Why ‘kapu’ factor holds the key in Andhra

Ground reports suggest that Jana Sena Party could pick up a few seats in the coastal districts, but would not get the required critical mass of seats to be able to become a decisive force in government formation

Driving through the scenic coastal region in Andhra Pradesh, one can come across people huddled in small groups at roadside tea stalls, animatedly discussing the upcoming elections. The recurring question that pops up at these gatherings is which way the ‘Kapu’ factor will play out.

Kapus, a numerically strong and influential community in the Godavari belt, may well hold the trump card in the April 11 Assembly polls because the actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan is making his electoral debut this time. His Jana Sena Party (JSP), which had supported the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine in the 2014 elections, is in the fray now in alliance with the BSP and left parties.

The 47-year-old actor, who belongs to the Kapu community, has a massive following among the youth and is widely seen as an idealist untainted by politics of manipulation. kapus constitute nearly 20% of the state’s population and are largely concentrated in East Godavari and West Godavari districts.

A young professional photographer, Ravi Teja, questions, “We never got to control the levers of power. Despite being in a minority, the Kammas and Reddys have been enjoying political power throughout history. Why not a leader from our community this time?” He argues that the Kapu community was also used as a vote bank by leaders of other dominant castes and was never given its due.

The presence of Pawan Kalyan in the fray has completely changed the poll dynamics in a state that had traditionally witnessed a straight contest between the TDP and the Congress. The grand old party has since been squeezed out with the YSR Congress Party, headed by YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, occupying its political space.

Why Kapus are important

Whoever won majority seats in the Kapu-dominated coastal region, particularly the twin Godavari districts, captured power in the combined Andhra Pradesh. It is pretty much part of the political folklore now. Nearly, 38 constituencies in the 175-member Andhra Pradesh Assembly are dominated by Kapus, who are known for their strong caste loyalty. In the 2014 elections, a majority of these seats went to the TDP as Pawan had extensively campaigned for the TDP-BJP combine. His support played a major role in helping the TDP capture power, in what had turned out to be a close contest. The difference in vote share between the TDP and YSRCP was just 1.75%.

The TDP had won 12 of the 19 Assembly constituencies in East Godavari and made a clean sweep in West Godavari, winning 14 of the 15 seats, while its ally BJP had won the remaining seat.

Though JSP is not expected to reach a critical mass to come to power on its own, the party’s rank and file hope that Pawan may well end up becoming the HD Kumaraswamy of Andhra in the event of a fractured mandate.

However, Pawan rules out such a scenario, saying his party would get full majority and form the government as the people were yearning for a change. “I don’t like the tag of a King Maker. This is democracy. People will give us a full mandate,” he adds.

Whose apple cart Pawan will upset

The key question being asked in political circles is whose party Pawan will spoil in the end. Depending on who you are talking to, there are two divergent scenarios possible here. The ruling TDP leaders contend that Pawan’s presence would lead to a split in the anti-incumbency vote and would ultimately benefit them.

However, the YSRCP camp argues that the supporters of the popular actor, who had voted for the TDP in the previous elections following his campaign, would now turn away from the ruling party, thus dealing a major blow to Chandrababu Naidu. “Our support is intact. It is the TDP, which will suffer a dent,” Jagan asserted.

Kapu-backward class rivalry

The Godavari belt has witnessed a traditional rivalry between the kapus and backward classes, who are numerically stronger but lack political hedge. “As a result, there is an attempt by the YSRCP to consolidate BCs in its favour because it has almost given up on Kapu votes,” says a close friend of Pawan’s family who doesn’t want to disclose identity.

In a bid to woo the kapu community, the TDP government announced 5% reservation for it within the new 10% quota for the economically weaker sections unveiled by the Centre.

Jagan, on the other hand, made a significant statement denouncing the tendency to promise “impractical quotas to kapus”. This was clearly aimed at placating the BCs who fear that reservations for kapus would adversely affect their prospects in government jobs.

Quota is key issue

The kapu community has been on an agitation mode, demanding reservations in government jobs and educational institutions. Incidentally, the quota for kapus was one of the key poll promises of the TDP in the 2014 elections.

The state Assembly had unanimously passed a bill in December 2017, providing for five percent reservation to kapus, and sent it to the Centre for approval. However, it remained on paper as the proposed quota breached the 50 percent ceiling set by the Supreme Court.

The state had witnessed a violent agitation in January 2016 with M Padmanabham,  a former Congress MP from Kakinada and prominent leader of the community, undertaking an indefinite fast, demanding reservation for the community.

“There are 34 kapu-dominated assembly seats in the twin Godavari districts. If they vote en-bloc to a political party, then no one can stop that party from coming to power,” says senior political analyst G Nagaraj.

Curious strategy

There is a buzz in political circles about a tacit understanding between Pawan Kalyan and Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu to scuttle the march of Jagan Reddy who appears to have an edge in the poll battle.

Pawan’s campaign theme and the tone and tenor of his speeches at election rallies strengthen the suspicion in the opposition camp that he has struck a deal with the TDP. During the public meetings, the Jana Sena chief has been mainly targeting Jagan and accusing him of joining hands with the TRS, the ruling party in neighbouring Telangana, to obstruct development in Andhra.

“The more he (Pawan) talks the language of Naidu and peddles the ruling party’s narrative, the more the charges of the Jana Sena Party being a B team of the TDP will stick,” a YSRCP leader V Padma said.

“There are four clear indicators of the understanding between the two parties. First, Pawan is repeating Chandrababu Naidu’s narrative by attacking Jagan and TRS. Second, he has put up weak candidates in several constituencies to help the ruling party. Third, he has roped in Mayawati and forged an alliance with her party in the hope to chip away votes of dailts who form the key support base for YSRCP. Fourth, Jana Sena has neither put up its candidate in Mangalagiri where CM’s son Nara Lokesh is contesting nor has Pawan campaigned in the constituency,” said Nagaraj.