Game changer

Print edition : July 13, 2012

The YSR Congress wins 15 of the 18 Assembly seats in the byelections in Andhra Pradesh to emerge as a formidable force.

in Hyderabad

Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, YSR Congress founder.-R.V. MOORTHY

The ghost of Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy continues to haunt the Congress in Andhra Pradesh. In his heyday, the moustache-twirling YSR was a perpetual dissident dreaded by many a Congress Chief Minister. That was a far cry from the image he cultivated when he became the Chief Minister. After his death in a helicopter crash in September 2009, his son Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy emerged as the ruling partys chief tormentor.

The Congress is now bedevilled by self-doubts whether it will survive the 2014 general election. Thirty years ago, it was almost decimated by the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), founded by N.T. Rama Rao. Such was the drubbing it received from Jaganmohan Reddys Yuvajana Sramika Rythu (YSR) Congress in the June 12 byelections that history may well repeat itself in the next general election.

The YSR Congress won 15 of the 18 Assembly seats and the Nellore Lok Sabha seat. The Congress, which had suffered a rout in the byelections to seven Assembly seats in Telangana in March, managed to win just two seats this time. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), after a strong showing in March when it won four of the seven seats in Telangana, won the Parkal seat in Warangal district with a thin margin of 1,562 votes against the YSR Congress candidate.

YSRs demise pushed the Congress into a disorder and its political graph began to careen downwards. The vacuum created in the State party leadership led to so much confusion that the party was left wondering whether to own or disown the political legacy of its most popular leader ever in Andhra Pradesh. The Congress could not disown him because most of the development and welfare programmes being implemented by its government were his brainchild. But if it owned up YSR, there was every possibility of the Congress vote transferring to his mutinous son.

While it was caught in this dilemma, Jaganmohan Reddy successfully established himself as the inheritor of YSRs legacy and much more the mass base of the Congress that his father had built up. The byelections witnessed a near-total shift of sections of people that have traditionally supported the Congress. This was reflected in the final outcome, which showed that the YSR Congress polled 48.88 per cent of the total vote, more than the combined vote share of the Congress (22.63 per cent) and the TDP (21.99 per cent)

Muslims and Dalits have apparently shifted their loyalties to the YSR Congress. The latter virtually worshipped Indiramma (Indira Gandhi) even when the rest of India had rejected her in the post-Emergency parliamentary elections in 1977. Muslims had every reason to sail with Jagan since his father was instrumental in taking the revolutionary step of providing them 4 per cent reservation in education and employment. Christians were anyway expected to plump for Jagan as he is a devout Catholic. A large chunk of Malas in coastal Andhra region have embraced the faith, a trend that is not reflected in the decadal Census.

Even the powerful Reddy community seems to have deserted the Congress this time. Although their numbers are far less in comparison to the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes, Reddys had been the partys backbone and provide leadership at the grass-root level. Ostrich-like, the Congress refused to see the ground shifting from under its feet ever since Jagan launched his Odarpu yatra (a condolence tour to meet the families of those alleged to have either committed suicide or suffered ill health following his father's death). Jagan had reached out to the masses through a potent mix of sympathy for YSR and the promise of perpetuating his fathers welfare programmes.

Virtually every poor family had benefited by at least one of the several programmes launched by the YSR government, such as free medicare, housing, scholarships for OBC candidates to study in professional colleges, rice at one rupee a kilogram, and enhanced pensions for the aged. In contrast to the YSR Congress strong fundamentals, the Congress and the TDP entered the fray with trepidation. The Congress was already in disarray following internal dissension while the TDP, equally rudderless, brushed its internal problems under the carpet through diversionary publicity tactics.

The arrest of Jagan by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on May 27 appears to have unleashed a wave of sympathy in his favour and sealed the fate of others, even in Telangana.

Just last year, pro-Telangana activists fought pitched battles with the police in Mahabubabad in Warangal district and prevented Jagan from continuing with the Odarpu yatra in the region. The byelection result proved that the TRS no longer enjoyed unchallenged sway over the masses in Telangana. Jagan was seen as a victim of a witch-hunt in which the Congress and the TDP were conspirators. The writing on the wall was evident from the massive crowds at the road shows of Vijayamma, Jagans mother and Member of the Legislative Assembly from Pulivendula, and the 80 per cent voter turnout.

The Congress attributed the massive crowds at Vijayammas meetings to the curiosity factor and refused to see it as an expression of solidarity with a woman who lost her husband in a tragic accident and whose son was incarcerated. Its national leaders, such as Union Minister Vayalar Ravi, claimed that the party would win four or five seats.

TDP leader Nara Chandrababu Naidu did not know what hit his party. Unlike the Congress, which won two seats this time, the TDP has nothing to save its face. It has lost 41 successive byelections since 2009. The TDP not only drew a blank but went through the agony of seeing its candidates forfeiting their security deposits in many places and trailing as a poor third in Nellore. The YSR Congress candidate, Mekapati Rajamohan Reddy, was re-elected from Nellore by a massive majority of 2.91 lakh votes over T. Subbarami Reddy, a former Union Minister, of the Congress. That the chasm between the TDP and the masses was growing became evident from Chandrababu Naidus candid remark, I dont know what is in the peoples mind (when they vote for Jaganmohan Reddy). This was an expression of his dismay over the voters decision to choose Jagan, who was arrested by the CBI on charges of corruption ( Frontline, June 29, 2012). The point he missed was that the problem of corruption or amassing of wealth by candidates was not exclusive to any single party. The TDP nominee for the Rayadurg Assembly seat, G. Deepak Reddy, had declared his asset worth as Rs.6,800 crore. He lost the election.

Abandoned legacy

Keeping aside the fortunes of the victor and the vanquished for a moment, the elections held out a dangerous portent for democracy and issues of governance. Currency notes of Rs.1,000 denomination were freely distributed to voters in what is seen as the costliest-ever elections in the State. However, it was apparent that the voters had concerns that went beyond corruption the bread and butter issues. Whether Jagan is corrupt or not, the voters perhaps plumped for YSRs welfare schemes, which the Congress government is slowly but surely diluting. The single slogan of corruption did not work, more so when the Congress and the TDP seemed intent on portraying Jagan as corrupt. In fact, this was their undoing.

Governance in Andhra Pradesh was at its lowest ebb and yet the TDPs primary target was an opposition leader. The Congress and the TDP were defeated not because of a sympathy wave for us. They lost sight of their primary duties and responsibilities towards the people, said Jagan's wife, Y.S. Bharati.

Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy is convinced that, as a member of YSRs think tank, he masterminded some of his populist policies that fetched votes for the Congress. Yet, his government did not flinch from hiking power tariff and bus fares. It did precious little when farmers declared a self-imposed crop holiday after having failed to get remunerative prices for paddy.

The YSR government bore the burden of LPG price hike by reimbursing Rs.300 crore to the petroleum companies as subsidy. When power utilities hiked tariff, it absorbed the additional burden. The present dispensation has provided no such hedge against inflation. YSR forced Monsanto to sell Bt cotton seed at Rs.800 a packet. Today, there is a mad rush to buy Monsanto seed, which is selling at Rs.3,000 a packet in black market.

The timing of Jagans arrest was on top of an already poor perception of the Congress government among the people. On its part, the TDP failed to capitalise on the situation and project itself as an alternative. The YSR Congress allegation of a TDPCongress nexus in the byelections stuck. The TDP candidates lost their deposits in Narsapur and Ramachandrapuram, the two constituencies that the Congress won. The TDP transferred its vote bank to the Congress in order to defeat the YSR Congress, Bharati asserted.

The YSR Congress has emerged from the shadows of the Odarpu yatra to become a potent political force.

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