Vijayawada: A familiar roadblock has forced Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy to reverse a move that his father (former CM Rajasekhara Reddy or YSR) oversaw and instead follow in the footsteps of N.T. Rama Rao, the father-in-law of his arch-rival N. Chandrababu Naidu. After the Andhra Pradesh chief minister’s plan to establish three capitals was blocked by the state’s legislative council, speculation suggests that the chief minister may decide to scrap the upper house.
Interestingly, Rama Rao, popularly known as NTR, abolished the council (of the then-undivided Andhra Pradesh) during his term as the chief minister in 1985. He viewed the house, dominated by the opposition Congress, as a hurdle to pass Bills and did away with it, dubbing it unproductive.
But the Congress government, under YSR, restored the bicameral legislature in 2007. This action provided him respite from dissident party leaders, helping rehabilitate many of them in the council. YSR’s rival Chandrababu, who came to power in 2014, also decided to retain the bicameral legislature.
Like NTR, Jagan has also been facing hurdles from the upper house during the past eight months. The YSR Congress Party has a large majority in the assembly and passed a Bill to make English the medium of instruction in all government schools. This, Jagan said, would provide students from poor economic background equal opportunities with counterparts in public schools. The government also passed another Bill providing separate commissions for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. However, these bills failed to get the approval of the council.
Jagan’s ambitious plan to decentralise development also hit the same roadblock. The plan includes establishing three capitals: The executive capital in Visakhapatnam in the northern coastal region, a judicial capital in Kurnool in the Rayalaseema region and the retention of Amaravati as the legislative capital.
Therefore, the YSR Congress Party leader seems to be shadowing the rhetoric employed by NTR, who was the founder of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). “Does a poor bifurcated state like Andhra Pradesh need an upper house by incurring an annual expenditure of Rs 60 crore,” the CM asked. Dropping a clear hint at scrapping the council, he observed that it abdicated its advisory role and is trying to “subvert” the people’s mandate given to his party.
Jana Sena Party leader Nadendla Manohar, however, said Jagan’s hints exhibit his intolerance to dissent that the upper house expressed on the “omissions and commissions” of his government. Manohar, who was the last assembly speaker of the undivided Andhra Pradesh state, the members of the council are experienced and supposed to keep the government on the “right track”. “But the move to scrap it is a peril for parliamentary democracy and a sign of autocratic functioning,” he told The Wire.
Naidu’s last laugh
Although Jagan swept the polls early in 2019, winning 151 out of 175 seats in the Assembly, the TDP retains a majority in the council. The 58-member council has 26 TDP members and nine YSR Congress members. There are also five members from the Progressive Democratic Front, three from the BJP, three independent and eight nominated members. Elections for four vacant seats are due.
After accusing Jagan of ‘vendetta politics‘ since he took the CM post, TDP chief Naidu saw an opportunity to strike back. With trademark ingenuity, Naidu directed council chairman Shariff Mohammed Ahmad to refer the Bill to a Select Committee for its opinion, instead of voting on it.
This was a tactical decision, seeing as the council can reject the Bill only once. If the assembly passes it a second time, it is empowered to pass the Bill, irrespective of the council’s opinion [the upper house enjoys only limited powers].
Thus, the TDP chief’s manoeuvre has put Jagan in a bind. Apart from hinting at the council’s abolition, the chief minister is now mulling other alternatives. These include shifting the executive capital in a phased manner through administrative GOs, beginning with the HODs; promulgating an ordinance to legitimise the Bill or waiting for the Select Committee to clear the Bill, which may take four months.
If an ordinance is promulgated, the ball will be in the BJP’s court. Governor Biswabhusan Harichandan may send back the proposal to the assembly or refer it to the Union Ministry of Law or Home Affairs for their opinion.
BJP mounts pressure
After allying with Jana Sena leader and actor Pawan Kalyan, the BJP has ramped up efforts to increase its presence by taking up the capital issue. Technically, the discretion of locating the capital is rested with the state government. But BJP leaders claim that the role of the Union government cannot be ignored on the question of establishing the capital in Amaravati.
“The Centre, under NDA, has sanctioned educational institutes like AIIMS and an agriculture university, apart from declaringAmaravati as a heritage city and smart city. It has also released Rs 1,500 crore for infrastructure development. Therefore, we strongly make a case for the capital to remain in Amaravati only,” contends BJP MLC Somu Veerraju.
The capital region envisaged by the previous government is spread over the Krishna and Guntur districts. Most landowners in this area are Kammas, who have remained the backbone for the TDP since the days of NTR. With the TDP’s drubbing in the recent general elections, the BJP hopes to grow by eating into the TDP’s vote bank.
They have also expressed support for farmers, who have been agitating against the plan to decentralise the capital. Several farmers gave up more than 33,000 acres of land under a pooling for the capital. The Jagan government’s decision to unbundle the capital and take away the secretariat has caused heartburn among the farmers, many of whose lands have become unsuitable for agriculture once construction activities began.
Gali Nagaraja is a freelance journalist who writes on the two Telugu states.