After the 14th Lok Sabha polls were over in Andhra Pradesh in April this year, Dr Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy— landlord by legacy, medical doctor by profession, devout Christian by faith —headed for Shimla on vacation.
“We thought, either he was winning hands down, as he was predicting, or he was set for a long vacation,” recalled Union minister Ambika Soni who knew him closely for more than a decade. “Central leaders were bit sceptical about his claims.”
After YSR was proved right, he went to Bethlehem — the birthplace of Jesus — in Israel on pilgrimage, during which he also prayed at Jerusalem’s wailing wall, a Jewish holy site. Not many knew the man regarded as one of India’s most efficient chief ministers carried a Bible, was a devotee at the Hindu shrine of Tirupati as well and started his day with a prayer.
After a famous padayatra (walk) in 2003 that covered 1,400 km across Andhra Pradesh, YSR broke as many coconuts at Tirupati. The Gods, and his people, willed him to power in 2004, sweeping aside the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) from a 10-year reign.
By 2008, AP’s economy was on steroids, growing at more than 10 per cent. He distributed the fruits of AP’s growth to its poorest through more than 100 welfare schemes, most named after his idols, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. Free power, education, health and housing now spread across the state.
“All these schemes were his own ideas, based on the demands that the people made to him,” said Congress MP Arun Kumar, a close associate.
Known as a straightforward and frank man, YSR either met a demand, or explained in detail why it couldn’t be done. At the end of each month, he would send a report to Congress president Sonia Gandhi about his achievements and failures.
In the early 1980s when YSR was a 30-something MLA impatient for change, he grew close to two other equally impatient Congress men: former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and former minister Rajesh Pilot. All three were friends, all died at the prime of their careers.
“He was a farmer who could understand industries too,” said Rajesh Pilot’s son, Sachin, now a union minister, who had known YSR as a child.
“He made sense of India’s variety.”
Minister Soni termed YSR’s ability to connect with people “incredible”. He knew at least 10 people by name in each of Andhra Pradesh’s 1,000 blocks. It was this common touch that brought the Congress back to Andhra Pradesh, there the TDP had become the dominant party.
In his 30-year career, YSR never lost an election.
When his charm did not work, YSR displayed a streak of ruthlessness, evident as he consolidated power and sidelined colleagues who did not fall in line. That was a trait he acquired in the volatile Rayalaseema region that had become notorious for its factional wars. His family had mining rights in the region and his father Raja Reddy died a violent death in 1998.
YSR went to bed early and awoke by 4 am. By the break of the day, he would have finished a series of phone calls and a fitness session of yoga and cycling, followed by two litres of water, a few cups of green tea and the newspapers.
Unlike his predecessor, friend and rival Chandrababu Naidu, he stayed away from the national media.
His opponents accused him of some abuses of power, particularly linked to the business empire of media, mining and cement industries built by his son Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy. That did not dent the public support YSR enjoyed as he became one of the rising stars of Indian politics.
As his compatriots said, only death could have stopped him.