Karimnagar, Andhra Pradesh - The central government's order to publish a statutory warning symbol on beedi packets has run into an electoral storm in Andhra Pradesh. It has complicated matters for the Karimnagar Lok Sabha by-election to be held on 4 December, which was necessitated by the resignation of Telangana Rastra Samithi supremo K Chandrasekhar Rao. The election is already being seen as a referendum of sorts on the question of statehood for Telangana.

It may be recalled the Telangana leader quit the MP post in order to emphasise his demand for the creation of a separate Telangana state. He is standing for re-election in this poll. In an election that has since assumed more importance with the entry of popular issues such as the power crisis, the beedi issue became the latest twist last month.

In line with statutory warnings given on cigarette packets, the central government had ordered (GO 297) beedi makers to highlight a warning on all beedi packets from February 2007. The proposed symbol to be used as a warning is a skull, and this has stirred opposition in the region. The resentment has risen to the point that it could impact chances of the United Progressive Alliance's Congress candidate T Jeevan Reddy for the Karimnagar seat.

Working class people in about ten thousand villages of Telangana region use beedis to smoke. The consumption has gone down by about 10 percent subsequent to the emergence of mini-cigarettes.

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The objection is not so much to the use of a warning, as much as it is to the use of the skull symbol to communicate the warning. Though the warning itself unlikely to minimise the consumption in the rural parts, beedi workers are worried that beedi-making units could scale back their operations due to the psychological concern of people leaving their smoking habit. Workers earn around Rs.60 a day and worry that they would lose their job if the new order is implemented. A total of 45 major beedi making units are running in this region and they are providing work to around 7,50,000 women.

Further, some beedi makers are planning to introduce mini-cigarettes in Telangana and have indicated they would like to shutdown some beedi units. Last month, with the implementation of the GO only three months away, beedi companies started discouraging the beedi manufacturing. Some beedi making units in the rural Telangana such as Siricilla and Jagtial are facing imminent closure. Thus, apprehension about the female workers losing their jobs has risen.

Distressed by the uncertainty over their livelihoods, 40 thousand odd beedi making families in the Siricilla and Vemulawada regions of the Karimnagar segment had zeroed in on the leaders of Congress and its allies last month, when they went for electioneering. No political party is daring to oppose beedi workers protests because their stand could tilt the scales of the election itself. The workers have been demanding the withdrawal of the GO 297.

The beedi issue has created apprehensions among the political leaders in the fray for the Karimnagar seat and the chief minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy has attributed the blame on the NDA government and its former ally, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) during his public meetings. In Siricilla, he went on to blame the present union health minister Anbumani Ramdoss for the entire episode. There was a clear confusion among the political circles over the matter as they feel the beedi workers would tilt the scales at the hustings.

TDP supremo Chandrababu Naidu during his two day electioneering in the same constituency branded the millionaire-aspirant for the seat, L Ramana, as a beedi worker in his childhood in order to woo the voters. His party has organised several beedi workers-oriented protests in the campaign. Ramana claims that the TRS supremo K Chandrasekhar Rao, who was labour minister in the UPA cabinet before he resigned, was also responsible for the present GO and has blamed both Congress and TRS for the present state of affairs. "Beedi workers should not lose their job and we would lend a supportive hand to their just struggle," he asserts.

The opposition TDP, which is opposing the separate statehood demand, an unpopular position in Telangana, has seized the opportunity to take on the beedi issue as a major campaign. Overall, the TDP appears to be banking on what it terms the failures of Congress government in all respects from the power crisis down to the lapses of the Congress administration in various subjects.

The TRS, which is banking solely on the Telangana sentiment vote, also took up the beedi issue in Jagtial town on 1 December. Chandrasekhar Rao tried to connect the beedi issue to regional discrimination. "The leaders of Andhra are trying to scapegoat the beedi workers since the smokers in that part rely on Cigars more. If they are really sincere enough over the matter, why can't there be a warning symbol on Cigar rather than the beedi?" he asked in a public rally.

The beedi workers' opposition originally reached a new high on 20 November, as the trade unions organised a huge rally in Karimnagar town. The mobilisation resembled the struggles of Jagtial's peasantry of the late 1970s. "The plight of beedi workers is worsening like the handloom weavers of the region and their pathetic tale is never heard by the political leaders. Hence we have decided to issue a warning to the leaders to boycott the election when they come to us," said Bandru Bhaskar, leader of Indian Federation of Trade Unions(IFTU). The ITFU is the frontal unit of the CPI(ML) New Democracy Party.

The beedi issue notwithstanding, Telenganites, irrespective of their political affiliation appear to be directly supporting the separate statehood demand in this election. A silent but almost certain sentiment of Telangana statehood has echoed in the interior parts of the Karimnagar constituency during latter November. Villagers have reasserted their views openly in the public meetings conducted by the contestants. So strong is the feeling about Telangana statehood that the public raised protest slogans on leaders when they tried to focus the issue of the beedi warning order (GO 297), as they felt the Congress leaders were diverting their attention from the Telangana issue. They even chased ministers Geetha Reddy, Ponnala Lakshmaiah, M Sathyanarayana Rao away for making anti Telangana remarks in their speeches.

Even the bitter enemies of TRS supremo KCR feel the election would remain a historic one in the separate statehood struggle. Congress, the prime occupier in the UPA had promised a separate state for the Telanganites in the 2004 elections and that is how it got the support of the TRS. The party had since backtracked and is now leaving the decision to Sonia Gandhi. In the Karimnagar campaign, the Congress has largely relied on mudslinging against Chandrasekhar Rao, but its leaders are facing a rough weather in many villages. The BJP is claiming that it would bring a private bill in Parliament on the Telangana issue. Only the TDP is clearly opposing the separate state demand.

Still, the beedi issue has already taken its toll. Chief minister Reddy tried to pacify the beedi workers in his two-day electioneering roadshow and even assured the beedi workers of securing the withdrawal of the skull symbol on the beedi packet once the election code is over on December 7. His assurance came two days after the promise of the central labour minister Oscar Fernandes in Hyderabad. Fernandes, during his visit to Andhra Pradesh promised to secure the withdrawal of the skull symbol from the mandated warning on the beedi packets. Not to be left out, the beedi companies have also run their advertisements in local newspapers, saying that the state government has secured the withdrawal.

For his part, TRS's Chandrasekhar Rao promised to take up the skull issue by planning a huge rally in state capital after the election. He assured the beedi workers of leading a protest rally in national capital. "The TRS would engage special trains and take the beedi workers to Delhi and it would organise a rally," he said.