On the face of it, the ‘village volunteer’ scheme comes across as one of those innocuous-sounding government initiatives. However, the flagship programme of the Jagan Mohan Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh has an elaborate political planning behind it.
It is a carefully crafted plan by Jagan’s YSR Congress Party to scuttle the expansion of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state.
Over 2.8 lakh ‘village volunteers’ have been appointed by the YSRCP government, with a monthly honorarium of ₹5,000 each, to take governance to the doorsteps of the people.
While it is ostensibly aimed at ensuring the last-mile delivery of welfare schemes and services to every household and act as a bridge between the government and the people, there is a political strategy behind the ambitious programme, which was launched on the occasion of Independence Day.
Countering ‘panna pramukhs’
According to sources in the ruling party camp, the volunteer-based system would serve as an “invincible army” to counter the growth of BJP, which is keen on making inroads into the two Telugu states — Andhra Pradesh and Telangana — with different sets of strategies.
The party hopes that the village volunteers would be for YSRCP what ‘panna pramukhs’ are for BJP in its stronghold states.
The task of these village volunteers is to first identify the local beneficiaries, get to know about their problems and delineate appropriate schemes being provided for them by the government. A toll-free telephone number has also been set up in the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) to receive grievances from people.
Each village volunteer is allotted 50 households to monitor the delivery of welfare schemes and other benefits. The performance of these village volunteers is directly monitored by the respective district Collector.
Soon after taking oath as the Chief Minister on May 30, Jagan had unveiled the scheme, positioning it as a massive employment generation programme of the new government.
The objective of the scheme is to streamline the delivery system across all the 13 districts in the state and ensure effective and transparent implementation of government schemes.
“Our main objective is to remove corruption at all levels of administration. Village volunteers will identify the problems being faced by people in their jurisdiction and the same will be taken to the notice of gram panchayat authorities and get them resolved within 72 hours,” he had said.
The cost of recruitment and training of village volunteers was estimated at ₹13.5 crore. The payment of honorarium to the volunteers will cost ₹1,200 crore per year to the state exchequer.
On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti on October 2, the state government would set up village secretariats in each village to deliver governance to people within a specified time limit.
“At political level, the village volunteer system appears to have a twin purpose of first dismantling the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which has a strong cadre base, and then prevent the spread of a resurgent BJP in the state,” said senior journalist and political analyst K Ramesh Babu.
The volunteers would largely help in boosting the image of Jagan as a “do-gooder” and a messiah of the poor. By reaching out to every household, the ruling party wants to not only consolidate its populist position, but also erase the legacy of the previous TDP government.
Already, it is on a spree of rechristening welfare schemes launched by the previous regime and also ordered a review of all major projects undertaken in the past, citing irregularities and widespread corruption.
Justifying the strategy to utilise ‘village volunteer’ scheme to boost the government’s image, a senior YSRCP leader and chief whip in the Assembly Srikanth Reddy said, “If the volunteers fail, it will reflect on the government. If they succeed, the credit will go to the government and people will vote for us.”
BJP’s mission south
Savouring the success in the general elections, the saffron party has made it clear that the sibling Telugu states would be its next target to expand further in the south.
Despite drawing blank in both the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, which were held simultaneously last April 11, the BJP fancies itself a chance of emerging as a formidable player over the next few years.
As a first step in the long-term plan, it is luring the TDP leaders into its fold and the particular focus has been on the numerically strong and politically influential ‘Kapu’ community leaders. Already, four of the six Rajya Sabha members of the TDP have crossed over to the saffron camp.
“A political vacuum created by the possible exodus from TDP will give enough space for the BJP to launch itself as a viable alternative,” a senior political analyst G Nagaraja said.
During the honeymoon period with the YSRCP, the BJP is keen on using the Chief Minister’s shoulder to target his bete noir N Chandrababu Naidu, and ‘decimate the TDP’, so that it can occupy the opposition space before the 2024 elections.
The honeymoon period appears to be coming to an end sooner than expected as the state BJP leaders have already stepped up attack on the government on various issues.
While invoking Jagan’s Christian identity, the state BJP unit has attacked him for “hurting the sentiments of Hindus” by not lighting the traditional lamp at an NRI event held in Dallas, United States, recently.
However, the YSRCP rubbished the charge and pointed out that it was an electric lamp. It has accused the BJP of raking up a non-issue to gain political mileage.