YSR (1949-2009)

YSR (1949-2009) – The ‘born again’ politician (section 1)

“In the long run, we are all going to die,” said a famous economist some years back.

Yedugoori Sandiniti Rajasekhar Reddy (Y.S.Rajasekhar Reddy or simply YSR) who died in a chopper crash over the dense Nallamala forests in the Rayalaseema region of AP seemed to have never believed in that truism.

YSR (1949-2009) may have died suddenly, and at arguably the peak of his political career, but leaves behind strong political legacy. Not many people would have agreed with his supporters’ assertion that YSR has been as influential as the late N.T.Rama Rao (NTR) in shaping the AP political discourse. But when one looks at the events leading to his tragic death, and the emotional response to it by his fans, YSR has once again surprised his own expectations.

I have never written an obituary even during my days as a rookie journalist. I did not intend to write one for YSR. And this post is not going to be one either. But watching the thousands of people who thronged L.B.Stadium in Hyderabad yesterday from the safe confines of my home, and then looking at the villagers who turned out in hundreds of thousands at his funeral in Idupulapaya estate in the evening, I realized that this man needs to be critiqued properly. I spent some time trying to read up obits penned by well known journalists. And I was disappointed. Not because they failed to do justice to his achievements. Not even because most of them failed to mention his clay feet. I some how felt the esteemed journalists have not been able to trace the transformation of a regular politician (with no grounding in ideology) into some one who managed to transcend the divisions of faith, caste and regional aspirations. And in doing so, won the trust and love of millions of poor people- the hallmark of a true, once-in-a-generation leader in democratic societies. One may agree or disagree with him, but one can’t ignore his impact in the country’s politics since 2003 at least.

First, I think I need to be done with some peripheral but ‘need-to-be-stated’ stuff. I hail from the same district as YSR. He has been my MP four times. I must have seen/had interactions with him at least a dozen times or more as I was growing up in a dusty, hot town and he was climbing the political ladders. He was very accessible. Whether due to the local grapevine, or due to the business dealings my mother’s side of the extended family had with YSR’s family (some of them unpleasant to say the least), or due to me becoming friends with boys of my age group from YSR’s family, I happen to know much more than the average AP voter about YSR and his roots, personality and so on. The same can be said about most politically aware people from my district. We know a lot of the skeletons. We also know a lot of the good and noble things he did.

Let me look at my own inconsistencies: I have always been against the Congress-style politics, but never wanted YSR to lose any election. I have always been extremely critical of the faction culture nurtured by YSR in my district, but felt that he presented the only hope of a way out from the spiral of violence. I was aware that some of the accusations against him had more than a grain of truth, and yet I could not hate him like some of his political opponents do.

Now that I am trying to put the record right for myself, I ask: Why? Why these mixed feelings and the long rope? The same benefit of doubt did not extend to so many local leaders and even Chandra Babu Naidu, his chief political opponent.

Over 130 people have died in AP in the last 3 days.109 have them died of heart attack unable to handle the shock of YSR’s demise.The rest committed suicide.Yes, you are reading these figures correctly.Read those numbers again.

Yes, it shows how sentimental and emotionally weak these people are.I don’t know if it is a Telugu thing to be so emotionally dependent on the heroes (real and reel life). It just is so childish. However, as I read the papers this morning a thought struck me that probably there are thousands of hypertensives out there ( and a good number of mentally weak people as well) who are not aware how close they are to a fatal heart attack. That is a different story altogether though.

Back to YSR. The first thing one must talk about, in any evaluation of his political career, is the question of faction rivalries in Rayalaseema.

What is Factionism?

As per available history, factionism started as a fight for meagre resources (in drought conditions) between armed gangs of Reddy landlords (Polegars). These gangs also offered themselves as mercenaries for whoever had the money. Two Nizams were waylaid by these mercenaries in the hills near Kadapa town back in the late 18th Century, when the British and French were fighting for ascendancy. Finally, with the British having won, these districts were ‘Ceded’ to the British E.I. Company by the Nizam in return for military help and supply of weapons.

The Ceded area was rich in natural resources, but was hostile terrain. The British could not really control the areas and do proper revenue collection unless they minimized the power of the polegars. The first long distance railway line in the country (Madras to Bombay) went through the heart of this region. The first missionary school was set up in this region. And the first Church in deccan. And the first missionary hospital. The British conducted several years of minor warfare with the polegars and succeeded to a large extent. Many polegars were given revenue collection duties in the interiors.

Come the 1920s, the missionary activity increased by leaps and bounds in Rayalaseema, especially in Kadapa district. And along with the freedom movement, the fist communist groups also sprouted here and there.

In those days, Y.S. Venkat Reddy, a poor farmer from Balapanur village in Kadapa district got attracted to both Christianity and Communism in equal parts. Among his sons, Y.S.Raja Reddy proved to be a natural leader and not content with struggling with the small sweet lime plantation. He wanted to become a civil contractor to take advantage of the various village and block level works being started in the area. However, there were two problems. One, Raja Reddy was an ardent communist and specialized in organizing workers meetings. Two, his status as a converted Christian did not help in those extremely feudal days. Raja Reddy however saw that his Christian connections could help him get civil contracts to build churches and hospitals. And the communist connections could help him solve labour related problems for the businessmen.

As the market for the barytes mines in Mangampeta village opened up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Raja Reddy moved to that village, first as a labour contractor and then swiftly became a mine owner. He is reported to have his business partner one Mr.Venkata Subbaiah killed in those early days. Mangampeta village was an agrahaaram ( a village given as a gift to some Brahmin families by Vijayanagara kings). The Brahmin landlords preferred selling the lands to the aggressive Reddy miners than getting into fights with them. And Y.S. Raja Reddy was the most aggressive, and ruthless muscle man among them all. The era of the new polegars of Rayalaseema had started.

YSR, who was born in the mission hospital in Jammalamadugu (the first missionary hospital in AP), and was schooled in the missionary school there, was sent to Andhra Loyola College in Vijayawada to complete his Pre-University education. There, he came under the influence of Jesuit priests, and possibly the Roman Catholic religion. Back home, it was a very Hinduized form of Protestant Christianity that was practiced. As his father kept doing civil contracts and acquiring mining rights, YSR was sent away from the battle fields, to do his MBBS in Gulbarga, Karnataka, in relative peace.

After completing house surgency in Tirupati (Raja Reddy had developed his fearsome reputation by now), YSR returned to the hospital he was born in, and worked for some time. His father saw shades of him self in his second son, who although a physician, was quite comfortable with the kind of business dealings his father and other relatives were doing. They built a 24-bed private hospital in Pulivendula for YSR. Meanwhile, YSR got married and had two children. The stage was set for YSR becoming one of the busiest and well-known doctors in the district. He was known to have not charged any money from poor patients. Here’s the conundrum – while the father was busy stealing valuable mineral wealth from the Govt and bullying small miners and businessmen, and creating a network of small private armies of his followers in the district, and doing liquor distribution, the son was dispensing almost free health care to poor people. The Reddys saw the muscle business as a typical Reddy feudal thing, and the poor people were made to see the generosity of the family in building a school, college and hospital as a benevolent Christian thing, and in YSR’s case as some one who is worthy of becoming the people’s representative. Was all this a planned long term strategy ? Or was this simply the progression of two aspirations – one related to power and money, and the other related to popularity and political career.

In 1978, YSR contested as a Reddy Congress candidate and won against a veteran politician Narayana Reddy of Janata party, from Pulivendula constituency. He later switched to Congress (I). In the assembly, he met another young MLA called Chandra Babu Naidu.They both became good friends, though one must record that it was YSR who was the more dominant among the two.YSR was much ahead in terms of political networking by then.CBN was ambitious, but was hamstrung by his lack of financial resources.YSR was the one who would throw parties.

As Raja Reddy’s mining empire and other businesses grew at breakneck speed, YSR needed all the support to further his political networking. The advent of Rajeev Gandhi in New Delhi helped YSR a great deal because at 32, he was much younger than any other AP politician. And CBN, the one man who could have posed a challenge to YSR, left Congress to join TDP, the party started by his father-in-law.

Rajeev Gandhi heard good reports about YSR and without thinking much, made him PCC president at the age of 35, in 1983. Rajeev may have assumed that the only way to counter NTR’s filmi charisma was to put forward a very young and outspoken YSR. The move failed miserably, but YSR was able to travel through the State and continue his networking, adding more and more leaders into the YSR group in AP Congress. There was some strain on the resources because NTR was in power and things became a bit difficult for Raja Reddy and businessmen of his type. It is just my theory but if one looks at the sudden spurt of faction violence from the early 1980s, it becomes clear that in most cases, the factions went on for years because one of the sides was always supported by the YSR/Raja Reddy duo. As a kid growing up in those years, I have seen, first hand, my own share of bomb attacks and stuff. It was always between two groups in a village, and word used to come out that the more aggressive group had the backing of YSR/Raja Reddy. It is impossible to count how many people have lost lives in those dark years, but YSR acquired with ‘don’t mess with me’ reputation. And he always had a veritable private army avaialble, being maintained by private war lords at their own expense. And YSR also became known for settling the disputes. It is possible that he may have averted many incidents of violence, but one wonders whether his brand of local politics did contribute to those faction rivalries in the first place.

As word traveled through the State about the bad lands of Rayalaseema (there were other leaders in neighbouring districts who styled themselves on the lines of YSR, but they mostly remained at the level of Raja Reddy and did not become the polished version that YSR could become).

What of YSR’s politics during those days ? He always spoke for the poor and the peasants, but never seemed to have any solution to offer except rail against the inefficiency of the Govt and the partialty of successive governments against Rayalaseema. Though there was merit in his agitation in the 1980s for diverting excess waters of Krishna river to Telugu Ganga scheme (aimed at Rayalaseema’s parched lands), he never questioned himself as to why in its 35 year rule, Congress never thought of such a project. NTR dusted off the old plans for a major irrigation project and deserves credit for Telugu Ganga and Srisailam Left Bank canal. YSR did the right thing by demanding more water for Rayalaseema. But as a teenager I remember wondering why YSR had to be so ultra aggressive all the time, abusing the CM of AP for little things. As I think back, I would wager that YSR those days sounded as uncouth as KCR did for Telangana recently. It looked like YSR will forever be a district level politician.

However, the PCC presidentship changed the direction of his politics and he started traveling to the coastal districts. I don’t think he saw much future in the State with NTR so much in control. He stood as MP from Kadapa and the people voted en masse for him. We all thought he would at least highlight the problems of the district and bring central funds or projects. What was not spoken aloud was that the town and the district was better off with YSR away in Delhi, than losing the election and indulging in faction politics.

NTR’s Telugu Desam Party lost in the 1989 elections and Congress returned to power in the State. Another erstwhile separatist M.Chenna Reddy was anointed as the CM, and YSR felt that ‘youth’ (he was 41 then) should be given a chance. The Congress high command had other ideas though. Also, what YSR thought was a minor event, did not pass unnoticed by the likes of K.Vijaya Bhaskar Reddy and P.V.Narasimha Rao, two stalwarts of AP Congress, with PVNR already highly respected in New Delhi.

As the election results were being announced, and it became clear that Congress would return to power, Raja Reddy’s henchmen and workers broke the fence and entered a tract of land in Mangampeta that was supposed to remain untouched. The Union Govt had asked the State Govt to leave a plot of high grade Barytes alone so that future generations would know that once we had these mineral deposits in this village. It was supposed to be a geological monument, one of the many scattered across the nation. But overnight, drunk on liquor and the arrogance of impending power, YSR’s people mined the plot and carried away thousands of tons of expensive barytes ore. A veritable slap on the rule of law by the followers of a person who hoped to be made CM the next day.

One can say YSR did what most politicians do – robbing the nation’s wealth, and that he has more than compensated for that with his pro-poor policies in power. While I would agree with those points, I think incidents like what I have described need to be recounted.

Next post: YSR as the dissident Congress politician (1989-1994), as an Opposition leader (1994-2002), and as the transformation into a true mass leader with a heart of gold , and a consummate politician (2003-2009).

YSR (1949-2009) – The ‘born again’ politician (section 2)

While it is true that Chenna Reddy was the PCC president when Congress defeated NTR in 1989, a good number of people gave YSR a decent chance of becoming CM. However, that was not to be. This marked the beginning of a new phase in YSR’s career – that of a dissident Congressman, trying to undermine the incumbent Congress CM.

Hyderabad was always prone to Hindu-Muslim clashes around the Ganesh Chaturthi, Bonalu and Ramadan time. The Police were unable to prevent the riots, and their effectiveness during the riots was hampered by political interference. But during NTR’s first term (1983-89), there were hardly any riots in Hyderabad. NTR gave free hand to the state police to do preventive detentions and increase the patrols. Even though there were some protests about the annual arrests, for about 7 years, Hyderabad was riot free.

But during the Congress tenure (1989-1994), communal riots became an annual feature once again. And every time the riots occurred, the High Command replaced the CM because he ‘has failed to ensure law and order.’ Both Chenna Reddy and Janardhan Reddy were dethroned this way. And whether or not his supporters agree, YSR had a major role to play in these events.

As degree college students in Kadapa those days, we were blissfully ideology free. During election season, YSR’s people used to offer willing groups of students with jeeps, and money, provided we take part in the campaign in the villages. I remember going on a couple of those trips. We used to visit a village or two till lunch time, and then some one would organize food in one of the villages.Biriyani and stuff. And in the evenings, liquor would be available. In most of the election booths, there would be hardly any voting. The student volunteers and others used to simply rig the votes. In one of the booths, I suggested that not all votes should be polled for YSR as that could disqualify the voting from that booth.And I polled around 25 votes for the BJP candidate. It was a token gesture towards the center right from my side, I suppose.

But in these interactions, we used to hear war stories being swapped by some of the muscle men. A large number of these goons-for-hire were dalits, with their ring leaders being Reddys. There was this time when in a road side tea stall, two men claimed to have killed three people each during the communal riots in Hyderabad. Apparently, people were shipped in lorries from Kadapa and few other places to the Old City, and were given a few hours to wreak havoc.

This is one of the accusations against YSR that has never been probed properly. To wilfully create riots and then demand the dismissal of a CM from your own party – is it possible that this could rank as one of the worst political crimes committed in Independent India? May be. But where is the proof, his supporters ask. It still amazes me that the likes of PV, Kotla Vijay Bhaskar Reddy, Rosaiah and others did not think it necessary to conduct a full investigation into these allegations. That this happened twice in two years suggests that the senior Congress leaders by then had already become spineless and morally blind, and were content to just pool all their influence in New Delhi together and keep YSR away from power.

With this backdrop, when the events of Dec 6, 1992 in Ayodhya caused full scale riots in Hyderabad, Raja Reddy took advantage of the tense situation and used some hired goons to settle a few business scores too. One of my relatives, an old man in his 60s, was beaten up mercilessly in the lawns of Taj Mahal Hotel in Abids, Hyderabad. His crime: He had dared to file a case against YSR family’s mining business and won the case.

In any case, Janardhan Reddy was removed by the high command for his inability to handle the law and order situation. YSR rushed to Delhi now expecting to be crowned as the CM. However, PV Narasimha Rao had other plans. He could not entertain the thought of some one like YSR given a free rein in AP. Result: Once again, a senior Congress leader, Kotla Vijay Bhaskar Reddy became the CM. YSR’s desperation could be seen in his press confrences those days.

YSR’s followers went a step further though. When the PM and CM visited Kadapa, a section of the crowd threw footwear at the CM amid slogans that called for him to step down and give YSR the kursi. A shocked PV and a humiliated Kotla beat a hasty retreat from the scene. Several of us felt ashamed of our town people that day, and we knew who may have egged them on. But this was nothing compared to the daily dose of violence in the Rayalaseema districts throughout the Congress term. One, the police were too scared to act against any one claiming to be YSR’s follower, and two, the followers resorted to violence to scare people into parting with their properties. A case of an old business family that had to part with their petrol bunk comes to mind.

YSR did little of any note during those years, except trying to consolidate his hold in Krishna and Guntur districts. During the TDP term, a popular Kapu Congress leader Vangaveeti Mohana Ranga was killed in what was alleged to be a police-sponsored murder. YSR agitated against this killing quite effectively and won the hearts of Ranga’s followers in those districts. People all over the State started glorifying and romanticising the faction culture of Rayalaseema, especially Kadapa district and YSR was seen as the numero uno among them all. His ‘mass appeal’ among the dalit Christians of coastal AP seems to have started around this time.

While NTR was going through his own transformation, marrying his biographer Lakshmi Parvati, and playing the role of agitational opposition leader to the hilt, YSR and other Congress leaders were busy making the most of opportunities thrown open by a newly liberalized economy. One would have expected YSR to side with the Nellore women during the campaign for prohibition in AP. He was simply not interested in the issue. NTR returned to power with a massive majorityin 1994, and to those of us tracking YSR’s career, it looked as if he would remain a second rung leader for ever.

YSR focused on his Delhi connections during the next few years. He was also probably immersed in sorting out some problems related to his children. Though they are irrelevant to this narrative (and therefore being omitted by me), I feel that the first sprouts of change were visible during 1994-98. In his mid-40s, with his children grown up and facing issues of their own, YSR probably started looking at his career, what he stands for, and how his actions or words would impact his family and extended family.

People throughout AP were bitten by the IT bug, and YSR’s many factionist followers started seeing their kids move to the US for IT jobs or to setup IT body shopping firms. I recall a few weddings I attended those days in Kadapa (I myself moved to Hyderabad in 1993), where the star attractions were NRI Reddy boys and not the local factionist politicians. YSR’s son Jagan spent some time in the US and started dreaming of building a business empire. Raja Reddy was as aggressive as ever, but he began facing challenges from some young factionists who matched him bomb for country bomb.

Meanwhile, Chandra Babu Naidu took his chances against NTR and succeeded in the family coup to become CM. YSR, a fan of NTR as an actor, spared no words in attacking his one time friend and now opponent Naidu, for this backstabbing. Naidu’s rise was covered in the media extensively, but YSR’s slow change of heart, and the distancing from factionsim went largely unnoticed. As per locals, the IT revolution was one of the main reasons for faction violence coming down.The other reason, they say, is the role played by successive district Superintendents of Police (SPs) in Rayalaseema districts, the most effective and famous among these being Umesh Chandra, IPS.

The systematic raids and attacks by the police, backed by the CM Naidu, made it difficult for the factionists to maintain their inventories of country bombs, rifles and other weapons. Umesh Chandra especially focused on country gambling rackets (called Matka), and dried up one of the revenue sources. The dapper police officer became quite popular in the villages, especially among the women folk, for his seizure of weapons from all MLAs and their followers. He also crushed the budding Naxal movement in the district, and ensured free and fair elections for the first time in history. YSR contested as an MP in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, and managed to win by just 5400 votes, that too after a contentious recounting issue. Observers said there were occassions during the tense counting phase when YSR lost his cool against the Dist Collector, but the SP stayed firm and refused to budge to YSR’s dictats.

And in 1998, in a chilling demonstration that the young generation factionists would no longer cower in fear of Raja Reddy, a fierce local private war commenced between multiple factions. Eventually, Raja Reddy perished in one such gun fight. YSR, who ensured that so far his hands were not bloody, had a difficult choice to make. Till now, he always condemned faction violence and appealed for peace, while enjoying the deference people paid to him because of his ‘super faction hero’ image. The poor farmers among Reddys, and the dalits and BCs in the district too looked up to him for his ‘benevolent’ image. Generous towards friends and ruthless towards enemies – that was the projection YSR seems to have carefully cultivated. And it had served him well but did not enable the next leap up the political ladder.

In the mores of factionsim, the expected response to the murder of one’s father is an all out attack on the perpetrators, and killing them within one year. Faction rivalries often went on for 2-3 decades until one faction runs out of steam and male descendants willing to fight.

YSR was the most powerful arbiter of faction feuds, and the politician with the best network.Plus, Raja Reddy had created a lucrative business and protection empire.Most people expected YSR’s side to retaliate strongly against the suspected killers of Raja Reddy.

That did not happen. The case went to the police who did a decent job and arrested those responsible. Several of them got life terms after a relatively quick judicial process. In a few years, some of the convicted would even complete their sentences and walk out free.

This then is the first transformation of YSR, in my view. He could have remained mired in criminal cases and ended up as a provincial politician had he chosen the violent route. Instead, some thing changed in his heart, I think. He was able to see the future better now, and by some accounts, decided to end his association or support to any kind of factionism. I am pretty sure there would have been old men advising him not to sit quiet. And several young men who would have just waited for a nod from him to go and wreak havoc.

By deciding for peace instead of violence, YSR ran the risk of losing his tough image in the district. It could have been the dawning of political and emotional maturity in him, or the sight of grand children, or the urgings of Christian priests close to him in a spiritual sense. Whatever be the reasons, the district heaved a sigh of relief, and Naidu claimed victory over faction violence. YSR was now ready to lead the AP Congress in his own right.

The 1999 assembly and Lok Sabha elections were remarkable for many reasons.Not least the fact that Naidu joined hands with BJP and won a massive mandate for TDP in the State and the alliance won 36 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats.YSR did his best in bringing together various groups within the State Congress, but people trusted Naidu more than him.Congress won a mere 91, and YSR had to survive a further 5 years out of power.Already, it was 17 years since he tasted power as a State minister.

Instead of reverting into boorish factionsit behavior, YSR tried to now play the mature opposition leader.

Next post: The final decade (1999-2009), and an analysis of his approach to developmental politics, and his poliutical legacy.

YSR (1949-2009) – The ‘born again’ politician (section 3)

The trajectory of YSR’s political career post-1999 shows a gradual ascent. Playing the mature and constructive opposition leader did not come easy to him. It was a learning curve that demanded YSR to read up and understand how agitational politics in a democratic setup need to be managed.

The State Congress was not short of people who reminded him about the vow he had taken before the 1999 elections to either dislodge Chandra Babu Naidu or take poilitical sanyas. Locals say that it was just pre-poll rhetoric and that YSR, after spending two decades in politics would just have to continue, at least to retain the family’s pre-eminence in Kadapa district, and also to provide political cover to his son’s business interests.

Around this time, Jagan’s business ventures started picking up, and the friendship with the Reddy brothers of Bellary (Gali Janardhan Reddy being the main person) came in handy. And to stay in peoples’ minds, YSR chose his issues quite carefully. The TDP government’s policies of privatization and reduction of government subsidies helped him by giving issues that can be milked easily. Some analysts say that YSR studied the approaches of Rajeev Gandhi and NTR as opposition leaders and modeled himself accordingly.

During this period (1999-2003) YSR apparently studied a lot of literature and worked on his communication skills, especially the art of letter writing. He wrote several open letters to the CM Naidu questioning him on the policies discriminating against the farmers. Four successive years of less than average rainfall caused drought conditions in the State, and YSR’s charge against Naidu was that the high tech CM was obsessed with IT and the city of Hyderabad, and neglecting the plight of rural AP, especially farmers suicides.

Naidu believed in the ‘trickle down’ theory, and had taken large loans from World Bank for building the infrastructure. It is true that AP saw a lot of good roads being laid during Naidu’s rule, but YSR managed to keep the issues of peasants and artisans constantly in the media and kept pushing Naidu. And for the Rayalaseema people, the feared factional violence slowly became a thing of past, except in Anantapur district where Paritala Ravi (Naxal turned TDP leader) reigned supreme for a while.

It is not as if Naidu did not focus on the villages at all. He was inspired by experiments in government-people participation in South Korea and Malaysia, and nativised them to suit AP. Known popularly as Janmabhoomi programs, Naidu invited people to do sramdaan, and with Govt funds, build/renovate their own schools and hospitals. Naidu also instituted austerity programs by cutting down on hikes for school teachers and non-gazetted officers. He also made them work extra hours and on weekends to manage the Janmabhoomi and Akshara Rasmi (literacy) programs. Naidu’s approach towards reducing corruption was to centralise all decisions leaving district level officers in confusion as to whether they matter in any way at all.

All in all, there were a few good things done by Naidu and a few unwise moves.YSR ensured that the implementation failures of all programs got highlighted on a daily basis.People, including cynical journalists started seeing YSR in a new light.

And then the paada yatra of 2003 happened causing the second transformation in YSR.
YSR’s grouse was that the State Assembly was not proving to be an effective medium to protest against the Govt policies. He laid the blame for the suicides of farmers squarely on Chandra Babu Naidu. YSR’s agitation against raised power tariffs created a mass impact, but failed to enthuse the moribund Congress cadre sufficiently. All his readings of Indian political history, and his own gut feel made him realize that the best way to counter Naidu was to open a direct channel with the rural populace.

The 1600-km paada yatra in peak summer of 2003 ( a good 12 months away from the general elections) started at Chevella near Hyderabad and culminated at Ichapuram in north AP.The media covered every stage of the yatra and the response from the villagers was tremendous. After NTR’s tours in AP during 1982, this was the first time an AP politician sought to tour the State with the aim to reach out to people, and lend a ear. YSR had no solutions.Just a promise that he wants to learn about the problems and would do what he can to highlight them to the Govt. Importantly, it was not seen as a political gimmick. And the sincerity was there for all to see. Mid-way through the yatra, he fell seriously ill near Rajahmundry and it was as if the whole state came to a standstill, as the doctors battled with the dehydration related illness. It was a particularly hot summer with the mercury soaring above 44 degrees on several days. YSR lost weight rapidly but continued his yatra braving the advice of the doctors to give it up after Rajahmundry.

Can a paada yatra of this nature transform a person ? At what level ? To what extent ? Several journalists have asked YSR this question many times after he stormed to power in 2004, on the back of many factors that conspired against TDP.

To me, one of the most memorable statements from YSR goes like this:
“మంచి కోసం మారలేక పొతే మనిషి ఆశావాది కాలేడు.”
Translated, it says that man can not become an optimist if he can not change himself for the sake of Good. I don’t know whether he picked it up from some where or his own thoughts, but the YSR of the 1980s or the 1990s was not prone to wax so philosophical. What amazed some of us Kadapa folks is that while he remained as accessible as ever to the common man, in his informal interactions, the focus changed from ad hominem attacks on TDP, to a calm optimism that his time would come.

I think the paada yatra showed him not only the humbling poverty, but also served as a journey within. This is not to say that his aggressive tone and irreverent language towards opponents went away. Just that he learnt to use the idiom of the people than that of a dyed-in-the-wool politician. And the response from the public gave him the belief that the unfulfilled dream of political power would become a reality soon.

However, as mentioned above, TDP’s defeat was caused not just by YSR’s new found connection with the rural folks.

For one, YSR managed to unite the entire opposition against the TDP+BJP alliance. The communal card was played without any qualms. The Communist parties huffed and puffed, but ensured that their meagre share of votes was transferred en masse to the Cong candidates. There was a large scale mobilisation of the dalit Christian vote bank.

The Police, the teachers and vast sections of the Govt employees were desperate to get rid of Naidu as they were chafing under his, ‘If I can work for 16 hours a day, why can’t you work for 10-12 hours’ line. Also, though there were some large scale corruption scams during Naidu’s rule, petty corruption had become very difficult. The bureaucracy from top to bottom wanted a more ‘flexible’ political atmosphere.

And in Telangana, YSR allied with TRS chief K.Chandrasekhar Rao to whip up the Telangana sentiment. He promised a separate state as one of his objectives several times during the campaign. TDP was the only party committed to a unified AP. And a very important factor in Telangana, and the agency areas of AP was the informal deal struck with Naxal elements. YSR may not have given any assurances to the Naxalites, but Naidu’s tough stance against the Naxals made them come out rather openly in support of non-TDP candidates.

That no one, including YSR expected such a complete landslide for Congress in the Assembly and LS elections of 2004, is well documented. This was seen as part of a national wave against the NDA though, and even Naidu seems to have put the blame for his defeat on his alliance with the BJP.

YSR’s time had come and when he was sworn in as CM in a public meeting, the stage was full of his extended family from Pulivendula. The humility visible during the long campaign was replaced by a smug ‘let my people make merry now, they have waited for a long time’ attitude. And the loot started in right earnest.

One of the jokes during the initial days of YSR’s rule was that while Naidu preferred to sit alone like a taddinapu braahmadu (priest who conducts the rites for a death anniversary), YSR’s rule was like a buffet spread. I know the idiom is too local to allow a proper translation, but hope you get the sense of Naidu eating alone while the others are watching, whereas YSR preferring to arrange a dinner on an ‘eat all you can’ basis.

So, we started seeing a plethora of schemes with just one aim – move as much of tax payer money and public wealth as possible into private hands. Naidu had laid the foundation for the IT sector in Hyderabad, but did not last in power till the real estate boom took place. YSR’s faithful followers enriched themselves enormously in the bargain, under the approving eyes of Congress ministers. And his son Jagan’s business empire grew and grew. The Rajus of Satyam, who were in the good books of Naidu, miraculously earned the good will of YSR too, and Maytas suddenly became a huge infrastructure giant.

I am going to stop the story now, as this is all recent history.Let me focus on the pro-poor policies first and then, in the next post, get into some of the contentious issues like YSR’s role in the spread of evangelism in AP.

YSR had promised several freebies during the 2004 campaign, and he kept his ‘word’ by signing on the free power for farmers GO immediately after coming to power. He also announced ‘Jala Yagnam’, a program where dozens of major, and minor irrigation projects would be taken up, to ensure water for all farmers in the state. Though the state exchequer started groaning under the free schemes and subsidies, the boom in the economy, and the good monsoon years compensated partially. Some of the schemes started by NTR and discontinued by Naidu, were revived, most notable among them being the Rs. 2 a kilo rice scheme.

The more popular among the new schemes were: Loans at 25 paise interest for women self-help groups and artisan communities, Rajeev Griha Kalpa (Indiramma houses), Arogya Sri (health insurance for the poor), hike in pensions for senior citizens, and of course the NREGA.

So, on the one hand, crony capitalism on a massive scale and on the other hand, welfare handouts for the poor. Most of the schemes involved some kind of a pay out for local Congress cadre. It became possible for any one who knows the local Congress MLA or mandal Congress secretary to get a White ration card, an Indiramma house, an Arogya Sri card, and some easy loans. The Arogya Sri scheme helped fill the coffers of corporate hospitals. The scheme to reimburse engineering and medical college fees for minority, dalit, and any economically backward students benefited the scores of private engineering colleges (over 250 last year). The SEZ policy transferred thousands of acres of land from poor people to rich corporates who are more interested in real estate operations than setting up industrial units. And the big daddy of them all, the irrigation projects, were worth more than Rs. 80, 000 crore as per initial estimates.

I have always wondered as to where all this money is coming from. I still don’t have the answers except a lame theory that conversion of agricultural land into commercial land may have unlocked lot of wealth.

Estimates vary on how much wealth YSR’s very large extended family and circle of friends accumulated between 2004-2009.Some say it is close to Rs. 50, 000 crore and others say it is probably around Rs. 25, 000 crore. Whatever the number is, even Naidu’s mind might have boggled at the scale, I reckon.

But the one certainty is that AP supplied a lot of the cash that helped the INC run the campaign in the 2009 elections. And YSR delivered again for Sonia.(See my post on the analysis of the 2009 election results for AP.)

In the last 100-odd days of his second term, YSR seems to have realized the extent to which his schemes have failed in implementation, and so had begun a drastic review of bogus ration cards and Arogya Sri cards.It will be interesting to see how Jagan (the fait accompli has been served by state Congress and it remains to be seen how the high command responds) deals with these tricky issues.

So, what is the political and/or developmental legacy of YSR ? Large scale corruption through crony capitalism balanced by welfare doles to the poor ? Or is it, as seen by his fans, a balanced approach to development between the urban areas and the rural ones? Or, is it, center right to make business happy and center left to make the poor survive? To me, it looked like YSR focused on winning the 2009 election from day 1 of his first term and he did this by systematically giving out sops. His ostensible goal for the 2014 elections was to finish off the TDP as a political force. He had initiated Operation Aakarsh modeled on the Operation Kamal in neighbouring Karnataka, where a BJP government controlled by his Bellary friends is running the show. And a few days before his chopper crashed, YSR had declared that in his first term, he focused on governance, and now that it is running on auto pilot, he wants to ‘enjoy the politics’.

Fate has willed otherwise.And it is left to his son Jagan and the political group that thrived on their proximity to YSR and family, to pick up the pieces.

Next post (and the last one in this series): YSR and the rise of evangelism in AP plus YSR in the eyes of Muslims and Hindus; again, I see people painting him in black or white. I will bring in the gray shades and we can see how the picture looks like.

YSR (1949-2009) – The ‘born again’ politician (section 4)

In the previous three posts on YSR’s legacy ( Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), we looked at the political career of YSR. However, along with ‘factionism’, ‘dissidence’, ‘paada yatra’, and ‘welfare sops’ , the question of YSR’s role in the spread of Christian evangelism in AP is also an important motif for polarising opinions on him.

The first point to note is that the popularity of YSR among the minorities in AP has in no way compromised his pull among upper caste as well as dalit Hindus in AP. Rather than just looking into the allegations about his encouragement for evangelism and his supposedly anti-Hindu policies related to management of temples, and the use of Hundi collections for ‘secular’ purposes, it will serve us better if we try to understand the issues involved in a little more detail.

Frequently Asked Question : Has there been a tremendous rise in evangelism/forced conversions after YSR became the CM, and if yes, how much of this can be attributed directly to the CM?

Before answering this question, a look at the historical situation in AP first.

YSR is a third-generation Protestant Christian. It was his grand father Y.S.Venkata Reddy who came under the influence of British missionaries and converted with his entire family. The conversion angered the fellow Reddys of Balapanur village and Venkat Reddy had to undergo almost a social boycott. However, in time, more people, both from the Reddy and Dalit communities in Kadapa district took to Christianity.

The promise of free education, especially in English, good medical facilities for free in mission hospitals, the availability of foreign funds to start schools and colleges, and in case of many dalit families – the opening up of an alternative, and influential career path as pastors and nuns etc., helped drive the conversions.

The evangelical program was largely unorganized till the 1980s, with dozens of denominations seeking to harvest souls throughout AP, and meeting with particular success where ever the domination of economic opportunities and education by the upper castes left the ‘Mala’ caste and some Backward Castes looking towards Christianity.

Since the 1990s, the scale and scope of the evangelist movement in India, with focus on states like AP has changed drastically and become more organized with even Inter-denominational Pastor Associations networking to influence political outcomes. This can not entirely be laid at the altar of Joshua Project, though the availability of American millions has surely made it possible for many massive healing meetings.

What then, could be the other factors?

One obvious factor in the context of AP is the rise of second and third generation political leaders from among the converted Christians. The confidence that comes from some one of your kind being a people’s representative is enormous, even if the MLA in question benefits from the vote bank and doesn’t do any thing else apart from occassional Church attendance.

The other, under researched question related to the rise of evangelism is the ‘dual benefits’ that went to dalit Christians for over 50 years. The first benefit is Constitutionally assured reservations for SCs, BCs and STs. This enabled several families to rise out of utter poverty and low social status to move into lower middle class and then middle class in two generations. Complimenting this benefit is the assistance from the Church. Most people equate Church assistance with monetary aid. This is only part of the story.

A Christian community finds the Pastor useful not just in providing spiritual succour (much needed because mainstream Hindusim has neglected the spiritual needs of these people for hundreds of years). The Pastor in a village is also usually some one who reads and interprets national and international socio-political and economic events for them. Even if they have Cable TV, they wouldn’t be found watching NDTV or CNN-IBN. They would rather watch filmi programs. It is the priest/pastor who through the sermons in the Church and prayers at individual homes, shapes a good bit of their world view.

For upper caste Hindus who tend to think of dalits as in a sterotyped manner and do not proceed beyond the ‘they all hate Brahmins’ construct, it would indeed come as a surprise to know that these fellow Indians have formed certain world views that are parallel to what we (urban Hindus) have developed, over the past 50-60 years.

The other benefit that accrued to these communities relates to the Churches themselves and how they are managed. Though there are head quarters for each denomination, and a certain hierarchy, the local management of the Churches is highly decentralized. The records and measurement against key success factors (conversion rate for example) are sent to the HQ so that effective use of funds can be monitored.

But most of the Churches attain self-sufficiency after a few years because the adherents pay small donations several times a year, among other revnue streams such as baptisms, marriages and funerals. More importantly, the Church will have a committee formed from among the congregation. In a sense, the stakeholders for a local Church are primarlily the followers in that region. This sort of develops relationships between people, a certain ‘help my brothers and sisters at the church’ mentality, which in my observation has addressed the ‘social needs’ of the converts. Mainstream Hinduism had these elements too, but they vanished long back.

By the 1990s, one could find a good number of dalit Christians in government jobs, PSUs, government schools etc, apart from private missionary schools, hospitals and so on. The unifying effect of having Prayer Meetings in an office, or university campus, or a PSU township can not be under stated. And when people think of themselves as a community, it becomes easier to invite others from the same socio-economic strata to join the group and/or to act like a cohesive vote bank.

It is quite easy to be lazy and ascribe all this to an international conspiracy of American Baptists or the Vatican. But I think that is a factor only at the initial, venture capital stage, and when successive rounds of funding for expansion of a particularly successful denomination are required.

The mid-1980s and 1990s also saw the dozens of well trained Evangelical speakers all over India, and in AP, the likes of K.A.Paul are dime a dozen. Mass mobilisation for prayer sessions became a regular sight. The 90s were also the times when Church communities saw tussles between factions within for control of the Church properties, mostly located on prime real estate in towns across AP.

Today, as per some estimates, the actual % of Christians in AP population is between 10-12 %. The figure in the census is only 2.4%. If the proposed bill for conferring SC status on dalit Christians (and Muslims) becomes an Act, it is likely that we will see the real numbers of practicing Christians available.

With all this background, let us look at the last three CMs AP has had – YSR, CBN, and NTR. All three of them being forceful personalities, with major differences in how they perceived the religious divide from a political and personal angle.

NTR – as Brahmanical as one can get in terms of learning, but with a socio-religious reformer’s mind set. He despised the caste system, but could not get away from indulging or at least allowing a preferential treatment to his Kamma community. In some instances, he was even blind towards upper caste atrocities on Dalits. In some quarters, he was known as a Brahmin-hater, but in my view he hated the symbols of caste system more than the brahmin community. Regarding the minorities, NTR was a constitutionalist, and went by the rule of law, but never displayed any special affection towards other faiths. He had a large number of Muslims as his fans, and he was probably instrumental in several well-off Muslims in AP entering the political scene as well. Till his time, the TTD funds were largely ignored by the State Govt. NTR, for the first time, saw that TTD has enormous excess funds, and he wanted that money to be transferred to the state exchequer or at least put to use for non-religious purposes if necessary.

Chandra Babu Naidu – Truly secular in the sense he projected an image of neutrality though like all politicians, he tried to appease the minority vote bank as much as he can. The misuse of TTD funds and the politicisation of TTD board was quite high during his tenure though.

YSR – Most people who accuse YSR as the evangelist CM of AP ignore the fact that he was the third Christian Reddy CM of the state, and not the first. Kasu Brahmananda Reddy (KBR) during the late 60s and mid 70s, and Nedurumalli Janardhan Reddy (Jaani) during the late 80s were the other two.

I could not find any reference to KBR being anti-or that he favored evangelists in any way, except in a case filed against him for election mal practices. KBR apparently promised Lutheran Christians in Firangipuram that he would build a big Church for them in return for votes.

Regarding the suave Mr.Janardhan Reddy, his rise from being a teacher to the owner of several educational institutions, and the generous funds he received from Christian organizations in UK and US, have been reasonably well documented. Neither KBR orNJR have ever been accused as being anti-Hindu though.

So, then, back to YSR. The list of accusations is so long, that I better give an external link. Some of these events can not be denied, but that is not the only or the best way to look at the issues.

There is another side to YSR-bashing. Many among the Christian right accuse him of being too defensive about his religious beliefs. They also maintain a list of his blasphemous utterings and bemoan YSR’s obsession with mythological Gods such as Siva, Venkateswara Swamy, Narasimha Swamy and Bhadradri Sri Rama. ‘How can he, a good Christian, enter a Hindu temple and offer prayers, goes the refrain.’ An anonymous commentor left this link on my previous post.

I once teasingly asked a Christian friend if YSR can be considered a true Christian and the answer was a serious ‘No’.

Reason: YSR had vedic homams done at his place, he carried the diamond crown on his head and entered Tirumala temple before doing a Saashtaanga Pranaam to the deity, YSR’s statements on festive occassions praying to Hindu Gods to take good care of AP people, his sporting of tilak on the forehead on important Hindu festival days, and above all, his belief in ‘Varuna Yaagam’ bringing timely rains to AP, so on and so forth. My friend asked me in an agonised voice: How would you feel if a Hindu politician credits Jesus or Prophet Mohammed for the rains ? My reply was the usual – ‘religion is a personal thing’ and if YSR feels devotion towards Venkateswara and Siva in equal measure as Jesus, it means he is a Hindu-Christian, like most Indian Christians can be, if they chose to.

Leaving such rhetorical arguments aside, I would like to posit some points to help evolve a finer understanding of YSR’s religious beliefs or lack thereof, and the impact on his image.

It is well known in AP political circles that while NTR was a scholar in Ramayana and some of the vedas, YSR’s speciality was Andhra Maha Bharatam.I have no evidence for this, but some low level Congressmen told me in amazed voices how YSR seems to know all the lesser known and apt stories from Maha Bharata, including verses from the Gita. I think YSR’s telugu idiom is derived from such sources.

YSR’s family are devout Christians. And yet, one constant complaint from them used to be his unavailability for Sunday mass even on occassions like Easter.Well, he is a politician, isn’t he? He would rather meet people than spend time in a Church or Temple, I suppose.

It is true that YSR did more than any other CM in trying to appease religious minorities.I would put this down to his vote bank politics than him being anti-Hindu. In his belief that all religions need appeasement, YSR even tried giving sops to Hindus, though such measures (Subsidy for Manasarovar Yatra for example) did not receive publicity.

The appointment of an ex-Marxist Bhumana Karunakara Reddy as TTD Chairman raised the hackles of many a Hindu rightist in AP and elsewhere. I would attribute that appointment to nepotism (Bhumana was almost like a brother to YSR) than a deliberate ploy to Christianize Tirumala. It is possible that Bhumana and his team pilfered what they can from the TTD funds. We need an enquiry into the allegations. But what can’t be argued against is that it was only during Bhumana’s tenure as TTD chief that a number of pro-Dharmic measures were taken by TTD.
Dalita Govindam – a program to take the God to the colonies of dalits, and bring them into the Dharmic fold
Kalyanamastu – mass vedic marriages cutting across all castes, targeting especially the Hindu poor in AP
-Starting of Sri Venkateswara Bhakti Channel, to propagate Hindu Dharma more effectively
-Grand celebration of 600th jayanti of Annamayya, and installing a 108-feet statue of Annamayya at his birthplace Tallapaka in Kadapa district
-Taking TTD into the electronic age by allowing interested people to webcast the Brahmotsavams, among other things

But we can’t ignore the allegations of corruption in TTD, including the disappearance of temple jewellery, and the appointment of a liquor baron like Audikeshavulu Naidu as a successor to Bhumana Karunakara Reddy.

Especially the issue of allowing evangelicals to preach on Tirumala hill and the move to take over five out of the seven hills for building resorts, commercial complexes, a rope way etc. There has been a lot of hue and cry (and justifiably so) about the sharp increase in the number of Christian employees in TTD, the issue of a certain Christian VC of Sri Padmavati Mahila University removing the photos of Venkateswara and Padmavati from her office and replacing them with a portrait of Jesus and so on.Also, the question of arranging TTD buses for girl students to attend Church on Sundays.

The important thing to note is that as soon as locals and devotees started agitating against some of these activities, a fact finding committee was formed and they provided a detailed report to the TTD.And the High Court disallowed the Govt move to commercialize the seven hills area.

It is quite possible that a Christian CM at the helm, with the CM’s family itself involved in evangelist activities, acted as a catalyst for the various denominations formulating plans to evangelise in places sacred to the Hindus such as Tirumala, Simhachalam etc. But with Hinduism not being an organized religion, though the efforts by concerned Swamijis and other devotees did stop these proselytization activities, it did not impact the image of the CM among the Hindu masses at all. The Reddys continued to see him as a Reddy, and the Christians as a Christian.

This then is the problem for Hindutva forces who wish to consolidate the Hindu votes, not in the name of a dharmic manifesto, but simply to use the religion card to gain political power within the current adharmic status quo.If YSR’s evangelical connections were an issue for state BJP, how did they reconcile this with G.Janardhan Reddy, a minister in BJP’s Karnataka Govt, being the business partner of Jagan?

Personally, I feel that if the Hindus consolidate as a vote bank on dharmic principles, it could bring a positive change in governance. But to simply argue that YSR was trying to convert AP into a Christa Pradesh is to bark up the wrong tree, and avoid doing what needs to be done.

YSR could play the appeasement cards successfully because people let him do so. YSR, like Naidu, or any other Indian politician was not averse to using any and all the cards available to him. A very cynical manipulation of minority sentiments, whilst taking advantage of the divisions within Hindu society. As I said in my previous post, YSR threw a buffet. He seemed not to care ‘who did what’ as long as it benefited him politically.It would have been possible for Hindu outfits also to gorge at the buffet spread he laid out. The Hindu outfits were not organized enough to even read the situation this way inspite of the many signals his administration gave them.

So, in conclusion:

YSR did encourage the use of tax payer money for appeasement of all narrow interests, including, and especially evangelical interests. As these interests had successfully infiltrated his personal circle, certain measures were rather more obvious and unapologetic.At the same time, his approach has been castigated by the extreme right on all sides (Hindu, Muslim and Christian), whilst the common people saw in him what they wanted. A very successful politician who understood the impact of symbolic acts, and in the final analysis, was probably not very interested in religion. His personal faith was politics.

This ends the series on YSR. Next post: The succession issue – Jagan as CM- will mark the end of my posts on AP politics for now.

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