A decade ago when Sharad Pawar was quitting the Congress over Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin issue, he told a group of journalists, “In the Congress party, there is no place for genuine mass leaders. There is only the high command and the loyal followers.” That was 1999. Ten years later, it seems that Pawar was both right and wrong.
He was right because in the Congress, the high command is ubiquitous and the Supreme Leader is unchallenged. But he was wrong that the Congress could no longer throw up a regional satrap. Y S Rajasekhara Reddy was proof that it’s still possible to be a virtual one-man show in state politics, and yet survive in the Congress.
When YSR became chief minister in 2004, he was fighting both history and geography. Congress chief ministers in Andhra had mastered the art of musical chairs. The previous Congress government in 1989 had seen three chief ministers in five years and the one before that, four CMs in five years (a chaotic situation that eventually saw the rise of the idea of ‘Andhra pride’ in the guise of NT Rama Rao).
Even the wily PV Narasimha Rao, who was able to stay as prime minister for a full five-year term as head of a minority government, could only last for 15 months in Hyderabad in the 1970s. It was almost as if it was more difficult to manage the complex caste and regional factions in Andhra than it was to control politics at the Centre. More so in YSR’s case because he came from the relatively backward region of Rayalaseema, not seen as dominant in state politics.
And yet, he was able to prove the sceptics wrong by lasting the full five-year term, and, even more remarkably, by getting re-elected with an equally comprehensive mandate. What made YSR succeed where others had failed? His critics will tell you that his political style was more akin to Gujarat’s Narendra Modi than to any traditional Congress state leader.
He was ruthless (witness the manner in which he crushed all political opposition to him) and anti-democratic (notice how he jailed editors and sought to financially destroy those who spoke out against him). Unlike Modi, though, he was confronted with serious charges of corruption, which he seemed almost contemptuous of.
That YSR could get away with his authoritarian streak was due to his ability to build a firm rapport with the masses, a quality first detected during his hugely successful padyatra in 2003.
Chandrababu Naidu may have been fêted by the pink papers, but he was eventually consumed by the euphoria of having been anointed the CEO of Cyberabad. YSR, on the other hand, was able to combine strong doses of populism with a delivery system that reached out to rural Andhra.
Whether it was the success of his health insurance scheme, his irrigation projects or the spread of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, he was able to convince a majority of Andhraites that he would benefit the poor with direct cash transfers, even if it meant bypassing the traditional elites of the state. In the process, he was able to overcome the caste and regional divides that had previously stunted governance. The idea of a separate state of Telangana, for example, may have an emotional resonance, but what price statehood when there’s no cash in your bank account?
In that sense, YSR had the ‘common man’ touch, originally promoted by NTR, whose two rupee rice scheme, for example, revolutionised the trajectory of Andhra politics, creating the basis for a pro-poor programme that has since been replicated in other states.
YSR did not have NTR’s charisma and star appeal, but a certain down-to-earth welfarist approach to politics where he did not forget that his power was dependent on the support of the aam admi.
No surprises then that YSR was a great favourite of Sonia Gandhi, whose political philosophy is based on the core idea that the Congress’s future lies in reaching out to India’s poor. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to suggest that the UPA would not have been in power in 2004 and 2009 but for the remarkable success it achieved in AP.
In the process, the central Congress leadership ended up virtually ‘outsourcing’ the party in Andhra to YSR. While this might have bred resentment among a generation of state Congress leaders, it gave the workaholic ‘Tiger of Cudappah’ the space to carve out an identity for himself.
Unlike other Congress chief ministers who have felt undermined by faction-fighting, YSR’s success showed that it is possible for state leaders to flourish when they are given a degree of autonomy from the Centre.
But the flip side of creating a personality cult in a political party is that when the individual disappears from the scene, the resultant vacuum is almost impossible to fill. That will be the big challenge confronting the Congress as it comes to terms with the loss of its strongest chief minister.
Will the party revert to its time-tested formula of imposing a ‘weak’ leader on a state in the belief that such a CM will be acceptable to all factions? Or will it acknowledge that the YSR phenomenon demands a search for another tough, empowered state leader?
In resolving this dilemma, we will know if YSR was indeed the last Congress regional satrap. Or a lasting symbol of a new model of governance.