The infighting in the ruling Congress party in Andhra Pradesh took a bitter turn as loyalists of the late chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy on Wednesday hit back at a senior leader for terming as "bogus" the subsequent reported deaths of 600 people.
A day after Rajya Sabha member V. Hanumantha Rao said the reported shock deaths following the demise of YSR in a helicopter crash in August were a publicity stunt, some ministers and legislators challenged him to prove this.
The YSR loyalists said comments of senior leaders including Hanumantha Rao, Keshava Rao and Renuka Chowdary were damaging the party and hurting the sentiments of the people.
"I will quit politics if Hanumantha Rao can prove that the shock deaths are bogus," Health Minister D. Nagender, one of the key figures of the group that wants YSR's son Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy to be the chief minister.
Many beneficiaries of welfare schemes launched by YSR, as the late chief minister was popularly called, either committed suicide or died of shock as they feared the schemes would be scrapped after his death, Nagender said. The district collectors had confirmed these deaths, he added.
He alleged that Hanumantha Rao's comments were part of the attempts by some leaders to provoke Jagan's supporters and thus damage his chances of becoming chief minister.
"He can talk such things by sitting in Delhi. If he is really a senior leader, let him go among people. They will teach him a lesson," said another minister K. Surekha, who has threatened to resign if Jagan was not made the chief minister.
"Hanumantha Rao is talking nonsense. He needs a psychiatrist. People will stone him if he says the same thing in public. These so-called senior leaders can't win elections nor can ensure victory for any MLA or MP," asserted P. Padmavathi, a member of the legislative council.
"Even we thought of committing suicide after learning about the death of our great leader. We are ready to sacrifice our lives and we don't need politics minus YSR's family," she said.
Hanumantha Rao alleged that Jagan's supporters were trying to blackmail the party's central leadership through claims of shock deaths.
The war of words between the senior leader and Jagan's camp came into the open during a television debate Tuesday night.
"These are all bogus (claims) and a publicity stunt. They have included even routine deaths and suicides in their account," Rao said after state minister and YSR loyalist N. Raghuveera Reddy claimed that 600 people died of shock or committed suicide after hearing about YSR's death.
"Was he (YSR) more popular than Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi?" asked Rao, who has already received threatening calls from people claiming to be Jagan's supporters for stating that K. Rosaiah will continue as the chief minister till 2014.
Rosaiah, finance minister in the YSR cabinet, was made chief minister on his death and the ministers took fresh oath of office.
Agriculture Minister Raghuveera Reddy reacted strongly to Rao's comments and said he was insulting the feelings of the people.
"It is not just the majority of Congress leaders, but also leaders from other parties and a majority of the eight crore people of the state who want to see Jagan as the next chief minister," he said, clarifying that he would abide by the decision of the central leadership on the issue.