Southern Lights | As YSR siblings fight each other in Andhra, Congress and BJP look to benefit | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Southern Lights | As YSR siblings fight each other in Andhra, Congress and BJP look to benefit

Apr 02, 2024 08:39 PM IST

The fight in Kadapa between YS Sharmila and YS Jagan Reddy is a battle of wills and political legacy. It is also the story of a family rent apart by politics

Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) president YS Sharmila will contest the general election from the Kadapa parliamentary seat, the Congress announced on April 2, turning this electoral contest into a battle of wills between siblings.

YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and YS Sharmila(YS Jagan Mohan Reddy Facebook) PREMIUM
YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and YS Sharmila(YS Jagan Mohan Reddy Facebook)

Sharmila’s brother, political rival, and incumbent Andhra Pradesh chief minister (CM) YS Jagan Mohan Reddy has fielded cousin YS Avinash Reddy for his party, the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP).

The Lok Sabha election in Andhra Pradesh this year stands out for more reasons than one. First, it is the only state where both national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress have a feeble vote share of less than 2% each, and second, it is where siblings lead two prominent political parties that are at loggerheads.

Jagan Reddy is the president of the 13-year-old YSRCP and his younger sister, Sharmila Reddy, founded the YSR Telangana Party (YSRTP) in 2021 and merged it with the Congress in January.

Since March 26, when Jagan Reddy announced the final list of YSRCP candidates for Andhra Pradesh’s 25 parliamentary seats, speculation about the Congress’ list has been rife. “Our key prerogative in 2024 is to increase our vote share and be back in the reckoning,” said MM Pallam Raju, former Union human resources development minister in the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, who is also a member of the Congress Working Committee, and chairman of the AP manifesto committee for 2024.

The siblings are sparring not just for political standing. It is a fight for parental legacy and the feud would not garner so much attention if it were not feudal. Why and how did a simple brother-sister equation bind itself in layers of complexity?

Let’s start at the very beginning.

YSR and YSR

YSR, the first three letters of both Jagan and Sharmila’s parties, which have now come to mean Yuvajana, Sramika, Rythu (youth, labour, and farmer), were veritably their father’s initials. Yeduguri Sandinti Rajasekhara Reddy, known popularly as YSR in Andhra Pradesh and beyond, was a tall Congress leader and two-time CM of united Andhra Pradesh. A doctor by qualification and a politician by profession, YSR's life was cut short in September 2009 when the helicopter he was travelling in crashed in the Nallamala forest in southern AP.

The Congress party had returned to power at the Centre and in AP in May 2009, just six months before the sudden demise of the powerful leader opened up an unforeseen division of the party and the state. Even as YSR’s body lay in state at his official residence, Jagan Reddy started a signature campaign asking the Congress cabinet ministers to name him his father’s heir to the CM’s chair. Swept by shock and emotion, some ministers obliged, while the others who had a bone to pick with the late CM kept Jagan waiting. The then Congress president Sonia Gandhi picked the venerable K Rosaiah, a devout Congressman and finance minister under YSR, to be the CM, though 37-year-old Jagan pleaded his case and protested Gandhi's decision.

“An aggrieved Jagan, who had just lost his father, was not one to give in to the Congress high command’s reasoning of “not wanting dynastic politics” to play out in Andhra Pradesh when Rahul Gandhi was already general secretary within the INC, a senior Congressman who remained a minister in the AP cabinet after YSR’s passing, said, not wanting to be named. Jagan walked out of the Congress along with two MPs and 17 state legislators who claimed to be YSR loyalists, weakening the Congress by weaning away a majority of the Reddy politicians.

Defiant yet determined, Jagan embarked on an ‘Odarpu Yatra’, or a condolence tour on July 8, 2010 – YSR’s 61st birth anniversary – from Ichchapuram in the northernmost Srikakulam district, where his father had ended his own 1,400-km long padayatra before the 2004 Lok Sabha and state elections. Jagan’s yatra was conceived by KVP Ramachandra Rao, YSR’s one-time right-hand man, believed to have been the second most powerful person in the state.

Scores of local Congress leaders and party cadre joined Jagan in this yatra. Sonia Gandhi had reportedly objected to the idea of this yatra, fearing a rise in Jagan’s popularity, which could be destabilising for an already fragile state government that still had to see itself through another four years.

Jagan, however, launched his political career with the resounding success of the yatra. By launching the YSR Congress party in 2011, he came directly into conflict with the established order. “Publicly, Jagan made it seem that the yatra was to keep his word of visiting the bereaved members of the families who had lost their kin as a consequence of YSR’s death. But he was very clear in his ambition to be chief minister. He said to me in 2004 at a luncheon in Taj Krishna hotel in Hyderabad that he would one day be CM of Andhra,” said a senior politician who was a close friend of YSR, and who is now with Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party (JSP).

All along, Jagan’s mother YS Vijayalakshmi, also known as Vijayamma, and his sister YS Sharmila, were steadfast in their loyalty to him. They followed him through the yatra, weeping with those who wept and seeking allegiance on behalf of Jagan. He had arrogated his father’s legacy and had begun to consolidate his power as a politician.

The inheritance of power

The launch of Jagan went according to plan, but he did not foresee the Congress’ moves to extract its pound of flesh. His successful yatra was followed by a 16-month stint in jail, with the Andhra Pradesh high court sending him to prison based on a chargesheet filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The case emerged from a petition filed by a Congress leader requesting a CBI investigation into the wealth Jagan had accumulated. Of the several cases filed against Jagan, the main one charged him with alleged disproportionate assets. Jagan was accused of entering into a conspiracy with his late father to extend favours to private firms in return for the investments they made in companies owned by Jagan.

When Jagan stepped out of jail in September 2013, his strategy emerged from a political crisis that had already been brewing for a few months. The Telangana statehood movement led by K Chandrashekar Rao gained momentum and Jagan launched the ‘Samaikhya Andhra Pradesh’, or ‘united Andhra Pradesh’ movement, opposing the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh. He divided his time between Hyderabad and Vijayawada until Telangana was created in June 2014. The rest, as they say, is history.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power at the Centre in the 2014 general elections, and NDA ally Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) soundly defeated the Congress in the Andhra Pradesh assembly elections that year. Meanwhile, Jagan was consolidating his power on the sidelines. While Naidu’s government was readying a new capital for the successor state of Andhra Pradesh at Amaravati to give Vijayawada and the resource-rich state a Singapore-like makeover, Jagan was promoting himself as the ‘Messiah of the Masses’. The Sakshi newspaper and television channel that Jagan had established in 2008 helped him promote himself in the image of his father, as a friend of the farmer. However, the challenges of a new administrative set-up and a severe revenue shortage put Naidu in a tough position. Many promises the TDP made, including securing a ‘Special Status’ for AP, did not materialise. Jagan, on the other hand, who widely marketed his father’s AyogyaSri and ‘Indiramma Jala Prabha’ (health insurance and farm irrigation) schemes, promised to replicate them. And so very few were surprised when, in 2019, Jagan rose to power with a thumping majority, winning 151 of AP’s 175 assembly seats.

“With this, Jagan thought he had it all. He took over completely,” said Satish Chennur, assistant professor of Sociology at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences. Perhaps that’s the mistake Jagan made, Satish said. Unlike his father YSR, and most other Reddy families from AP’s Rayalaseema region who are known to engage their family in politics, Jagan chose to go solo once he became CM. Having earlier involved his sister, mother and cousins in managing his business interests across cement, media, infrastructure, education, and healthcare, Jagan began taking sole control over everything he owned.

Jagan began to centralise power instead of delegating duties and ownership. As he projected himself to be the sole inheritor of his father’s legacy and the ‘King of Kadapa’, skirmishes broke out within his family, including with his sister YS Sharmila, paternal uncle YS Vivekananda Reddy and against his wife, YS Bharati Reddy.

Sharmila and Vijayamma toured all of AP when Jagan was in jail and built the party convincing their cadre not to flee to their rival, the TDP. They fought the Congress and ensured the sympathy their family secured after YSR’s passing endured until Jagan walked out of jail, and so Sharmila felt shortchanged, her aides say. Jagan’s party colleagues no longer prefix her name with YS, because they see Jagan as the sole inheritor of his father’s legacy.

“When a feud is out in the public space, then you know the problem is much deeper,” said Satish. With his father’s passing, Jagan not only took over his father’s empire but also assumed the role of the lone patriarch. Sources in Sharmila’s earlier YSRTP outfit said that Jagan surrounded himself with his caste men or loyalists and wanted to realise his dreams of being in power and amassing wealth - an opportunity that was denied to him by the Congress party after his father’s passing. He was shaping himself to be a Poligar.

Poligars were landlords during the 14th century Vijayanagara empire and the Reddy families are understood to be their descendants, Chinnaiah Jangam, associate professor of History at Carleton University, Canada, said.

The Reddys continue to dominate the socio-political landscape of the Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh. Many converted to Christianity in the early 20th century to reap the advantageous access to colonial administrators and institutions and protect their land titles. “As a true feudal patriarch, YSR believed in the law of primogeniture and wanted only his son to succeed and carry on his mantle. Just as in feudal factional caste grounds in politics as well, loyalty is rewarded with a high price. The combination of personal loyalty and caste fraternity owes its origins to the feudal, factionists’ traditions that worked then, and perhaps now as well," Jangam wrote in a research article.

Of suppressed political ambition and resurgence

When the YSR Telangana Party was born in 2021, Sharmila displayed her Telangana badge. She called herself a “mulki”, a Persian word for a native resident, introduced by the Nizam of Hyderabad to identify locals who lived in the Hyderabad state for more than 15 years. Her party met with little success but her theatrics and bravado in standing up to Telangana’s then CM K Chandrashekar Rao didn’t go unnoticed. She was looking for a political opportunity which presented itself during the Telangana assembly election in late 2023. “Sharmila ji met Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and made her peace with them. Sonia Gandhi even hugged Sharmila, offering her empathy. It is at this juncture that Sonia ji asked Sharmila to head back to AP after the Telangana election and rebuild the party,” Sharmila’s aide, who was also present during this meeting, said.

Prof PL Viswa, former dean of Journalism at Hyderabad’s Osmania University, points out that both the BJP and Congress have done well to take advantage of the rift between the YSR siblings. The BJP has formed an alliance with the TDP and JSP and left the siblings to fight each other. And the Congress, siding with Sharmila, is looking to galvanise its cadre, aiming all its verbal salvos at Jagan instead of Chandrababu Naidu.

“Sharmila’s coming back to the party is a good sign. It is an opportunity to rebuild her career. When she stepped back into Andhra it was all about sibling rivalry. But as months pass, I notice that she is a quick learner and has her father’s temperament. People cotton to her, but beyond this, it is a matter of her ability to deliver,” said CWC member Pallam Raju.

Does Sharmila have her mother’s support? Well, those who know the family say that the mother has promised to campaign for both her children. And the extended family is waiting until the poll results to see which side of the bread they need to butter.

With the elections drawing closer and campaigning picking up, a political tussle involving the family has resurfaced, haunting both YSRCP and the Congress. While Jagan Reddy is accusing the opposition parties of playing a role in the murder of his uncle, former Kadapa MP YS Vivekananda Reddy, Sharmila and her cousin Suneetha Narreddy (Vivekananda’s daughter) have blamed the ruling party for a slow investigation process into his death. The case is pending before the Supreme Court after the CBI filed its third chargesheet in July last year, focussing on the political motives behind the gruesome murder of Vivekananda in Pulivendula, Kadapa in 2019. Vivekananda Reddy was found dead with seven stab wounds and several of Jagan’s close aides, including YS Avinash Reddy, the current YSRCP Kadapa parliamentary candidate, were named in the charge sheet.

“We can expect a very violent exchange in Andhra as the polling date draws closer. The Kammas, Kapus, and the Reddys from two parties are fighting amongst themselves. Amidst all this, the BJP is looking to gain a toehold. So there’s nothing short of an intense fight,” Prof Viswa said.

Andhra Pradesh is scheduled to go to polls simultaneously along with the general election in the fourth phase on May 13, 2024. It has 175 seats in the assembly and 25 parliamentary constituencies. While the BJP is in alliance with N Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party (JSP), the Congress and the Left parties are going together as part of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) alliance. Jagan’s YSRCP is fighting to retain power in the state and hoping they would re-elect more than 22 MPs, the number they had the last time, to Parliament.

Deepika Amirapu is a freelance journalist based in Hyderabad. Each week, Southern Lights examines the big story from one of the five states of South India.

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