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Peek into History: Politics of Caste Dominance in Andhra Pradesh (Part 3)

(This article is third in the series on the evolution and development of Telugu States)
  
The importance of the Congress Party’s agrarian reformism and its impact on rural social structures cannot be exaggerated. The beneficiaries of legislation implemented to remove oppressive landlordism and bestow rights of tenancy were members of the peasantry, the vast majority of whom also constituted the tenantry. 
 
Needless to say, they belonged to the Reddy, Kamma and Kapu peasant castes, while the Dalit and other backward castes predominantly comprised the agricultural labour. In effect, this legislation brought about a certain homogenisation of the agrarian propertied class(es), by removing the gross and wide differences between the landed gentry and peasantry and thereby reducing the social polarisation and the objective conditions for sharp rural conflicts.
 
These reforms, initiated by the Congress Party with a view to legitimising its progressive image and co-opting the left’s agenda, strengthened the party’s social support structure by rallying those who benefited from them. The rich peasantry of the Reddy, Kamma and Kapu castes, which were the main beneficiaries of the above reforms, thus constituted the core support base of the Congress Party in the countryside.
 
The very fact of Independence created an atmosphere of optimism and hope towards Congress Party rule and the rhetorical promise of socialism among different social strata, and the charismatic personality of Nehru generally gave the party a progressive image. It was this popular mood that paved the way for the shift of electoral support from the left to the Congress Party.
Crucial to a narrative of Congress Party politics and the consolidation of peasant caste dominance in the State is the Panchayati Raj system. This was introduced in Andhra Pradesh in 1957 and the first elections were conducted in 1959. 
 
How Panchayat Raj System gave rise to political aspirations & caste divisions
 
The Panchayati Raj system in AP has a three-tier structure, consisting of the village (Gram) Panchayat at the bottom, the Panchayat Samithi in the middle and the Zilla Parishad at the top. The latter two tiers have some importance in the developmental field and significant amounts of funds are channelled through these structures for development purposes. 
 
These institutions thus came to be looked upon as, firstly, a mechanism to accommodate the élite’s political aspirations, and secondly, a mechanism to provide access to funds and control over their distribution for development.
 
An examination of the first three Panchayati Raj elections conducted in 1959, 1964 and 1970 reveals that the Congress Party captured all Zilla Parishad chairmanships (except that of Nalgonda in 1964, which went to the CPI) and most Panchayat Samithis. 
 
It was, as in the case of the State legislatures, the members of the peasant castes who captured these positions. In fact, it was through these institutions that the Congress Party consolidated its grassroot leadership base in the State, by accommodating a large section of the rich peasant élite in positions of power.
 
Congress encourages Reddy community, subdues Brahmins
 
During the early decades of Andhra Pradesh’s existence, the élite Reddy community’s dominance over the Congress Party was almost total. N. Sanjeeva Reddy and K. Brahmananda Reddy, who ruled the State between 1956 and 1971, were the most powerful Congress Party Chief Ministers the State has seen. 
 
The composition of the State Assembly between 1957 and 1967 shows that the Reddys (comprising between 25 and 28%) were the single largest group, whilst their share in the population was approximately 6%. They were followed by the Kammas, who comprised between 11.3 and 12.6% of the Assembly and just 4% of the population. 
 
One significant change, which in fact vindicates our argument that the political economy of change after Independence favoured agrarian castes, is the fact of the political decline of the Brahmins. From 6.6% in 1957 to 4.6% in 1967, the Brahmin presence in the State Assembly may seem to have declined only marginally, but when seen in a historical perspective, the decline is in fact quite substantial — prior to the formation of Andhra Pradesh, the Chief Ministers of both Andhra and Hyderabad were Brahmins, yet after 1956, the reins of power changed hands completely and came under the Reddys’ control.
 
The OBCs, who constituted the largest category comprising approximately 50% of the population, had a presence of just 13% in the Assembly. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (STs) were not denied their share of representation because of constitutional safeguards. The minorities, around 7% of the population, had less than 3% representation in the State Assembly. 
 
The composition of ministries during this period reflected the same trends. The Reddys, comprising more than 35% of the ministries with prime portfolios, were the dominant caste group. The Brahmins declined from 23% in 1956 to 6% in 1962. The other peasant castes such as the Kammas and Velamas in the cabinet increased from 7.7% in the first cabinet to 12.5% in 1962. The OBCs, SCs and minorities comprised a mere 7% during this period. 
 
The dynamics of disproportionate political representation unfolded and were manifested in increased factional groupings, creating tensions in the party in particular, and in the larger domain of politics in general.
 

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