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Y S Rajasekhara Reddy: A Political Appraisal

This seems to be an appropriate article to publish at a time when the Congress party is in a disarray in Andhra Pradesh after the death of Y S Rajashekhar Reddy, who was responsible for bringing it to power not once but twice.

The tragic death of the Chief
of Andhra Pradesh (AP),
Y S Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR), along
with four others, in a helicopter crash in
the forested hills of Nallamalla on 2 September
has suddenly altered the political
landscape of the state and has left the major
players in AP politics unsure about its
fallout. The media blitzkrieg about the
search for the missing helicopter helped
build an emotion-laden hysteria among
people, which surely contributed to the
reported 200-odd deaths from cardiac
arrests and suicides. While such immediate
popular reaction to YSR’s unexpected
demise points to his wide popularity it is
also necessary to assess his politics in a
more objective manner.
The most important contribution to
YSR’s rise as a popular leader was from the
padayatra he undertook in 2003 in preparation
for the assembly elections the following
year. Clad in a farmer’s clothes he
walked 1,476 km through all three regions
(Telangana, coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema)
of the state. This padayatra enabled
him to create a public image of a politician
in touch with the grass roots. It also
helped activate the Congress organisation
in local areas which had remained dormant
as a result of the Congress being out
of power for a decade. The padayatra not
only enhanced YSR’s stature but was also
crucial in evolving the winning slogans,
strategy and alliances for the legislative
and parliamentary elections of 2004.
The gross and visible neglect of agriculture
and the rural economy by the Telugu
Desam Party government headed by
N Chandrababu Naidu was the context
which contributed to the success of YSR’s
padayatra. The Andhra Pradesh countryside
was experiencing an unprecedented
agrarian crisis at that time, with a large
number of suicides among the weavers
and farmers being symptomatic of its
gravity. It was this crisis that YSR tried to
articulate through his padayatra. In alliance
with the Left and the Telangana Rastra
Samithi (TRS), the Congress’ election
pitch promised to address this rural distress.
The added promises of sympathetically
addressing the Telangana state issue
and of peace talks with the Maoist groups
saw the Congress back in power.
Once in power, YSR sought to put in place
an elaborate agrarian and welfare policy
Agricultural loan waiver, free electricity
and input subsidies to the crisis-ridden
farmers and the construction of major
irrigation projects were important components
of the Congress policy package for the
farming sector. There were measures related
to health, housing, pensions, education and
a push to national schemes, specially the
National Rural Employment
Scheme. These measures became possible,
partly because of the increase in the revenue
of the state government due to expansion in
economic activity during the growth years
after 2005 and the increase in tax revenue
as percentage of gross state domestic product
(GSDP) from 5.2% in 1995-96 to 10.1%
in 2007-08. These provisions were instrumental
in giving
a pro-poor and caring
to the YSR-led Congress government.
Decline of Public Services
If this populist image of being a munificent
provider of succour to the poor and
needy helped YSR’s government gain
among the masses, then its
image, built up by pumping
massive investments into irrigation
projects, roads, bridges, flyovers, etc,
to its support base among the rich
and powerful. These helped the regime
build and strengthen its networks with
contractors, builders, real estate developers,
corporate operators of various hues
and they became the support structure of
the regime. Even the health schemes
which offered corporate hospital treatment
to the poor arguably benefited these
corporate interests more than the poor
as hundreds of crores from the
budget meant for public health were
to pay insurance premia to the
private sector. It can be stated with some
confidence that the public health system
in Andhra Pradesh suffered serious neglect
under the Congress government.
SEZ Factor
The development activities like irrigation
projects and the special economic zones
(SEZs) were singled out by the opposition
and activists for being mired in corruption.
Andhra Pradesh, with 57 notified and 99
formally approved SEZs, has acquired a dubious
distinction of being the leading state
in terms of the number of SEZs. The proactive
role of the government could be gauged
from the fact that 30 of these SEZs have
been developed by the state’s industrial investment
corporation itself and some more
by other government agencies. While as
many as 95 SEZs are related to the IT and
IT-enabled services sector, the number of
multi-purpose SEZs is just eight. Most of
these IT/ITES SEZs, instead of attracting
new companies, have only resulted in the
relocation of the old ones for availing tax
incentives. This has raised serious
about their avowed role in advancing industrialisation
and they have assumed notoriety
as means of land acquisition by dubious
means. The resultant allegations of
land scams and the large-scale displacement
of rural population, especially by the
irrigation projects, have resulted in protest
movements emerging in many places. It is a
sad commentary on the political parties
that despite wide-spread popular discontent
on this issue, there was no recognition,
let alone articulation, of this in the electoral
discourse. As a result, the popular discontent
articulated by these movements, in
some places supported by non-governmental
organisations (NGOs) and civil rights groups,
remained localised. The allegations of corruption
and scams, despite the fact that they
were serious in nature, massive in scale and
with prima facie evidence in some, thus remained
abstract and could not impinge on
YSR’s political fortunes.
The YSR regime responded to these
charges with blatant disregard and
During his five years in
YSR systematically cultivated a
culture of intolerance and highhandedness.
If the Naidu regime perfected
the art of manipulation in dealing with its
own party men as well as the opposition,
then YSR’s style exuded crudity and
He allied with the TRS and
helped engineer a split in it, thus contributing
to its marginalisation. He called the
Maoists for talks (though he never personally
appeared to be enthusiastic about
them) but paved the way for their disappearance
from the state. The media was
also not spared. The media in AP, it should
be noted, is highly politicised
and divided
along party lines. Thus, the media houses
loyal to the other side were pursued ruthlessly
till they moderated their stand. If
his aggressive populism left not much
space for the opposition, his gladiatorstyle
politics left them defenceless.
Intolerance of Dissidence
The most visible success of YSR has to be
seen in his handling of dissidence in his
own party. Historically, rival groups have
always prospered within the Congress,
however powerful the incumbent chief
minister may have been. This feature has
been both the strength and weakness of
the party: strength when they, operating
within certain limits, provided an internal
corrective mechanism and weakness
when they took the form of open factional
war, as often was the case. It is the latter
that often made the Congress a target of
public disgust and opposition’s ridicule
and was one of the major contributors to
the rise of the Telugu Desam in the 1980s.
As someone who, for most of his political
life, acted as a centre of such dissidence,
YSR understood it better than anybody in
the party. He thus focused his attention on
dissidents in his party. Region and caste
have been the traditional basis of factions
in the state Congress. The emergence of
the TRS caused a sense of insecurity among
Congress leaders about Telangana and led
to a vocal group consisting of senior and
middle ranking leaders articulating the demand.
YSR managed to effectively silence
the Telangana demand within the Congress
by neutralising their access to the “high
command” of the party in Delhi and then
rendered the TRS ineffective.
Control over State
YSR’s rule marked a clear departure from
the time honoured “politics of accommodation”
which characterised the Congress in
AP. The party, though dominated by the
Reddy community, has been known to aim
at social balance by providing representation
to different castes and communities in
the party and the government. This was a
result of caste being the basis of factional
pressure. YSR blatantly violated this tradition
and, perhaps for the first time, put in a
uniquely parochial Reddy regime by giving
positions of substantial power, both representative
and nominated, to the members
of this community. Despite this, the fact
that other factions in the Congress could
mount no visible resistance demonstrates
the effective manner in which he curtailed
their power. In this YSR was significantly
helped by the changed manner in which
the Congress in New Delhi under Sonia
Gandhi has dealt with its provincial party
units. Unlike earlier, when there were frequent
intervention in the functioning of the
provincial party and government, the Congress
“high command” seemed inclined to
allow the latter to function on their own unless
matters reached a crisis. Turning this to
his advantage, YSR managed to marginalise
and suppress opposition to his leadership
from caste and region-based factions and
thus emerged as the most powerful Congress
chief minister of AP in recent times.
If the cultivated self-image of being a
generous patriarch who would go to any
extent to fulfil the popular aspirations constituted
one facet of his persona, then his
intolerance of any form of the opposition,
criticism and dissent whether from the opposition
parties, media or within his party
was evidence of his authoritarian personality.
His intemperate behaviour towards
his opponents, within the assembly precincts
and outside has often been commented
upon. After his re-election in the
2009 elections, he worked out a strategy to
decimate the opposition by co-opting their
active elements within the Congress. The
media christened it “Operation Akarsh”
(attracting: the members of the opposition
into the Congress) and YSR boasted that by
the next elections, there would be no party
left capable of mounting any challenge to
the Congress in the state. Rather than address
the charges of corruption and cronyism
levelled by the opposition parties, YSR’s
method was to decimate the opposition
parties to stave off challenges to his rule.
He used the attractions
of office and the
blunt edge of government power to bring
key opposition figures into the Congress
and neutralise the rest. These were a clear
demonstration of his scant regard for democratic
norms and principled public life.
Rayalaseema Tradition
The coexistence of benevolence and ruthlessness
may appear to be paradoxical,
but when seen in the proper historical
and social context of the political culture
that he had grown up in, their interlinkage
would become apparent. Kadapa district
of Rayalaseema is known for violent
factionalism whose ancestry is traced
back to the palegallu (administrativecum-
military chiefs bestowed with the
responsibility of law and order and revenue
collection) of the Vijayanagara empire.
These chiefs later transformed
themselves into warlords. Over six decades
of electoral politics, this region has
evolved a distinct culture of factional
feuds and violent end of the rival as the
only mode of conflict resolution. The culture
of tolerance, dialogue and accommodation
is alien to this society. What governs
the world of Rayalaseema factions is
generous patronage of the leader and unstinted
loyalty of the followers: loyalty is
weighed in terms of the propensity to violence
and readiness to sacrifice, including
one’s life, and it is reciprocated by an indubitable
assurance of support and generosity
of the leader. The Telugu cinema directors
and producers have found this
world to be very fascinating and its celluloid
representation quite lucrative. As a
result we now have a separate genre of
Telugu cinema known as “faction” films
popular for their numbing portrayal of
violence and destruction, which only help
strengthen the culture of benevolence for
followers and dependants and ruthlessness
for opponents.
Having grown up in the political culture
of Rayalaseema factionalism, YSR was
very much part of it: his hunger for power,
intolerance of any vacillation in his followers’
loyalty and his known trait to defend
and protect “his men” almost by instinct,
daring any consequence, were evidence of
this. Even after he grew in stature YSR did
not eschew this political culture.
In this context one is reminded of the
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent
comment, in response to a query on the
present bickering in the opposition
Bharatiya Janata Party, that emphasised
the importance of a stable opposition as a
prerequisite for a vibrant democracy. YSR
by conviction and actions was antithetical
to this view. If his success in marginalising
dissent within his party and government
by stuffing them with his own men was
quite visible, then his efforts in engineering
political migration from opposition
parties and his challenge to “finish” the
TDP were quite illustrative of his warlord
like posture. The persona of YSR happily
combined images of being a benevolent
provider and a determined pursuer of
power. The patriarch’s aggressive pursuance
of these images in his second innings
would even otherwise have proved to be
his autumn precisely because of the sheer
burden of their contradictions.