Democracy as mafia warfare

Armchair theorists in Delhi and Mumbai interpret the last general election as a revolt of rural masses bypassed by the information technology (IT) revolution. They voted for a new regime with a human face. This theory owes much to the defeat in Andhra Pradesh of the TDP of Chandrababu Naidu by the Congress, led by Y Rajashekar Reddy (YSR). On assuming power, YSR decreed free power for all farmers, and compensation for families of farmers who had committed suicide. This was widely acclaimed as reform with a human face.

The main problem with this thesis, as you discover when you visit Hyderabad, is that the new chief minister is widely believed to have risen to power on the basis of murder, loot and terror. Local journalists narrate in the most matter-of-fact manner how warlords routinely kill one another to monopolise works contracts and win elections in the Rayalaseema region, from where YSR hails.

The hair-raising history of YSR’s rise to power through terror is documented by K Balagopal in a recent issue of Economic and Political Weekly. Cuddapah district, YSR’s bailiwick, has mineral deposits, including barytes. YSR’s father, the local warlord, was a partner with one Venkatasubbiah in a mining lease. The price of barytes shot up when it was found useful in petroleum refining. YSR’s father offered to buy out Venkatasubbiah. He refused. So, Venkatasubbiah was murdered. The lease passed into the hands of YSR.

For many years after, YSR’s barytes mining operation was the subject of one scandal after another. Through the AP Mineral Development Corporation, he obtained a sub-lease on the land of one Vivekanandam, who got a court injunction against the lease. Nevertheless, YSR continued with the mining and took away minerals worth Rs 5 crore. A maternal uncle of Vivekanandam went to the then chief minister to protest. He was set upon by a gang, who broke his hands and legs. After that, few dared quarrel with YSR in the Cuddapah region.

Mineral wealth permitted YSR to become the supreme economic and political warlord in Cuddapah district. Elections would be concluded in his favour, and his musclemen would ensure he monopolised all the civil/excise contracts he coveted. This sounds bland when stated in this fashion, but the process involved a tremendous amount of violence and inaugurated a veritable regime of terror in the area.

Until recently, the EC postponed any election if any candidate died during the campaign. In 1989, simultaneous polls were held to the State Assembly and Parliament. In Raychoti constituency, where YSR sensed that his party was weak, his men are alleged to have killed an independent candidate to gain time. In the parliamentary poll that took place, five persons were killed including a polling officer. The Congress was declared the winner.

Yet it is telling that Balagopal’s article has not raised any storm of protest in Hyderabad. There, YSR’s culture of violence is treated as commonplace politics.

The day after I left Hyderabad, goons hacked four TDP cadres to death in a public bus. The attackers used axes and agricultural implements which, by an ironic coincidence, had been freed from excise duty in Chidambaram’s budget as part of reforms with a human face. Chandrababu had submitted a memorandum to the President recently claiming that, since the election in May, no less than 19 TDP men were murdered and 41 seriously injured.

Congress sources say they are meeting fire with fire. They allege that 186 Congress workers were killed by the TDP in the previous two years, and 850 in the nine years of TDP rule.

What do you think?