Desam. Mr. Naidu is that party's one and only leader. In the Congress you can always blame a defeat on the "failure of the State unit." Or on the High Command being misled. Such pleas don't work for the TDP. No second rung leadership exists in it that counts for anything.

  • All this, in urban Andhra. One lesson the pundits drew from the 2004 rout was this: maybe Mr. Naidu doted too much on the cities. Neglect of rural Andhra Pradesh was the sole problem. But even in the 2004 polls, the cities and towns went firmly against him. In mighty Cyberabad, image capital of the world, the TDP managed just one out of 13 Assembly seats last year. Despite its then tie-up with the BJP.

    This time, urban Andhra Pradesh allowed no illusions at all about how much he had done for them. The TDP's share of the urban vote dropped three per cent in just over one year. What has been common in three successive defeats is that the party was beaten across the spectrum. Rural, urban, city, town, Telangana, Rayalaseema, and coastal Andhra. The TDP can run, but it can't hide.

Nobody loves the Congress. The public in this State has often shown its exasperation with that party in the past two decades. It will doubtless do that again at some point. This time, it gave it a mandate. The Telugu Desam itself was born of the electorate's disgust with the Congress in the early 1980s. It has moved a long way from that point. And public anger with the TDP has not declined in the 16 months it has been out of power.

So can we start asking if, maybe, the policies of the Telugu Desam had something to do with its hara-kiri? See how badly the Congress was routed in States where its Chief Ministers admired the `Naidu model.' It's telling that the Congress swept these polls in Andhra Pradesh while being crushed in local body elections in Kerala. To be fair, the basis for the Naidu model was laid down by, first and foremost, the Congress. Mr. Naidu, however, raised it to an art form the latter could admire but copy only at grave risk. If Modi's Gujarat was Hindutva's laboratory, Naidu's Andhra Pradesh was the playpen of neo-liberal economics. It is the policies of that era the TDP needs to ponder on.

Anti-poor policies

The notion that Mr. Naidu was pro-urban and anti-rural was a seductive one. More so for analysts explaining their own failures. The polices of his government were anti-poor, whether urban or rural. The effects in rural areas were more devastating, as the suicides of thousands of farmers showed. But Andhra Pradesh is still a State where many in the cities remain linked to the countryside. Lots of city dwellers have a brother or father who is still a farmer.

Again, despite its failures, the present Congress Government did ensure that at least some families of suicide victims were compensated. It did set up an excellent commission to go into the crisis of agriculture in the state. It acknowledged widespread distress.

The TDP was the party of Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao. A charismatic leader who never tasted this kind of wipe-out even when beaten at the polls. Against all the heckling and ridicule of the media, NTR gave rice to the poor at Rs.2 a kg. In the first half of his years in power, Mr. Naidu gained much from the goodwill his father-in-law enjoyed. Just before elections, he would revert to some of those policies. Cut-outs of NTR would emerge from the mothballs. After the polls, it would be business as usual.

Only, in 2004, an outraged electorate - rural and urban - decreed otherwise. And Mr. Naidu was out of business. His legacy is still fresh in the minds of people. As is their anger.

This time Mr. Naidu was out of power. He still had great media support. But there was less of the cloying `national' media. Despite their bluster in covering their tracks after Debacle 2004, they were less keen to burn their fingers this time around. And there was no stream of high-flying hacks from adoring foreign media whose stories could have been written without once leaving their own countries. And no visits by Bill Gates, Bill Clinton or Paul O'Neill.

For the Congress there is a mandate. But also the lesson that pushing policies similar to Mr. Naidu's will invite the same results. For the media, yet again, is a chance to learn something about how people view the pro-rich, anti-poor measures that pass for 'reforms' in this country.