Andhra's Vote Is a Test for Reform

  • Share
  • Read Later
Dressed in a canary-yellow shirt, N. Chandrababu Naidu climbs into a five-seater Bell helicopter and buries himself in a bulky volume emblazoned with a photograph of him astride a bicycle (also canary yellow). The Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, a large but industrially backward southern state, is not short on self-esteem nor shy about self-promotion. But as the chopper takes off on a two-hour journey across the state, from the capital Hyderabad to the rice-and-tobacco-growing districts along the Bay of Bengal coast, the reform-minded politician is thinking about the 50 million voters who will soon decide his fate. The bicycle is the symbol of his Telugu Desam (Telugu Nation) Party, canary yellow the party colors, and the tome in his hands a computer-generated handbook on the state assembly elections scheduled this month along with the national poll.
Naidu, 49, has ruled for four years, receiving praise and support from business leaders and the World Bank for his innovative leadership and willingness to make tough decisions. He has tried to create a more efficient administration, improve the performance of rural development programs, encourage the use of high technology, rebuild the crumbling infrastructure and boost government revenue to save the state from bankruptcy--even adopting unpopular measures like raising the price of electricity supplied to farmers. He has also aggressively wooed Indian and foreign investors. Along the way, Naidu picked up the media image of a high-flying, computer-obsessed Chief Minister whose policies, critics charge, have mainly benefited the better-off urbanites. Andhra's voters--70% of whom live in the countryside--will now render their judgment.

The outcome of the election won't just determine the fate of Naidu's government; it is also being seen as a referendum on India's ability to pursue economic reform. All political parties support change, but most local governments (not to mention New Delhi) have been reluctant to push liberalization for fear of alienating powerful lobbies, like labor unions and bureaucrats. Naidu knows he is under the microscope. For the past four years I've said that if I do my job, people will support me, he says. This is the test.

As the chopper lands outside a small rural town in Prakasam district, Naidu quickly combs his hair and plunges into the hyper-excited crowd. As he drives to a meeting venue, hundreds run alongside, many stumbling and falling in the melee. I'm running after him, explains Satyam, a breathless farm worker, because he's a good man. Naidu later tells a rural audience: I want to change people's minds. I want you to think about development. The people appear to understand what he is driving at, belying the skeptics' view that most voters want extravagant populism, rather than economic common sense, from their leaders. The villagers talk about the need for change--new houses, schools, health centers, drinking-water tanks, an employment scheme for women. Says Abdul Waheed, a tailor: He has really mesmerized people in the villages by making officials work.

That's the sort of endorsement Naidu craves, in votes as well as words. Although the rival Congress Party is offering farmers the pork-barrel promise of supplying free electricity, election forecasts give the Telugu Desam the edge in the state-assembly race. But reform-minded Indians will have to wait until early October, when the results are announced, to see if this canary has survived the coalmine.