CM Ramesh is a key member of the leadership team in the Telugu Desam. Considered close to Chandrababu Naidu, the Rajya Sabha MP has been campaigning extensively in Rayalaseema region, that account for 52 of the 175 assembly seats in Andhra Pradesh.
CM Ramesh, who is easily a quote-a-minute politician, spoke to T S Sudhir of Filter Kaapi on the campaign trail in Kadapa district and explains why he thinks Naidu is returning to power for a second consecutive term. In fact, the campaign line of the TDP is “Malli Nuvve Ravali” (you should come back)
Sudhir : The surveys that have come out so far are not painting a rosy picture for you. Are you getting similar feedback or are you talking very different numbers?
Ramesh : It is a one-sided election, Sudhir.
Sudhir : One-sided in whose favour?
Ramesh : (Surprised) Obviously, on the side of the TDP.
Sudhir : Let us talk specifics, Mr Ramesh. What gives you this confidence?
Ramesh : Yes. Take Rayalaseema for instance. Here usually we have seen women do not come out of their home when we go for campaigning. But this time has been so different. When Naidu came, women in Pulivendula, Jammalamadugu, all came out, even danced. Some 40000 people were them, so many of them women.
Sudhir : It is significant that you say you got this response in Pulivendula, which is Jaganmohan Reddy’s constituency, a bastion of sorts of the YSR family. So you think the women vote will be the gamechanger?
Ramesh : Sudhir, 75 per cent of the women vote will come to TDP. I have been here on the ground the last one month. I have toured even areas considered to be strongholds of the opposition. In 2014, in the same areas, the people did not even respond when we campaigned. This time, they are waiting with harathi, water and buttermilk for us. People are comparing who is a better ruler. Naidu who stands for experience and development versus Jagan who represents lack of experience and corruption.
Sudhir : Are they telling you that?
Ramesh : Oh yes. I will tell you what so many women told me. April 11 is a Thursday. They say if we vote for Naidu on Thursday, on Friday he will go and sit in the Andhra Pradesh assembly. But if we vote for Jagan on Thursday, the next day, he will go to court for his mandatory Friday appearance in his cases related to disproportionate assets.
Sudhir : All that you are saying confirms that you are banking big time on the women vote, thanks mainly due to the doles you have given to the women.
Ramesh : Yes, we have given Rs 10000 each to 98 lakh women of the self-help groups under the Pasupu Kumkuma scheme. They got Rs 2500 in February, Rs 3500 in March and Rs 4000 yesterday. It will improve their financial position. They can start a business, buy a buffalo.
Sudhir : Giving it just before elections obviously means you are giving it to get their vote.
Ramesh : No, it is not linked to elections.
Sudhir : The TDP campaign is focusing a lot on Jagan’s corruption. But it is the same narrative you used in 2014, will it work a second time. And two, the Janmabhoomi committees in every village which are mostly staffed with TDP activists, are spoken of as equally corrupt. So the corruption rhetoric kind of cancels each other out.
Ramesh : The Janmabhoomi committees are not decision-making bodies. What corruption can poor fellows in villages do? What will they do? There is no corruption.
Sudhir : The minority vote is an important factor in the Rayalaseema region that you are incharge of, for the TDP. I remember you telling me that you did not get the Muslim vote in 2014 here because you were in an alliance with the BJP. How do you see it playing out this time.
Ramesh : Good question. In 2014, of the 52 assembly seats in Rayalaseema, the TDP won 22, the YSR Congress won 30. Now there is an average of 20 per cent Muslim vote in every constituency in Rayalaseema region. Minimum 20000 votes in every seat, goes up to 40000 votes in some seats too. Seats like Kurnool, Kadiri, Rayachoti have significant Muslim presence. Yes, we did not get the Muslim vote in 2014 because of our tie-up with the BJP. But today, my boss is leading the anti-Modi group. I assure you, we will win majority of the seats in Rayalaseema.
Sudhir : But you were with the BJP, sharing power in Delhi and Amaravati for four years. You think the people have forgotten that part of your rule?
Ramesh : Why were we with the BJP? Because they promised ten years of special category status and then ditched us. I assure you the BJP won’t get deposit in any seat. Forget deposit, they won’t get 2000 votes in any constituency.
Sudhir : You speak of the minority vote coming to you. But even Jagan for that matter is not with the BJP.
Ramesh : What more evidence do you want of Jagan being with the BJP. He is with the BJP. Prime minister when he does election campaign for the BJP, does not ask for votes for the BJP, he just says do not vote for the TDP. Not one word about Jagan from Modi. Please remember that the same Modi during the 2014 campaign in Andhra said, if you vote for Naidu, you will get schemes but if you vote for Jagan, you will get scams. Why is he not saying so this time?
Sudhir : So you are saying the two have a tacit understanding?
Ramesh : I ask you why is Modi abusing Naidu, why not Jagan.
Sudhir : When I talk to a cross-section of people on the ground in Andhra, one of the lines one hears frequently is that let us give Jagan one chance. Look he walked 3600 km from Kadapa to Srikakulam, to be with us, to understand our problems etc. Why do you think this connect with the people will not work?
Ramesh : People can walk 10000 km also. But people will see who is our future. Sharmila (Jagan’s sister) also did padyatra last time, what happened. People want experienced and credible leader and that is only Naidu. People in fact, are asking why are YSR Congress MLAs taking salary and not attending assembly sessions to highlight our problems.
Sudhir : You have been in power for five years now and even you cannot deny, there is anti-incumbency against many of your MLAs.
Ramesh : Anti-incumbency will always be there. If Mahatma Gandhi were to be Prime Minister, even he would face anti-incumbency. But here practically speaking, the anti-incumbency won’t matter as the anti vote will get split between Jagan and Pawan Kalyan.
Sudhir : So you are conceding that Pawan Kalyan will help the TDP by splitting the anti-TDP vote?
Ramesh : No, not him specifically. All opposition parties will split it among themselves.
Sudhir : Usually the trick to beat anti-incumbency against sitting legislators is to replace them with new faces. But here in an unusually large number of seats, the TDP has given tickets to sons and daughters of sitting MLAs. By doing that, you are not negating anti-incumbency but actually reinforcing it. Not a very good strategy, I think.
Ramesh : In matters of ticket selection, our chief minister is very experienced. He won’t give ticket by taking money. In YSR Congress, the first criterion for getting a ticket is whether you have a CBI or ED case against you, second is whether you have the money. In TDP, we look at whether the candidate has been working for public causes and also caste factor etc.
Sudhir : What do you make of Pawan Kalyan? Do you think there is a silent wave in his favour which will upset both the TDP and YSR Congress?
Ramesh : No, no, he will win some 3-5 seats.
Sudhir : You saw Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam Party in 2009. Is Pawan different from his brother?
Ramesh : Chiranjeevi was a crowd puller. His caste (Kapu community) went with him. But Chiranjeevi was for a short-term political goal, he merged his party with the Congress. Pawan says he wants to do long-term politics, change the politics of Andhra Pradesh.
Sudhir : The YSR Congress is going to town with its slogan, “Bye Bye Babu”. Do you think that will happen on 23 May?
Ramesh : We are telling the people, “Mee Bhavishyattu Naa Badhyata” (Your future is my responsibility).