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On his own terms

Every politician can learn a lesson from YSR, who could fend off all his opponents because of his direct relationship with the voters, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Sep 07, 2009, 13:04 IST

Despite his huge popularity and iron grip over Andhra Pradesh, Y S R Reddy was probably not known that well beyond the confines of his own state. But the man, who defied skeptics and the dares of anti-incumbency to deliver 33 Lok Sabha seats in this election, may have ironically preferred it that way. It’s this that made YSR an unusual politician for his times. Though sudden, violent death almost always gives birth to treacly and over-sympathetic obituaries, he was important for what he represented.

Like the Congress chief ministers of yore, he was among a handful of current regional politicians in the party (Sheila Dikshit and Ashok Gehlot to a much more limited extent are the only other names to cross my mind) who derived his authority directly from the people of his state, and not necessarily from New Delhi.

And yet, as you could tell from listening to an emotional Sonia Gandhi, he had both her ear and her trust as well. It was possibly because — as she said herself — he always delivered what he promised and returned the Congress to power after a gap of ten long years. In the next couple of days you will hear a lot of the cliché, ‘powerful satrap’, in the media. But it’s accurate. Because he was a doer. YSR, often authoritarian, sometimes ruthless, always stubborn and determined was able to live politics largely on his own terms.

If you look at some of the other big daddies of Andhra Politics — Narasimha Rao was possibly shrewder; Chandrababu Naidu definitely had better branding and N T Rama Rao had loads more charisma. So, why is it that Y S R Reddy, a doctor-turned-politician, became the formidable force that he did? In that answer may lie a clue to the economic philosophy the Congress could increasingly seek to define itself by across India.

YSR took Chandrababu Naidu’s emphasis on industrialisation and modernisation and married it with mass contact programmes that always kept him in direct contact with his voters. In 2003, it was his 1,500-kilometre padyatra through the poorest districts of Andhra Pradesh that set the stage for dislodging the seemingly invincible Naidu. The state was so used to seeing its chief minister hotfooting his way through remote corners that when his chopper went down in the forests of Nallamalla, party leaders argued that if there was anyone who had the gumption to be able to make it out of a dense jungle, it was him.

So, while Naidu may have caught Bill Clinton and the world’s eye, YSR adroitly walked the space between policy-making and populism. He swiftly understood that economic growth had to be used as an engine to deliver on welfare. So, if his government passionately advocated information technology, it gave as much attention to agriculture. Healthcare insurance, rice for two rupees a kilo, housing for the poor — these schemes were often launched personally by the man who came to be known as the Flying Chief Minister because of the number of hours he spent criss-crossing the state.

No surprise then, that in this election, the centerpiece of Chandrababu Naidu’s own campaign was the issue of farmer suicides. But even that didn’t work. YSR held his own against the heavyweight combine of the TRS-TDP and the Left. It’s no coincidence that the NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme), now widely acknowledged as a game-changer in Indian politics, was launched from the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. The state remained one of the best executors of the NREGS. And it’s this focus on the rural poor, while still trying to push economic growth that makes the YSR legacy significant.

On a national scale, Manmohan Singh may have been the architect of liberalisation. But the Congress, especially one that will be defined by Rahul Gandhi in the future, seems increasingly determined to use the benefits of that engine to power the villages. Whether you term that centrist or socialist, election results, both nationally and in Andhra Pradesh, underline the strategic smartness of such a philosophy as well.

It’s probably the security that he derived from his voters that helped YSR ride the storm of the many controversies that engulfed his tenure. Though politeness often forbids complex evaluations of those who die tragically, there are enough people in Andhra Pradesh who will tell you that YSR was not necessarily a very nice man. There were serious corruption allegations (Satyam), complaints about intolerance of criticism in the media, unseemly outbursts against the opposition in the state Assembly and even chilling stories of combativeness.

But, every time, YSR was able to fend off his opponents precisely because of his direct relationship with his voters. There’s a lesson for all politicians in that. Parallels could be drawn between his sometimes dictatorial style with, let’s say, a Narendra Modi who has also tried to give a masculine, unbending face to his administration. But there’s one important difference: YSR managed to be tough without ever playing divisive politics. He managed to hold the factional, caste-driven state together without once shaking the communal faultlines.

YSR Reddy may not have been the most charismatic politician. But both in his complexity and his philosophy for governance lie important lessons for what voters love, hate and forgive in their leaders.

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