Hyderabad: On 28 September, the two main parties in Andhra Pradesh — the ruling YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) — announced their candidates for the 30 October bypoll in Badvel, necessitated by the death of sitting MLA G. Venkata Subbaiah of the YSRCP.
While the YSRCP fielded Sudha, Subbaiah’s wife, the TDP opted for Obulapuram Rajasekhar, who had lost to the MLA in the 2019 assembly elections.
Five days later, on 3 October, the TDP withdrew Rajasekhar’s candidature, after a politburo meeting headed by party chief Chandrababu Naidu. The party cited a nearly three-decade-old tradition — of not fielding candidates in bypolls that are brought on by the death of a sitting MLA, when one of the candidates is a family member of the deceased MLA.
It’s a tradition the TDP has not followed steadfastly. But in this instance, it said that it took into consideration the fact that Sudha was from the Dalit community, apart from being Subbaiah’s wife.
“It was a unanimous decision, and this is our tradition to not field a candidate if any family member of a deceased MP or MLA is contesting. When Naidu mentioned this in the meeting, everyone agreed,” the TDP’s state president K. Atchannaidu told ThePrint Monday.
But the decision also comes at a time when the TDP is in the middle of a streak of humiliating defeats in the state, starting with the assembly elections in 2019, when the Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy-led YSRCP secured a thumping victory, and continuing until the most recent local body polls, in which the ruling party secured another landslide win.
The TDP had boycotted the Zilla Parishad Territorial Constituencies (ZPTC) and Mandal Parishad Territorial Constituencies (MPTC) polls, held in April, the results for which came out last week. It accused the Jagan government of holding the elections in an undemocratic and unfair manner.
The party, however, insists that its election fortunes had no bearing on the decision to opt out of the Badvel bypoll.
“Our decision has nothing to do with winning or losing; nor are we scared of contesting against anyone. We have just followed our tradition because the ticket was being given to a family member,” TDP leader Pattabi Ram told ThePrint.
NTR started tradition, but party has flouted it on occasion
According to Atchannaidu, the tradition was started by party founder, former chief minister N.T. Rama Rao, the legendary actor-turned-politician commonly known as NTR, sometime in the late 1980s.
Several party leaders ThePrint approached, including Atchannaidu, do not remember the exact year, but do reckon that the tradition came into existence from NTR’s time. He had founded the TDP in 1982.
Leaders, however, told ThePrint that in 2002, when Congress’ Devarakonda MLA Ragya Naik was killed in a Naxal attack the previous year, the TDP opted out of the bypoll after his wife Bharathi was given the Congress ticket. She was unanimously elected as an MLA.
Then, in 2006, TDP did not field a candidate in the by-election necessitated after the death of Congress legislator C. Narsi Reddy, who was also killed in a Naxal attack. The Congress had handed the ticket to the MLA’s son C. Ram Mohan Reddy.
In fact, in 2009, when then-CM and Jagan’s father Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy died in a helicopter crash, the TDP did not field a candidate against his wife, Y.S. Vijayamma, who contested on behalf of the Congress.
There are three other such instances of bypolls where the TDP has refrained from contesting.
But it hasn’t always followed the tradition, breaking it on at least two occasions.
For instance, in 2000, when Congress MLA P. Indra Reddy died in a car crash, his widow Sabitha Indira Reddy (now a minister in Telangana CM K. Chandrashekar Rao’s cabinet) was handed the party ticket. The TDP, however, fielded Kitchannagari Lakshma Reddy, who lost the poll.
Then in 2006, when sitting Congress MLA from Visakhapatnam, Dronamraju Satyanarayana, died, his son Dronamraju Srinivasa Rao contested and won the bypoll. At that time, the TDP had fielded Abdul Rehman as its candidate.
Not just TDP, an age-old tradition in Andhra
Experts say this ‘tradition’ is not just limited to TDP, and has at times been followed by the YSRCP and the Congress in the past.
Hyderabad-based political analyst Palwai Raghavendra Reddy told ThePrint that the tradition was followed by major political parties through the 1990s and 2000s out of goodwill or respect for the family.
There have been almost six instances in which the YSRCP and the Congress separately did not contest when a TDP representative’s death warranted a bypoll and family members were given tickets.
For instance, in 2002, when then-Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi of the TDP died in an helicopter crash, his wife Vijayakumari was announced as the party’s candidate for Amalapuram Lok Sabha bypoll. The Congress did not contest the bypoll.
The Congress also refrained from contesting a 2007 by-election against the TDP at the Therlam assembly constituency for a similar reason.
Even the YSRCP has maintained this unwritten decorum. In 2014, when TDP MLA Tangirala Prabhakar Rao died, his daughter Tangirala Soumya was the party’s candidate at the Nandigama assembly constituency. The YSRCP did not field any candidate.
In 2015, when TDP MLA Venkata Ramana’s death warranted a bypoll in Tirupati assembly constituency, his wife Sugunamma was handed the party ticket. The YSRCP stayed out of the contest.
“This is like a tradition in (erstwhile undivided) Andhra Pradesh. Most of the parties used to follow it out of goodwill to support the deceased leader’s family; it is like out of respect. But for the YSRCP, this is not any party policy as such,” a senior YSRCP leader told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.
Telangana Congress leader Mahesh Konagala also said this was “standard practice” in the Telugu-speaking region.
“This was more like a custom to allow the family members of deceased to contest freely. But a few parties broke the tradition. For instance, KCR’s TRS did not follow the tradition in the 2008 bypoll after the death of Congress leader Janardhan Reddy,” Mahesh said.
Janardhan Reddy’s son, P. Vishnuvardhan Reddy, contested on a Congress ticket and won with a thumping majority, owing to his father’s popularity. At that time too, the TDP did not field a candidate but that was also because of its agreement with the Congress, which reciprocated by not fielding a candidate in Therlam.
According to Raghavendra Reddy, however, since 2014, when Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated, the pattern has changed.
Political analysts also said that the TDP’s latest move is as much about strategy as it is sticking to tradition.
“In Badvel, the TDP wants to play it safe. If you see its record of losses, it would be difficult to even put up a fight. Also why unnecessarily get bulldozed by the ruling party?” Raghavendra Reddy said. “It does not want to get bashed by everyone that ‘TDP is losing ground’. It is not going to make a major difference even if they gain votes or win here. So, it is a very safe, strategic decision by TDP.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)