(Caution: Very long post)
"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).