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YSR : A Political Apppraisal – K Srinivasulu అక్టోబర్ 18, 2009

Posted by Telangana Utsav in Congress, elections, politics, SEZ, TDP, Telangana, TRS.
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Commentary

Y S Rajasekhara Reddy: A Political Appraisal

K Srinivasulu
Economic and Political Weekly, September 19, 2009 (p. 8-11)

Even after Y S Rajasekhara Reddy won power in Andhra Pradesh in 2004 by tapping the widespread anger about the agrarian crisis, he retained the patriarchal benevolence and ruthlessness of the factionist politics of the Rayalaseema region. While YSR instituted many schemes to address the needs of the poor, this largesse was also designed to feed a network of supporters. YSR’s rule marked a clear departure from the time-honoured “politics of accommodation” in the Congress: perhaps for the first time, a uniquely parochial Reddy regime was put in place throughout the state. Turning the new approach of the Congress in New Delhi to his advantage, YSR managed to marginalise opposition to his leadership and thus emerged as the most powerful Congress chief minister of Andhra Pradesh in recent times.

The tragic death of the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh (AP), Y S Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR), along with four others, in a helicopter crash in the forested hills of Nallamalla on 2 September has suddenly altered the political landscape of the state and has left the major players in AP politics unsure about its fallout. The media blitzkrieg about the search for the missing helicopter helped build an emotion-laden hysteria among people, which surely contributed to the reported 200-odd deaths from cardiac arrests and suicides. While such immediate popular reaction to YSR’s unexpected demise points to his wide popularity it is also necessary to assess his politics in a more objective manner.

The most important contribution to YSR’s rise as a popular leader was from the padayatra he undertook in 2003 in preparation for the assembly elections the following year. Clad in a farmer’s clothes he walked 1,476 km through all three regions (Telangana, coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema) of the state. This padayatra enabled him to create a public image of a politician in touch with the grass roots. It also helped activate the Congress organization in local areas which had remained dormant as a result of the Congress being out of power for a decade. The padayatra not only enhanced YSR’s stature but was also crucial in evolving the winning slogans, strategy and alliances for the legislative and parliamentary elections of 2004.

Padayatra

The gross and visible neglect of agriculture and the rural economy by the Telugu Desam Party government headed by N Chandrababu Naidu was the context which contributed to the success of YSR’s padayatra. The Andhra Pradesh countryside was experiencing an unprecedented agrarian crisis at that time, with a large number of suicides among the weavers and farmers being symptomatic of its gravity. It was this crisis that YSR tried to articulate through his padayatra. In alliance with the Left and the Telangana Rastra Samithi (TRS), the Congress’ election pitch promised to address this rural distress. The added promises of sympathetically addressing the Telangana state issue and of peace talks with the Maoist groups saw the Congress back in power.

Once in power, YSR sought to put in place an elaborate agrarian and welfare policy regime. Agricultural loan waiver, free electricity and input subsidies to the crisis-ridden farmers and the construction of major irrigation projects were important components of the Congress policy package for the farming sector. There were measures related to health, housing, pensions, education and a push to national schemes, specially the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. These measures became possible, partly because of the increase in the revenue of the state government due to expansion in economic activity during the growth years after 2005 and the increase in tax revenue as percentage of gross state domestic product (GSDP) from 5.2% in 1995-96 to 10.1% in 2007-08. These provisions were instrumental in giving a pro-poor and caring image to the YSR-led Congress government.

Decline of Public Services

If this populist image of being a munificent provider of succour to the poor and needy helped YSR’s government gain legitimacy among the masses, then its developmentalist image, built up by pumping massive investments into irrigation projects, roads, bridges, flyovers, etc, catered to its support base among the rich and powerful. These helped the regime build and strengthen its networks with contractors, builders, real estate developers, corporate operators of various hues and they became the support structure of the regime. Even the health schemes which offered corporate hospital treatment to the poor arguably benefited these corporate interests more than the poor patients as hundreds of crores from the budget meant for public health were diverted to pay insurance premia to the private sector. It can be stated with some confidence that the public health system in Andhra Pradesh suffered serious neglect under the Congress government.

SEZ Factor

The development activities like irrigation projects and the special economic zones (SEZs) were singled out by the opposition and activists for being mired in corruption. Andhra Pradesh, with 57 notified and 99 formally approved SEZs, has acquired a dubious distinction of being the leading state in terms of the number of SEZs. The proactive role of the government could be gauged from the fact that 30 of these SEZs have been developed by the state’s industrial investment corporation itself and some more by other government agencies. While as many as 95 SEZs are related to the IT and IT-enabled services sector, the number of multi-purpose SEZs is just eight. Most of these IT/ITES SEZs, instead of attracting new companies, have only resulted in the relocation of the old ones for availing tax incentives. This has raised serious doubts about their avowed role in advancing industrialization and they have assumed notoriety as means of land acquisition by dubious means. The resultant allegations of land scams and the large-scale displacement of rural population, especially by the irrigation projects, have resulted in protest movements emerging in many places. It is a sad commentary on the political parties that despite wide-spread popular discontent on this issue, there was no recognition, let alone articulation, of this in the electoral discourse. As a result, the popular discontent articulated by these movements, in some places supported by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil rights groups, remained localised. The allegations of corruption and scams, despite the fact that they were serious in nature, massive in scale and with prima facie evidence in some, thus remained abstract and could not impinge on YSR’s political fortunes.

The YSR regime responded to these charges with blatant disregard and recklessness. During his five years in power, YSR systematically cultivated a political culture of intolerance and highhandedness. If the Naidu regime perfected the art of manipulation in dealing with its own party men as well as the opposition, then YSR’s style exuded crudity and ruthlessness. He allied with the TRS and helped engineer a split in it, thus contributing to its marginalisation. He called the Maoists for talks (though he never personally appeared to be enthusiastic about them) but paved the way for their disappearance from the state. The media was also not spared. The media in AP, it should be noted, is highly politicized and divided along party lines. Thus, the media houses loyal to the other side were pursued ruthlessly till they moderated their stand. If his aggressive populism left not much space for the opposition, his gladiator style politics left them defenceless.

Intolerance of Dissidence

The most visible success of YSR has to be seen in his handling of dissidence in his own party. Historically, rival groups have always prospered within the Congress, however powerful the incumbent chief minister may have been. This feature has been both the strength and weakness of the party: strength when they, operating within certain limits, provided an internal corrective mechanism and weakness when they took the form of open factional war, as often was the case. It is the latter that often made the Congress a target of public disgust and opposition’s ridicule and was one of the major contributors to the rise of the Telugu Desam in the 1980s.

As someone who, for most of his political life, acted as a centre of such dissidence, YSR understood it better than anybody in the party. He thus focused his attention on dissidents in his party. Region and caste have been the traditional basis of factions in the state Congress. The emergence of the TRS caused a sense of insecurity among Congress leaders about Telangana and led to a vocal group consisting of senior and middle ranking leaders articulating the demand. YSR managed to effectively silence the Telangana demand within the Congress by neutralising their access to the “high command” of the party in Delhi and then rendered the TRS ineffective.

Control over State

YSR’s rule marked a clear departure from the time honoured “politics of accommodation” which characterised the Congress in AP. The party, though dominated by the Reddy community, has been known to aim at social balance by providing representation to different castes and communities in the party and the government. This was a result of caste being the basis of factional pressure. YSR blatantly violated this tradition and, perhaps for the first time, put in a uniquely parochial Reddy regime by giving positions of substantial power, both representative and nominated, to the members of this community. Despite this, the fact that other factions in the Congress could mount no visible resistance demonstrates the effective manner in which he curtailed their power. In this YSR was significantly helped by the changed manner in which the Congress in New Delhi under Sonia Gandhi has dealt with its provincial party units. Unlike earlier, when there were frequent intervention in the functioning of the provincial party and government, the Congress “high command” seemed inclined to allow the latter to function on their own unless matters reached a crisis. Turning this to his advantage, YSR managed to marginalize and suppress opposition to his leadership from caste and region-based factions and thus emerged as the most powerful Congress chief minister of AP in recent times.

If the cultivated self-image of being a generous patriarch who would go to any extent to fulfil the popular aspirations constituted one facet of his persona, then his intolerance of any form of the opposition, criticism and dissent whether from the opposition parties, media or within his party was evidence of his authoritarian personality. His intemperate behaviour towards his opponents, within the assembly precincts and outside has often been commented upon. After his re-election in the 2009 elections, he worked out a strategy to decimate the opposition by co-opting their active elements within the Congress. The media christened it “Operation Akarsh” (attracting: the members of the opposition into the Congress) and YSR boasted that by the next elections, there would be no party left capable of mounting any challenge to the Congress in the state. Rather than address the charges of corruption and cronyism levelled by the opposition parties, YSR’s method was to decimate the opposition parties to stave off challenges to his rule. He used the attractions of office and the blunt edge of government power to bring key opposition figures into the Congress and neutralise the rest. These were a clear demonstration of his scant regard for democratic norms and principled public life.

Rayalaseema Tradition

The coexistence of benevolence and ruthlessness may appear to be paradoxical, but when seen in the proper historical and social context of the political culture that he had grown up in, their interlinkage would become apparent. Kadapa district of Rayalaseema is known for violent factionalism whose ancestry is traced back to the palegallu (administrative -cum- military chiefs bestowed with the responsibility of law and order and revenue collection) of the Vijayanagara empire. These chiefs later transformed themselves into warlords. Over six decades of electoral politics, this region has evolved a distinct culture of factional feuds and violent end of the rival as the only mode of conflict resolution. The culture of tolerance, dialogue and accommodation is alien to this society. What governs the world of Rayalaseema factions is generous patronage of the leader and unstinted loyalty of the followers: loyalty is weighed in terms of the propensity to violence and readiness to sacrifice, including one’s life, and it is reciprocated by an indubitable assurance of support and generosity of the leader. The Telugu cinema directors and producers have found this world to be very fascinating and its celluloid representation quite lucrative. As a result we now have a separate genre of Telugu cinema known as “faction” films popular for their numbing portrayal of violence and destruction, which only help strengthen the culture of benevolence for followers and dependants and ruthlessness for opponents.

Having grown up in the political culture of Rayalaseema factionalism, YSR was very much part of it: his hunger for power, intolerance of any vacillation in his followers’ loyalty and his known trait to defend and protect “his men” almost by instinct, daring any consequence, were evidence of this. Even after he grew in stature YSR did not eschew this political culture.

In this context one is reminded of the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent comment, in response to a query on the present bickering in the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, that emphasized the importance of a stable opposition as a prerequisite for a vibrant democracy. YSR by conviction and actions was antithetical to this view. If his success in marginalizing dissent within his party and government by stuffing them with his own men was quite visible, then his efforts in engineering political migration from opposition parties and his challenge to “finish” the TDP were quite illustrative of his warlord like posture. The persona of YSR happily combined images of being a benevolent provider and a determined pursuer of power. The patriarch’s aggressive pursuance of these images in his second innings would even otherwise have proved to be his autumn precisely because of the sheer burden of their contradictions.

K Srinivasulu (srinivasulukarli@gmail.com) teaches political science at Osmania University, Hyderabad.

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