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YSR (1949-2009) - The 'born again' politician - 3

Part 1 and Part 2 of this post.

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.


harsha said…
All in all, you seem to agree that YSR was one very hard working politician, who moved his pawns meticulously to remain relevant at every turn of events that unfolded.

I recommend you to read annual reports here, to understand how little money was mobilized selling public assets. You would understand the boon of money was majorly due to VAT and improved GSDP of Andhra Pradesh, which recorded 8.9% compounded annual growth rate. (well one could ascribe the GSDP growth to PVNR/central government, but not Naidu, since financial regulation and macro-economic policies, be it FDI or import/export duties, corporate taxes entirely rests with Central government). Hence neither Naidu nor YSR could take credit for economic growth numbers, because their hands are tied (but could stop them boasting, like Naidu did, though numbers show YSR tenure was way better).

There is no way to assess how much YSR would have amassed, but his son's business interests would project a significant sum. How would politicians resort to corruption? It was not so easy to siphon off money from public funds, because financial commission and CAG both audit and publish every single rupee spent. Most would come in the form of kickbacks, which is black economy, we only could put a number to each politician how much his real networth would be, because it was evident from the flood of money that comes into economy during every election, there are no sane politicians nor true left/right leaning, because Indian political parties are driven by people, that would leave vacuum when the very man was not around.
Krantiveer said…
Thanks again for a great informative post. Looking forward for the next in series.
Anonymous said…
Plz read article before writing YSR-EVANGELISM. IT will be useful for you.
Anonymous said…
Kumar - Awesome compilation of the events! Your narration style is so lucid, I could visualize the faction in Rayalaseema during the late 80s.

Waiting for your next post!

kaivalyam said…
i am really happy to have come across this blog...
very detailed, informative and lucid
please post more such on the political scene of AP/Telangana and its politicians.
andhra said…
ysr gurinchi elaborate gaa raasina tamaru.. babu n co gurinchi kooda raayandi konchem . paritaala ravi dp gaadi aagadaalu, promotions lo tdp supporters ki priority,courts ni naasanam chesina teeru.. reforms perutho adda diddam gaa govt companies ammadam... ivanne koodaa raasi taruvaata ysr gurinchi raayi
S Maliyekal said…
Very informative and brilliant article about YSR who was and always will be remembered as a political legend. Thanks and congrats for sharing.

Please add your opinion about the dirty political and selfish games of ruling parties.