Thursday, September 03, 2009

YS Rajashekhar Reddy: The Kadapa strongman departs

I am yet to digest the tragic and shocking death of Dr. YS Rajashekhar Reddy. It is yet to sink in that the most powerful mass leader Andhra Pradesh has ever had since NTR just disappeared into thin air. After dominating literally each day politically in AP for the last five years, he abruptly left the political scene and this world in Wednesday's stormy morning. He is by far, the most powerful chief minister in the country, who at his zenith of political career, has been emasculated by destiny. It is an irony that good monsoons, which were so critical in his first stint success as CM, are now a cause of the deadly accident in the Nallamalla forests - a place where his governments forces determinedly and quite ruthlessly put down the Naxalites, another great success he has had as CM.

Any thought of him would invariably bring in images of a tall, smiling, relaxed and charismatic man with his trademark nonchalant gait dressed in white in the traditional panchakattu, in khadi kurta and dhoti. He has an aura about him for the courageous, surefooted leadership he displayed.

Many may differ with his policies but not many could dispute the fact that he is the only strongest leader, apart from NTR, the state has had in decades. A second term for him in this year's election has buttressed the point. Only a dynamic leader like YSR could have led a faction-ridden Congress to victory in that election. That too, against the grand alliance - the united front that has been put up by TDP, TRS and the communists. With his Congress party's victory, he almost forced TRS off the scene and its leader into premature retirement. TDP is still reeling in the aftershocks of the defeat. The communists have their nose cut for all their claims about being the representatives of the downtrodden. They, on the contrary, clearly backed YSR and are the prime contributors in YSR's stunning election victory, thanks to his government programs specially benefiting the poor.

This is the high-point of YSR's career. He bought masses into focus, on to the election plank when much of strategising in elections revolved around arithmetic of caste, region and religion. Similarly, he let the masses occupy the centre stage in his government policy-making while much of governance elsewhere (and even in erstwhile Naidu's Government) revolved around exploring for areas of revenue generation. The result is that his government came up with policies which touched millions of lives in the state elevating him as an undisputed mass leader. YSR went out of his way to design populist programs for the poor. Having grown up as a leader from grassroots in the backward Rayalaseema region, he must be aware of the daily tribulations of the poor and he duly tapped into them to build his political constituency. Right from his padayatra in 2003, when he undertook the 64-day padayatra - a 1500 km walkathon across villages, hamlets, he has been continually harping on populist policies to benefit the poor like irrigation, pensions, healthcare and small loans to women. While these massive schemes obviously increased the budget deficit and an resulted in accelerated sale of lucrative government land, especially Hyderabad, it didn't matter to YSR as it only increased his hold on power and consolidated his vote bank.

Little after the election result of 2009, YSR starting talking about planning to win the 2014 election in his usually energetic and belligerent style. Nothing could despair the opposition as much as this does and rightly so they looked down in the dumps. After all, YSR's first term has been a nightmare for the TDP loyalists. The Congress was never as assertive or strong as it was under Dr. Reddy when it came to power after 10 long years in 2004. All the pent up animosities burst out and initially, in 2004 many TDP cadre in faction-ridden Rayalaseema were hacked to death. Soon after that, a systematic campaign is unleashed to propagate for congress and the Government in the media. YSR's son Jaganmohan Reddy founded the Saakshi mediahouse - a TV channel and a Telugu newspaper to counter the very influential peo-TDP's EENADU group. The sheer gumption in this act showed YSR is here for a long haul unlike any of his Congress predecessors. He singlemindedly took on the opposition using counterattack as a weapon for any allegation his government faced. He successfully steamrolled opposition within the party and without with brute force. He sent a contingent of 33 MPs from the state in the last election and yet the state has accepted just 1 MP, that too, a for a very senior Jaipal Reddy, without a whimper. YSR is accommodative and he provided the much needed arm-space for congress at the centre in allotting ministries especially when allies like DMK are too demanding. Such is YSR's hold on the party. If he is okay, everything would be okay in this state. It is YSR's success that allowed the Congress at the centre not dependent on Laloos and Mulayams. Manmohan Singh, obviously, is very thankful to him. YSR, while deifying the Gandhis defied everyone else. It is his loyalty towards the Gandhis and the credibility he built in a career without an election defeat that made him a star in an otherwise sycophants-ridden Congress. Sonia Gandhi has now quite some worrying to do.

Now with his death, at the state level, in the absence of a strong leader to hold the party together, Congress could return to the good old days of factionalism. The YS loyalists would accept only one of them as the CM now but unfortunately none among them has the stature to serve as CM, let alone filling the void. YSR's son YS Jaganmohan Reddy, who is presently an MP, could take over as CM if the pressure from the loyalists prevails. This could of course put Congress in very tricky position as Jagan has variety of business interests, tainted with scandals of nepotism. YSR's friendship with KVP Ramachandra Rao, the Rajyasabha MP, is exemplary so much so that they can both serve as poster boys for Friendship day. He may, in some compromise formula, be given a key role now. However, none of this could even at the least fill the void left by the gumption of the enterprising Kadapa strongman. The evidence would be all over to see in the coming days when the new CM (whoever it would be) would sell himself as a placeholder for YSR rather than trying to fill YSR's shoes. It is hard not to deify Dr. YS Rajashekhar Reddy now.
YSR, the person is much more interesting than YSR, the astute politician. On his personal front, YSR seems to be shaped by the old-world values of loyalty and compassion. So even as he is seen ruthlessly bulldozing his political opponents into submission, he was unfailing in rewarding his loyalists. He proved that he is a man of his word in his 3 decade political career and so he won the trust of many leaders who stood by him through the thick and thin for all the benefits he will shower them with if they accomplish the assigned tasks. So its no surprise that allegations of mass-scale corruption were made against his loyalists. By the lack of action against them, we understood they are given a 'free-hand' by YSR himself. That is enticement enough for even leaders in opposition to switch sides into YSR's party (Its a one-man show in AP congress, so many called in that). After all, big rewards await them for any job well done. And the opposition anyway looks to be in no shape to win a election against YSR in the next 100 years! So there was quite some party hopping into Congress in recent times.

YSR carried an air of defiance, a rough-and-ready attitude that he inherited from his native faction-ridden Rayalaseema. Early on, in the 90's and till 2002, his language, demeanor and body language hinted ample anger and churlishness. The fact that he transformed into a smooth-talking, cool guy, while remaining forthright, with an almost persistent smile speaks much about his learning curve and self-control. Occasionally, though, he would let his rough side slip out, like in the assembly session that concluded last week. YSR seemed to be someone extremely proud about being himself, a strong and protective strongman. There was this instance when a section of media reported that he had a backache and was taking rest. There was an immediate response from his office. YSR scoffed at such suggestions and released his daily routine of Yoga and exercise and told how he never ever fell ill. He must be the only one politician who dosen't like free sympathy. Self-pity is not his cup of tea, not even as a farce to draw public sympathy. He instead seemed to revel in the joy of being a giver, to the poor and his loyalists. Not infrequently did he claim that he has been paying taxes ever since he was in his chaddi. He liked the good things of life and reserved his Birthdays and Christmas for foreign holidays.

He liked being directly in touch with grassroots volunteers. He is said to remember names of hundreds of local leaders from the districts and would be in touch with them to get a feel of the pulse of the people. He never acted elite and that helped building his image as 'people's man'. A man from the hinterlands, he is a do-it-yourself kind of man. It was quite common to see him adjusting the mike for himself when he gets up to speak in meetings and campaigns. He would shoo away anyone who offer to help him. In fact, even in a public meeting before this year's election attended by Sonia Gandhi, he himself went ahead and fixed the mike for her when she went up to speak. Likewise, he took full ownership for all party and government affairs and said as much. That he will own any defeat or victory the party gets in the elections. It is this kind of affirmative leadership that left no space for rivals within the party for years.

YSR's penchance to be engaged with the public made him tour out of Hyderabad in rural AP for 20 days every month. It is his grassroots level engagements that kept him confident and defiant and go against the grain before the elections and emerge triumphant. He claimed all through before this year's election that he would return victorious. Almost everyone, even within his party, didn't believe him. When his predictions came true, it was a miracle and he was hailed as a sort of superman. When the search and rescue operations started yesterday, almost everyone were expecting a similar miracle, a superhuman effort. Somehow, the very lucky, blessed CM is expected to be back. With all the elaborate well-oiled political and administrative machinery that he set up in here, how could he just disappear? That was the common thread of thought. Unfortunately it is his trademark defiance and nonchalance (towards the weather conditions), that would have costed his life. It was in dead heat, in undertook the padayatra in 2003. He is not the type who would wait till the pouring stops to step out. He is a rough guy who knew not any fear and this could have been one of those routine flights for him in a little adverse weather. But someone must have suggested the terrain was treacherous, the monsoons were in too foul a mood for a flight. I just wish he heeded, for once.


Rajesh said...

very well written

prasad said...

A timely and sensitive write up !
It was infact shocking and I am yet to come to terms with the untimely and tragic demise of YSR,the King of Cuddapah.
Though known more for his ruthless,anti-democratic,vengeful politics;there should be no doubt that he has left behind
a legacy hard to fill in,no mean feat trying to carry it forward.
He was a populist leader-a man of masses;he has created his own aura for himself through his demeanor and gait and
his policies which were well-focussed on the poor and downtrodden.
Andhra Pradesh and, Congress would definitely miss a true leader.

Praddy said...

I must say a very well written post, as always.
One very important point you mention here is about filling in his place. I am afraid the Congress party does not have anyone who could do that. The situation is something similar to what happened to the BJP when it too equally-abruptly lost Pramod Mahajan.

I. said...

Poignant.. well written Amar.

Saibaba said...

Good writeup dude...i initially didn't feel so much for his demise. But when i saw the live telecasting of his cremation..tears came out...

I salute this great leader for his work and efforts towards poor..Jai Ho YSR.

Ravi said...

Well said Amar!!! It is indeed a great loss for AP & for India.

Anil said...

Very well-Written Amar. However I don't think & wish his son takes up the position. ~~ Shilpa ~~

Amar said...

Thanks buddies for stopping by :)

Yeah Praddy,

I agree. In fact this is much more serious to Congress as YSR wasn't just a mass leader drawing the crowds but the one who contributed very highly to party's kitty. For all the choppers, sukhois and satellites sent for hunting, Congress' pain is understandable.


I understood this emotional surge in u was irrational and as expected you are back to being critical of YSR 1 day after :) Yeah, i didnt forget u r a Loksatta fanatic :)


Nice to see u here buddy. yeah, i wish the same :)