It’s a hot and humid afternoon on the highway to Srikakulam. Even so a massive throng has gathered on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam. Most noticeable are the women — they come in all ages and from all socio-economic backgrounds: peasants, domestic workers, government employees, teachers, college students, homemakers. They are all waiting, curious and wide-eyed, for the big padyatra to pass. One 70-year-old widow even thinks its “Indira amma’s (Indira Gandhi’s) granddaughter” who will be leading the march.
Actually, it will be the daughter of YS Rajasekhara Reddy, “YSR” as he was known, the late chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, who died in a helicopter accident only a few weeks after he led the Congress to a second successive victory in the state elections in May 2009. “Maro Praja Prasthana” (one more journey with the people), as Sharmila Reddy’s epic 3,000 km walkathon is called, draws similar crowds wherever it goes. The public turns up to see her, YSR’s daughter and Jagan’s sister.
Jagan refers, of course, to YS Jaganmohan Reddy, 40, YSR’s son and heir. He’s been in prison for a year now, battling corruption charges that go back, really, to the time his father was chief minister. In this period he has turned a sworn enemy of his former party, the Congress. In this period, his political party and legacy are being nurtured and protected for by three unlikely politicians, all women — his mother, wife and sister.
These three women, members of one of the most powerful political families of southern India, are scripting a dramatic story for 2014, when a state of 85 million people will elect a new government. As in 1983, when perceived insults to Telugu pride by an imperious, Delhi-centric Congress led to NT Rama Rao’s start-up, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), sweeping the polls, sister Sharmila and mother Vijayamma are hoping for a similar dénouement in a year’s time. They are furthering the mighty project that Jagan, the president of YSR Congress — or Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress, to give it its full name — took on after his father’s death.
The padyatra is part of a mass contact programme that aims to keep alive memories of YSR and keep in the public eye the apparent injustice being done to Jagan by Congress governments in Hyderabad and Delhi. If the YSR Congress is believed to be the favourite to win the 2014 Assembly polls, despite its chief ministerial candidate being in prison, the credit must go to these three women: YS Sharmila Reddy, her mother Yeduguri Sandinti Vijayalakshmi or Vijayamma and Jagan’s wife YS Bharathi. This unusual triumvirate is reshaping Andhra politics in real time and has become the Congress’ headache.
The roles are well-defined. Sharmila and Vijayamma took the responsibility of running the YSR Congress in May 2012, soon after Jagan Reddy was arrested for allegedly amassing wealth disproportionate to known sources of income and misusing his father’s political office for business purposes. It was a moment of truth. Till then, Jagan had been getting a response from voters and was seen as a rising force. But with him behind bars, the Congress felt it could break him and push him into compromise. Other parties felt the YSR Congress would not be able to survive the removal of its leader and mascot from active politics.
Yet, for 14 months now, the three women in his life have not let Jagan’s absence be felt, and are guarding his kingdom for him. While her mother-in-law and sister- in-law manage the party, Bharathi, 39, and Jagan’s wife of 17 years, is running the family’s business empire, finding time from bringing up her two daughters. Once known as a shy, retiring person, she has emerged as an articulate spokesperson for her husband’s cause. She is currently chairperson of the Sakshi Group, the media conglomerate that Jagan owns. Tehelka met Vijayamma and Bharathi at their palatial Lotus Pond mansion in Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills area and tracked Sharmila’s padyatra in Visakhapatnam.
The sheer grit and effort of Vijayamma and Sharmila belies their identity as accidental politicians. Whereas Jagan continues to be the face of the party, Sharmila and Vijayamma are keeping the momentum on the ground. Sharmila’s padyatra is perhaps the longest by a female politician anywhere. It is also supremely well-organised, with one of India’s leading public relations firms guarding against bad press.
The padyatra began eight months ago, and put the YSR Congress in agitprop and poll mode within a few months of Jagan’s arrest. It was inspired by the three-month, 1,500 km yatra YSR had undertaken in 2003 to displace N Chandrababu Naidu’s government, which had won two terms before its defeat in 2004. Even so, it needs to be noted that by 2003, YSR was a veteran in the game and a multi- term MP and MLA. At 39, Sharmila was a novice, with an MBA in finance but no political experience. “She was the darling kid of the family,” Bharathi points out, “completely cocooned from politics. Everything was served to her on a silver platter. She had to overcome a lot to achieve what she has today.”
YV Subba Reddy, husband of Vijayamma’s sister, is among the family’s closest political counsellors. He too appreciates his niece’s spirit: “Sharmila has finished what Jagan set out to do. Whereas Jagan worked extremely hard for three years on the Odarpu Yatra, meeting the poorest of the poor all over the state, she has filled his shoes, bringing a human touch. Women and youth love her.”
Like most of her family members, Sharmila is an orthodox Protestant Christian conforming to the Church of Southern India. Her marriage to Brother Anil Kumar, an evangelist with whom she has two children, has often invited controversy. The TDP has alleged that Anil Kumar used his father-in-law’s position to further his mining interests.
A video available on YouTube has Anil Kumar attributing to Sharmila’s influence his decision to convert to Christianity. This has led to its own share of right-wing conspiracy theories.
Eight months into reinventing herself as a political animal, Sharmila not only attracts crowds, but has even developed a taste for demagoguery. This is startling given she barely read any Telugu before her yatra. Now her day starts at 6 am with prayers, papers and physiotherapy. The physiotherapy is courtesy an injury to her knee after a fall during the yatra. This required surgery and now calls for regular physiotherapy. By 9 am, she is out of her luxury van and is walking, surrounded by dozens of security men, hundreds of party workers and YSR Congress spokesperson Vasireddy Padma. “We usually stop by 11.30 or 12 noon,” says an aide, “and we resume at 4.30 pm. We walk about 14 km on a daily basis.”
Sharmila has emerged as a practised politician. The angry retorts, the forceful expression, the turning on of the charm, the “spontaneous” breaking away from her security cordon to meet a physically challenged person on the street, hugging women and addressing them as “amma”, kissing a toddler, shaking hands with a young man and asking him to work hard for the party: she’s now a master in the art.
Her speeches stick to basics, and focus on YSR’s welfare programmes, including Arogyasri, a pioneering health insurance scheme named after Rajiv Gandhi that reimbursed medical and even surgery costs of poor citizens and allowed them to access even private hospitals. There are also references to YSR’s loan waiver programme for farmers and fee-reimbursement initiative for students. Expectedly, there is no mention of the controversies. Arogyasri became very controversial when insurance companies and private hospitals were accused of fudging bills and making payments to politicians.
If YSR is the character actor — songs paying tribute to him are heard all the time during Sharmila’s padyatra — and Jagan the hero, there has to be a villain. In the case of the padyatra, there is a collection of villains: visuals of state Congress unit president Botsa Satyanarayana, Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy, UPA chief Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, who was in charge of Andhra Pradesh till a few weeks ago, and tdp chief Chandrababu Naidu — carry a pointed caption, that their “conspiracy will not work”. No speech by Sharmila or Vijayamma for that matter is complete without cursing the Congress and its betrayal.
The Reddy women have been helped that the family has captive media outlets, including Sakshi TV and a daily newspaper that is also called Sakshi. The channel and the newspaper supposedly render “an objective representation of what we do as opposed to propaganda carried out by Eenadu and other media houses in the state”, says Bharathi. In reality, they are the publicity arm of the YSR Congress, helping build the YSR cult. On the television screen, there’s a thumbnail image of YSR on the top right, with flowers showering ceaselessly in a 24×7 tribute.
On the ground, the YSR appeal is working, but that’s not all. “I have come just to see her,” says Aruna, 43, a government employee in Visakhapatnam. “Like me, many of the people in this rally are curious about her. I don’t know if I or the rest of these people will vote for her.” Others have made up their minds. “We know she is YSR’s daughter. If we could, we would vote for her,” say Hepsiba and Shyamala, college students. “I was with the Congress earlier,” confesses NS Rao, a government servant with a picture of Sharmila on his cellular phone. “Now I completely support Sharmilaakka. Nobody here was brought by alluring them with cash, unlike other parties’ rallies.”
The Congress is understandably sceptical, or pretending to be so. “Right now the YSR Congress is riding high on sentiment,” says Satyanarayana. “As for the party itself, it cannot survive in the long-run.” TDP leaders are downright dismissive. Asked about Sharmila, one senior Congress leader said, “Who is she? What are her credentials? She’s a kid. The people know what kind of crooks they are.”
Telakapalli Ravi, editor of Telugu daily Prajasakti, sees things differently. “They have successfully filled the void left in the YSR Congress after the arrest of Jagan Reddy,” he says. “Their oratory skills have vastly improved. The presence of Sharmila makes no particular difference, though. Sure, she has gained a little popularity, but the biggest difference her padyatra has made is that it has neutralised the padyatra of Chandrababu Naidu, who walked through the state for 208 days.”
More than Sharmila, YSR Congress leaders give credit to Vijayamma. “The day Jagan was arrested, we were completely lost,” recalls YV Subba Reddy, a senior leader. “We had no idea how to go about in the situation. Overnight, Vijayamma decided to run the party. She met Jagan once in jail and became the honorary president of the party. But if you speak to her, you will not find political-speak in her vocabulary.”
In February 2010, Vijayamma was elected the MLA from Pulivendula, taking over her husband’s seat on his death. At 57, her rustic charm makes her popular with women. Born into an orthodox Hindu family in Chimavagupalli village in Pulivendula, Kadapa district — YSR and his father before him were the strongmen of Kadapa — she was married at 16. She converted at the time of her wedding and is a devout Christian now. If one is to be reductionist, the hall where Tehelka met her had just the right props to give a glimpse into her simple and rather simplistic bent of mind. Apart from a massive portrait of YSR on the wall, two Biblical quotes hung on either side: “Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid, do not be dismayed (Joshua 1:9)” and “Trust in the Lord and do good” (Psalm 27:34)”.
To this day, Vijayamma cannot speak any language except Telugu. So intense is her hostility to the Congress that it is decipherable even to non-speakers of Telugu. She too travels as much as she can, meeting cadre and engaging voters. “Talking in the Assembly and all the chaos is not for me,” she says. “A lot of times I question why I’m in this dirty politics. But I do it for my son… until he comes out.”
For Vijayamma, the day begins at 5 am and ends at midnight. She never stops travelling and makes sure that she’s in Hyderabad twice a week for meeting Jagan in the Chanchalguda jail. Apart from political speeches, much of her strength goes toward defending her son against allegations of corruption. She has high hopes for her son: “We will come to power in 2014. Jagan Reddy will be the chief minister. Why not? Tomorrow he could become the prime minister of the country.” She is also proud of her daughter’s emergence and yatra: “This is unprecedented. Indira amma (Indira Gandhi) didn’t do anything (similar), Sonia amma (Sonia Gandhi) didn’t do anything [similar], but Sharmi has. We want to complete what YSR started.”
So what did YSR start? “Rajasekhara Reddy brought up his children with values, morals and ethics,” the matriarch says. “All the allegations are totally untrue. They think repeating false news or spreading rumours will help in creating a sense that YSR or Jagan are anti- people. Andhra Pradesh is currently being ruled by such people.” If there’s an irony here, she misses it.
Irony is not a particularly strong element among these women. Bharathi, otherwise astute in her arguments and observations, casually puts the family wealth at around 400-500 crore. Vijayamma’s declared wealth for a recent bypoll was 2.29 crore. Jagan’s assets in the 2009 elections amounted to 72 crore. By 2011, this had climbed to 445 crore. The Enforcement Directorate put the value of the 75-room Lotus Pond mansion at around 50 crore. Yet, all Bharati can say is: “We are not obscenely rich, compared to the Jindals and Ambanis.” Whatever the electoral outcome, the fact is the Reddy family’s financial and business interests were a byproduct of YSR’s politics.
A cult more than a party, a personalityand family-based entity, a political organisation where Jagan is the unquestioned boss: the YSR Congress can get peculiar. Mysura Reddy, a senior leader concedes that infighting is an issue, as Congress and Telugu Desam MLAs who defected from their parties to join the YSR Congress are not letting go of old baggage.
Others openly accuse the YSR Congress leadership of corruption. “A seat in the YSR Congress sells for no less than 50 crore. Not anybody else, but someone who defected from our party to join the YSR Congress told me this,” says a senior Congress leader on condition of anonymity. The Reddys reject all this, insisting they only want Jagan out of prison so that he can lead the party in 2014.
In a house of 294, the YSR Congress has 17 mlas. Even so, it is the favourite to win in 2014, and is likely to do extremely well in Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra. The state’s third region, Telangana, may see the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (trs) stealing the show. However, Jagan’s expected alliance with the Hyderabad-based Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (mim), led by the Owaisi brothers, could make him formidable in parts of Telangana as well.
There is already talk of a role in the Third Front and in national politics. On 6 July, West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee called Vijayamma to discuss the 2014 Lok Sabha election. While it was unclear which language the two ladies conversed in, it was a signal that even without Jagan the YSR Congress was being taken seriously by external politicians. It was anything but the sinking ship it had been perceived as a year ago.
In a sense, the Congress has dug its own grave by humiliating Jagan. “It has paved the way for regional parties to assert themselves. Moreover, YSR’s welfare measures are a huge hit among the poor,” says Hyderabad-based political analyst ABK Prasad. “Ghulam Nabi Azad once said Jagan would have been insulated from the law if he was with the Congress. In the politics of opportunism, nothing can be ruled out.”
However, Jagan is likely to bend and enter into a cynical compact with the Congress. He is confident his mother, wife and sister, the legacy of YSR’s bigspending welfarism and the Congress’ rising unpopularity will see him through. This year’s remand prisoner may be next year’s chief minister. The thought is both exciting — and frightening.