In Andhra Pradesh’s scorching heat, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is facing rough weather. The national party, which does not enjoy any representation in the State Assembly or the Lok Sabha, faces the harsh accusation of denying special category status to the bifurcated state, stalling the desired progress. Further damaging the prospects of strengthening the party is the recent decision of the Centre to privatise Vizag Steel Plant. The move attracted widespread protests which affected the image of the party.


In this backdrop, a by-poll is scheduled to be held on April 17. The Tirupati parliament seat, which covers the holy Tirumala hill, was left vacant because of the demise of a sitting MP from the ruling YSR Congress Party (YSRCP). The BJP, which stood sixth, below NOTA, in the 2019 elections, is looking to improve its position. The party has fielded retired IAS officer and former chief secretary of Karnataka, Ratna Prabha. 


The choice of the candidate grabbed headlines and increased the party’s visibility on social and mainstream media. Though a native speaker of Telugu, Ratna Prabha served in erstwhile AP only for a brief period and has no special connection with the constituency. The onus is more on the party grassroots which is weak in the region. According to sources, the party does not even have dedicated booth-level workers at some places. And those on the ground are facing uncomfortable questions from a section of the voters on BJP’s stand on social status and Vizag steel plant. 


Despite these unfavourable conditions, the BJP is confident of a decent show, thanks to their social engineering exercise. 


The Tirupati parliament seat, with more than 15 lakh votes, is reserved for members of the Scheduled Caste (SC) community. The major parties—YSRCP, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Congress—have given tickets to candidates from Mala, a sub-caste within SC. The BJP, however, has gone for Ratna Prabha, who belongs to Madiga sub-caste. The Mala community constitutes about 9-10 per cent of the electorate while Madigas are around 5-6 per cent. The BJP is hoping to consolidate the Madiga vote bank as no other major party has given a ticket to any member of this particular community. This move already seems to be working for the party.


The MRPS (Madhiga Reservation Porata Samithi), a major organisation fighting for the interests of the community in AP and Telangana, has backed BJP in the by-election. 


“We were preparing to enter the fray anticipating that none of the political parties would give a ticket to us. Now that the BJP has selected Ratna Prabha, who is a Madiga, we will completely support her,” said Gopi Madiga, spokesperson of MRPS, Tirupati. “In the last elections, we gave a call to vote for NOTA and it got more votes than BJP and Congress. Since we are supporting BJP this time, it will get a good percentage of votes.”   


Clearly, for many in the community, the candidate is more important than the party.


The BJP is pinning hopes on another caste—the Balijas. The community is highly dominating in terms of voting numbers as they constitute almost 16 per cent of the voters. They are being increasingly identified as actor Pawan Kalyan’s vote bank as his caste and Balijas are grouped under the same community. The BJP, which is contesting elections in alliance with Jana Sena, could convince the actor to pull back from the race. The discontentment is evident among the cadre of Jana Sena as there is a feeling that they have been reduced to play a second fiddle to BJP.  However, the BJP is unabashedly keeping the actor and his followers in good spirit with their statements. BJP state president Somu Veerraju said that the party was seriously thinking about having Pawan Kalyan as CM candidate of the alliance in the state. During a public meeting in Tirupati, Sunil Deodhar, BJP leader and co-incharge of AP mouthed hit dialogues of the actor and pitted him as a formidable opponent who can take on CM Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy. 


The immediate task for Jana Sena is to convince the Balijas to vote for the BJP. 


“We have been meeting the community associations and instructing them to support BJP,” said P. Suresh, Jana Sena leader from Tirupati, who is also from the Balija community. “It is very important to tell our people that YSRCP did not fulfil its promises made to us. We are also making them aware about why they should not vote for TDP..”


The BJP is banking on two communities, traditionally not associated with the party, to pull itself up in the electoral game. Will it work?


Kathi Mahesh, a film critic and a political commentator who has been closely following the Tirupati by-poll, said that the BJP focusing on two communities makes for good arithmetic but also shows that they are pursuing caste politics more than issue-based politics. 


For the BJP, the transfer of Jana Sena votes remains as a challenge.


“People usually vote for the winning horse. The YSRCP has an advantage here. The BJP’s estimation is to get more votes than last time but transfer of vote will be difficult. In 2019, the Jana Sena’s Assembly candidate got more votes than its ally Bahujan Samaj Party’s parliament candidate got from the same segment,” said M. Purushottam Reddy of Rayalaseema Intellectual Forum.


The BJP denied that they are going to polls with a caste agenda.


“Our only focus is development. The coordination meetings with Jana Sena have been positive  and we are confident of putting up a good performance. We are informing people about the developmental work done by the Centre in Tirupati. If the BJP wins this election, the MP will become a minister at the Centre,” said senior BJP leader Bhanu Prakash Reddy.


If the strategy works, the BJP is likely to get the credit. In case of a dismal performance, fingers might be pointed towards Pawan Kalyan’s leadership and the future of the alliance.    


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