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Andhra Pradesh: Caste to the fore again

By S A Hasan
April 15, 2009 16:31 IST
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The simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and Andhra Pradesh assembly have brought the caste factor to the fore once again. State politics, which revolved around two major politically dominant castes for almost five decades, is now witnessing muscle-flexing by another caste group which seeks to get a bigger slice of the political cake. The traditional rival castes -- Reddys and Kammas -- now have to contend with another rival – the Kapus.

The caste factor is likely to impact the outcome of the 2009 election, since the Kapus are making a determined bid through Praja Rajyam Party floated by Telugu megastar Chiranjeevi.

Caste plays a big role in the selection of candidates by different parties for the Lok Sabha and the assembly.

The state politics is only an aggregate of the politics at the regional, sub-regional and district level. The state can be divided into three distinct political regions -- Telangana (part of the erstwhile Hyderabad state), coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema.

Further, Telangana has two sub-regions -- north and south. Coastal Andhra also has two sub-regions -- the north coastal region and south coastal region. Rayalaseema has its own distinctive brand of politics dominated by factionalism in three out of the four districts in the region.

Out of the 23 districts in the state, the Reddys are a politically dominant upper caste in 15 districts where their share of the total district population is above 10 percent. Kadapa accounts for the highest proportion of Reddys at 27 percent of the total population. The Reddy-dominated districts include Kurnool, Anantapur and Chittoor in Rayalaseema region, Nalgonda, Medak, Warangal, Mahbubnagar, Rangareddy, Nizamabad, Karimnagar and Adilabad in Telangana and Nellore, Guntur and Prakasam in coastal Andhra.

Kamma-dominated districts are Krishna and Khamman, though Kammas share power with Reddys in Prakasam, Guntur and Chittoor. Kapus dominate the politics of two districts -- East and West Godavari. Other Backward Castes dominate the politics of three north coastal districts -- Srikakulam, Vizianagaram and Visakhapatnam. Kapus share power with Kammas in Krishna and Guntur districts. Hyderabad is dominated by Muslims, as they account for 42 percent of the total electorate.

Right since the formation of Andhra Pradesh, the Reddys have dominated state politics, with the Kammas also getting 'empowered' with the formation of the Telugu Desam Party by Telugu matinee idol N T Rama Rao in 1982. Prior to the birth of the TDP, the Communist parties were dominated by Kammas, especially in the coastal districts and Khammam. Reddys dominated Left politics in Nalgonda and other Telangana districts. Whenever the Left parties had a substantial presence in the assembly, most of their members hailed from the Kamma community. Since 1983, the number of Kamma MLAs has increased substantially.

In the assembly elections during 1983-2004, the number of Reddy members ranged from 73 to 91. Similarly, the number of Kamma MLAs has ranged from 35 to 54. In the 2004 election, the Congress and its then allies -- the Telangana Rashtra Samiti, Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India-Marxist -- swept the assembly and Lok Sabha seats in the state.

Among the 294 members elected to the assembly, 180 belonged to the forward castes.

They included 91 Reddys, 34 Kammas, 27 Kapus, 11 Velamas, 7 Kshatriyas, 4 Vysyas and one each from Lingayat, Are Kshatriya and Marwari community. The weaker sections -- including Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and minorities -- accounted for 114 members in the house, including 48 BCs, 39 SCs, 16 STS and 11 minorities (Muslims).

Among the 42 MPs elected to Lok Sabha in 2004 elections, 24 belonged to forward castes, including 10 Reddys, six Kapus, five Kammas, two Velamas and one Brahmin. The weaker sections accounted for 18 members, including seven BCs, six SCs, three STs and two Muslims. This reflected the usual trends in the earlier elections. Moreover, it also indicated that more Reddys were elected whenever the Congress swept the polls and, similarly, more Kammas were successful whenever the Telugu Desam performed well.

In the 2009 election, all the major political parties have ensured adequate representation to various caste groups even while allotting a big chunk of tickets to candidates from particular castes. The Congress has allotted 50 percent of the tickets (147 out of 294) to the forward castes and the remaining 50 percent (147) to the weaker sections. The Grand Alliance consisting of the TDP, TRS, CPI and CPI-M also followed a similar pattern by earmarking tickets to 145 candidates from the forward castes. On the other hand, the Praja Rajyam, floated by to empower the backward classes, has given tickets to only 102 candidates from the forward castes.

However, their blatant preference for particular forward caste exposes their real caste bias. The Congress has fielded the largest number of Reddys, whereas the Grand Alliance has sponsored the largest number of Kammas. Not to lag behind its two major rivals, the Praja Rajyam has also picked up the largest number of Kapus for the elections.

The Congress has given tickets to 88 Reddys, compared to 66 by the Grand Alliance and 42 by the Praja Rajyam.

The Praja Rajyam has chosen 37 Kapus, as against 14 by the Congress and only eight by the Grand Alliance. The Grand Alliance has selected 46 Kammas, as against 16 by the Congress and 11 by the Praja Rajyam.

The Congress has given tickets to 69 BC candidates whereas the Grand Alliance has selected 71 BCs and the Praja Rajyam 104 BC nominees. The Congress has sought to balance the aspirations of Madigas and Malas, the rival groups of Scheduled Castes, but both the Grand Alliance and the Praja Rajyam have nominated more Malas than Madigas. Tickets for Scheduled Castes by the main parties have been given mostly to Lambadas and Koyas. Again, the main contenders have chosen mostly Muslims among the religious minorities.

Among the Lok Sabha candidates, the Congress has fielded 20 from the forward castes, followed by 16 by the Grand Alliance and 12 by the Praja Rajyam. The Congress has given tickets to 22 candidates from the weaker sections whereas the Grand Alliance has fielded 26 from these sections and the Praja Rajyam has selected 30 candidates.

Compared to previous elections, the caste polarisation is more acute this time due to the emergence of the Praja Rajyam, which is perceived to be the political outfit of the backward classes, mainly the numerically strong Kapus and their associated castes, like Turpu Kapus, Munnuru Kapus, Balijas, Ontaris and Telagas. And, in the name of doing social justice, the Praja Rajyam has been making efforts to woo OBCs, as well as Dalits (SCs), Girijans (STs) and minorities (Muslims and Christians).

The Kapus and OBCs are evolving a new caste matrix to pose a formidable challenge to the Congress and TDP. Thus, there are attempts at consolidating the political base of the backward classes and Kapus in north coastal Andhra, particularly East and West Godavari districts, as well as in the south coastal Andhra consisting of Krishna, Guntur, Prakasam and Nellore.

In Rayalaseema too, efforts are on to consolidate Balija caste base in Kadapa and Kurnool districts. However, the Praja Rajyam has not been able to bring about consolidation of BCs in Telangana region in pursuit of its social justice slogan. The result is that the backward classes are far from united in the 10 Telangana districts and this is one of the reasons for the Praja Rajyam failing to take off here. In fact, both in the Rayalaseema and Telangana regions, the main battle is being fought by the Congress and the Grand Alliance with the Praja Rajyam pushed to third place.

Overall, while the Reddys belonging to different parties are poised to fight it out among themselves in a large number of constituencies in 15 out of 23 districts. Kapus and other BCs are pitted against one another in 10 districts and Kammas are taking on one another in five districts. Velamas are largely contesting from Karimnagar, Warangal and Medak districts in Telangana. Candidates of other forward castes and OBCs are slogging it out against one another in several districts.

Apart from the Congress, the TDP and the Praja Rajyam, other parties have also acquired casteist reputations. The TRS is closely identified with Velama caste, Both the Communist parties also have close affinity with the Kammas. The BJP is also associated with the forward castes, even though OBCs are also given prominence in the party. The Lok Satta Party also chants the 'social justice' mantra and it has also fielded a large number of BCs in the assembly and Lok Sabha constituencies.

With the key players fighting in the name of caste, it is no wonder that parties which are able to forge links with dominant caste groups are able to sweep the polls. In the 2004 election, 69 percent of the Reddys had preferred the Congress and 52 percent of the Kammas had pitched for the Telugu Desam. The Congress-led alliance was able to secure more votes of Kapus, OBCs, SCs, STs and minorities compared to the rival alliance consisting of the TDP and the BJP.

No political party can ignore the caste factor. No wonder, out of the 14 chief ministers in Andhra Pradesh in the last 52 years, as many as eight were Reddys, followed by Kammas (3), Brahmin, Velama and Dalit (one each).

Going by current indications from the ground, the political caste equations in the state emerging from the 2009 poll are not likely to be drastically different from what they were in the past. Both the Reddys and Kammas are likely to hold on to their vicious grip over state politics with Kapus making unsuccessful attempts to end this stranglehold.

The backward classes have to wait till the 2014 election to pose a real challenge to the forward caste-based political parties and grab power from them. Who will emerge as the messiah of the OBCs five years from now is difficult to predict.

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S A Hasan