Fumbling along

Print edition : June 29, 2012

YSR Congress chief Jaganmohan Reddy comes out of the Chanchalguda jail in Hyderabad on June 7, the last day of his CBI custody.-PTI

Andhra Pradesh: In its latest misstep, the Congress messes up its prospects in the byelections by getting Jaganmohan Reddy arrested.

The Congress in Andhra Pradesh has plunged into a fresh spell of political trouble, again as a result of the inept handling of a crisis by its managers. Earlier the party's bete noire was Telangana Rashtra Samithi president K. Chandrasekhara Rao, also called KCR. Now its prime adversary is Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, commonly known as Jagan, the young leader of the YSR Congress party.

What started as an attempt two years ago to keep a recalcitrant Jagan (he was with the Congress then) far away from the corridors of power has badly ricocheted on the party. Congress leaders might find little solace in seeing Jagan lodged in the Chanchalguda jail in Hyderabad as one of their own Ministers is keeping him company. Five other Congress Ministers, now under the scanner of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), face a similar prospect. Two of them have already been questioned by the CBI.

It is like the hand of Bhasmasura [the mythical demon king who sought a boon to turn his enemy into ashes and wanted to test its efficacy on the bestower of the boon himself], said Pilli Subashchandra Bose, a former Minister who now owes allegiance to Jagan, while referring to the plight of the five Ministers who are embroiled in disproportionate assets cases. (Mythology also has it that Bhasmasura was tricked by the enchantress Mohini to turn himself into ashes.)

The Supreme Court issued notices to six Ministers and eight Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers on the basis of allegations that the CBI was not proceeding against them despite possessing sufficient evidence that they had helped Jagan amass assets. The Ministers are P. Sabitha Indira Reddy, J. Geetha Reddy, Dharmana Prasada Rao, Ponnala Lakshmaiah, Kanna Lakshminarayana and Mopidevi Venkataramana Rao, all of whom were also members of the Cabinet of the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, Jagan's father. They had issued 26 government orders in violation of the law, the petitioner, P. Sudhakar Reddy alleged in the apex court.

A political vacuum has existed in the State ever since Chief Minister Rajasekhara Reddy was killed in a helicopter crash on September 2, 2009. His death left the Congress groping for smart and timely responses to tackle adversaries and resolve political crises.

The party has invariably ended up surrendering the initiative to its rivals, as happened in the case of KCR at the end of his indefinite fast demanding statehood for Telangana in December 2009. The arrest of Jagan on May 27, a fortnight ahead of the byelections to 18 Assembly constituencies and the Nellore Lok Sabha seat, fell into a pattern: procrastination first and ill-timed decisions later. The CBI filed its charge sheet against Jagan in August 2011.

Congress General Secretary and Union Minister for Health Ghulam Nabi Azad (wearing a shawl), Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy and Congress MP K. Chiranjeevi (holding the mike) campaigning in Ongole on June 4.-KOMMURI SRINIVAS

By plucking him out from the middle of an election campaign, the CBI has in a flash transformed Jagan into a larger-than-life figure. With the Congress cheering the CBI from the sidelines, he is now being seen as a victim of high-level political machinations although the CBI wants to project him as a corrupt and avaricious businessman. And herein lies the story of the byelections.

The CBI did not wait until the following day, May 28, when Jagan had been summoned to appear before the Special Court for CBI cases to answer charges of a quid pro quo. The allegation was that hundreds of crores of rupees had been invested in his companies by industrialists who had received from the Rajasekhara Reddy government land, licences and infrastructure at throwaway rates.

Speaking to Frontline before the CBI began its interrogation, Jagan said: My mother will steer the election campaign if I am taken into custody. We will be the biggest gainer in the elections and the Congress and the TDP [Telugu Desam Party], the biggest losers.

After 22 hours of questioning spread over three days at the Dilkusha Guest House during which Jagan gave away very little, the CBI announced his arrest. The story goes that on that hot Sunday afternoon, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, furious about the dithering over Jagan, wanted him behind bars. Never mind if the six Ministers, already in the dock, had to be sacrificed.

Quick to react to the arrest, Jagan's mother Vijayamma, his sister Sharmila and wife Bharati, after visiting him at Dilkusha, sat in protest on the road outside the Raj Bhavan in Hyderabad. Images of police scuffling with his family members before arresting them triggered a sympathy wave for them.

Without serving any of its political interests, the Congress government in the State alienated itself from sections of the intelligentsia through its knee-jerk reaction of stopping the release of advertisements to Jagan's Sakshi daily and television channel and permitting the CBI to attach their properties.

The YSR Congress' popularity sky-rocketed. Accompanied by daughter Sharmila, Vijayamma, who is honorary president of the party as well as an elected Member of the Legislative Assembly, launched road shows to campaign for her candidates. The turnout at these meetings was so huge that it drew comparisons with the crowds that N.T. Rama Rao, the former Chief Minister, had attracted after launching the Telugu Desam Party in 1982.

In an election in which the odds are stacked against the Congress, the mother-daughter duo capitalised on the groundswell of sympathy. They projected Jagan as a victim of a vendetta of the Congress and the Telugu Desam. Unable to tolerate their failure to garner public support in the elections, these two parties had conspired to misuse the CBI and finish him off politically, they maintained.

Y.S. Vijayamma, the mother of Jaganmohan Reddy, along with other family members outside the CBI office in Hyderabad on May 27.-NAGARA GOPAL

All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad strengthened this suspicion when he stated at election meetings that had Jagan remained in the Congress, he would have been made a Union Minister and later elevated to the post of Chief Minister. Implied in this statement was the suggestion that Jagan was paying the price for parting company with the Congress and that he would not have been in jail had he toed the ruling party's line.

Taking forward the conspiracy theory, Vijayamma cast grave doubts on the circumstances that abruptly ended her husband's life when his copter ran into turbulent weather in the Nallamala hills. Why did they use the old helicopter that was lying idle for several months? I fear that Congress leaders are now hatching a conspiracy against my son, she said.

Equally weird was the Congress leaders' response to her over-the-top allegation. They wondered whether Vijayamma and her son had a hand in YSR's death in order to ensure that Jagan became Chief Minister. Neither party seemed to care for the report of the four-member inquiry committee headed by S.K. Tyagi, which attributed the tragic accident to the error of the pilots, who lost control of the chopper after wasting precious time trying to locate a flight manual.

All this will become unworthy of debate once the byelection results are out on June 15. The writing on the wall is clear if the crowds turning up for Vijayamma's campaigns are any indicator of the public mood. The Congress has not won any of the 22 Assembly and one Lok Sabha byelections held since 2009.

The significance of the byelections is not lost on the Congress high command as the party gears up for the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre has the support of a large contingent of 33 Congress MPs from the State.

The onus of leading the Congress would normally lie with Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy. The high command expects him to exhibit better skills of political management, take bold administrative decisions and carry along his team of Ministers and MLAs.

This is a tall order as the party's mass base has eroded significantly in the State and the prospects of it repeating its electoral performance of 2009 appear bleak. Unless, of course, it learns some hard lessons from the past and makes dramatic changes in the State party and in the government run by it.

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