On April 22, as I entered the college grounds in Mahbubnagar town in Andhra Pradesh for Narendra Modi’s meeting, I noticed hundreds of pamphlets strewn all over the place. They were distributed to the crowd that turned up the previous day—for Rahul Gandhi’s rally in support of party candidate, Union Minister S Jaipal Reddy. I picked up one—it was a four-page pamphlet—which explained Reddy’s contribution at the national level to various policy formulations. There was not a line on what he did for the constituency he represented from 2009 until now—Chevella, which abuts Mahbubnagar.
It did not take long to understand why people, with whom I had interacted before reaching the venue, were so critical of him. He had represented Mahbubnagar years ago, shifted to Nalgonda district, and then, to Chevella before returning home.
“What has he ever done for us?” fumed Ashok, a voter in Mahbubnagar. Pasha, who runs a pan shop, complained that drinking water is supplied once a week. “Even in olden days when there were no roads or mobiles, people like me were not forced to buy water,” he recalled.
By all indications, Reddy may lose this election. Ironic it could be, but the birth of Telangana could mark the beginning of the end of his long political career, besmirched, because of his tendency to change constituencies. It worked in the past but unlikely in the future.
Pasha’s anger isn’t an isolated case. As I travelled hundreds of kilometres across Telangana and Andhra, the disgust of voters towards their elected representatives is complete. Their wish list is simple: safe drinking water, motorable roads, functioning schools and hospitals, power for farming, availability of elected representative in the constituency at least for a few days a month to enable them put forth their grievances. Even these are not being met.
In the Hyderabad headquarters of Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen, it is mandatory for all its MLAs to be available to the public for two hours a day. There would be a long line of visitors—each with a different problem—and the MLA would either write down a letter or make a call to the authority concerned seeking redressal. In many cases, it is possible that the problem may not have been resolved but the voter is still satisfied that the MLA heard him out. It is nothing extraordinary—this is what is expected of an MLA or an MP in the normal course—but when politics becomes another form of business, the way one operates also changes.
After landing at the Visakhapatnam airport and getting into a cab, I tried to check the local election scene with cab driver Satish. “What do I tell you about our fate, sir? Whoever we elect deserts us after five years,” he rued. The constituency elected former Congress chief minister N Janardhan Reddy in 2004 (he passed away a couple of days ago) and Union Minister D Purandeswari in 2009. After being a minister in the UPA government for eight long years, she developed sudden love for the BJP and contested from another constituency, 600 km away in Rayalaseema, this time. At least, people of Visakhapatnam will have no regrets even if she ends up on the losing side.
It is not that politicians are unaware of this disconnect. In a state which has become infamous for its scandals and where almost every other MP or MLA has some business or the other, they find “bribing” the voters at the time of elections an easier option than being among them for five years. Lok Satta Party chief Jaya Prakash Narayan made a rough estimate that all candidates have together distributed `8,000 crore to voters across the two states—Telangana and Andhra.
An MLA candidate from Prakasam district, known for its mines which yield revenues running into hundreds of crores, bemoaned that this time round, he had to give `1,500 each to 1.5 lakh voters in his constituency—`22.5 crore. If contracts of various types are the big source of money, there are also legislators who find innovative methods, just as one did in Telangana where consumption of treated water is a must in many villages affected by fluoride problem. The treated water was being sold for `4 a 20-litre can. The MLA called representatives of the five local firms engaged in this business and advised that all of them up the price to `10 a can—they could keep `6 and pass on `4 to him. The MLA’s chelas were surprised at his intelligence quotient.
When you talk to the educated sections, you find them complaining that voters are taken in by liquor and money that comes free at the time of elections. It reminded me of a cartoon I saw many years ago when a poor man is shown carrying a heavy load (of democracy) on his back, almost bending to the ground. The load has to be carried by others who are supposed to be its representatives, not just by the poor voter. Just as Papa Rao, a small businessman in Srikakulam told me with disdain, “What is wrong in taking money? In any case, we will not see them for another five years.” It is this alienation that is dangerous to politicos and the system they are supposed to represent—democracy.