Vijayawada: As Seemandhra prepares to vote for a new dawn on May 7, Congress is faced with the tough task of weaning away electors from old foe Chandrababu Naidu and former partyman Jaganmohan Reddy, both of whom are eyeing big gains from voter angst over Andhra Pradesh's split.
Besides, Congress, which has ruled the combined state for several decades, has to overcome a multitude of challenges like large-scale exodus of leaders protesting bifurcation and anti-incumbency factor in Seemandhra, which encompasses the regions of Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra.
Jaganmohan's YSRCP, Naidu-led TDP and the just launched Jai Samaikyandhra Party (JSP) of Kiran Kumar Reddy, political analysts say, are likely to capitalise on the chinks in Congress' armour. Seemandhra has nearly 3.5 crore voters.
Elections are scheduled simultaneously for assembly and Lok Sabha in Seemandhra on May 7. A total of 333 candidates are in the fray for 25 Lok Sabha seats and 2,243 for 175 assembly seats in Seemandhra.
Andhra Pradesh has been a crucial state for Congress as it had sent 33 MPs to Lok Sabha in 2009, strengthening the base for the party to lead the UPA-II government at the Centre.
The last Lok Sabha poll results also marked an improvement for the national party as it had won four more seats as compared to 2004, when 29 MPs were elected on Congress tickets from the state.
Congress also won the assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh twice consecutively in 2004 and 2009, dashing the hopes of regional heavyweight TDP to capture power.
However, the situation has taken a massive turn after the Congress-led UPA government went ahead with the creation of a separate Telangana state, ignoring stiff opposition from Seemandhra leaders cutting across party lines.
The rank and file of Congress collapsed with several Union ministers from the region resigning, while some like D Purandeswari switched over to BJP. Moreover, the party also suffered a setback following the launch of JSP headed by former Congress Chief Minister N Kiran Kumar Reddy.
State Congress leaders, however, are determined to put up a strong fight as they believe that the fortunes of the party can be revived in Seemandhra.
According to senior Congress leader and Union tribal affairs minister Kishore Chandra Deo, the party has given several benefits for boosting the growth of Seemandhra region through the AP Reorganisation Act. "Various measures for the development of Seemandhra have been incorporated in the Act," he says.
However, TDP and JSP appear confident about upstaging Congress.
Vundavalli Aruna Kumar, Lok Sabha member from Rajahmundry seat who quit Congress and joined JSP, says that Congress is likely to pay a heavy price for bifurcating the state.
"Not even one contestant fielded by Congress is going to win from Seemandhra this time. They (Congress) went ahead with bifurcation, despite the Andhra Pradesh Assembly rejecting AP Reorganisation Bill," he claims.
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi had highlighted some of the features in the AP Reorganisation Act in an attempt to reach out to Seemandhra voters during an election rally recently in Hindupur constituency.
The Act assures establishment of educational institutions like IIT, NIT, IIM, IISER as well as an AIIMS-type super specialty hospital-cum-teaching institution and a tribal university. The Government of India, the act says, shall develop a new major port at Duggirajupatnam and examine the feasibility of expanding the existing Visakhapatnam, Vijayawada and Tirupati airports in Andhra Pradesh.
Former veteran Congress leader Rayapati Sambasiva Rao, who was elected four times to the Lok Sabha, claims that the crowds have been dwindling at election rallies of Congress.
"I have seen about three to four lakh people assembling for meetings, which were attended by Congress leaders like Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi at Guntur on various occasions.
Now, the crowd has reduced to a few thousands, indicating that Congress is losing ground in Seemandhra," Rao claims.
Rao, who resigned from Congress in protest over the division of Andhra Pradesh, is contesting on a TDP ticket from Narasaraopet Lok Sabha constituency in Guntur district.
Union Minister of State for Finance J D Seelam, however, claims that Congress still retains its traditional vote bank.
"Though several leaders have quit the party over the bifurcation issue, voters are still with us. What is lacking now is the absence of second-rung leaders, who can mobilise these voters towards the polling booths," he told PTI.
He also exudes confidence that weaker sections would choose Congress over other regional parties.
Six-time Congress MP Sai Prathap, who has been re-nominated from Rajampet Lok Sabha constituency, stated that people would re-elect him in light of his contributions.
Sai Prathap was one among the six MPs who was expelled from Congress for giving no-confidence notices against the UPA government in Parliament over the Telangana issue. He later re-joined Congress and was given a ticket to contest from Rajampet constituency.