The biggest rebellion in Indian politics right now puts Sonia Gandhi in a fix. So, what’s next?

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The heir Jagan Mohan Reddy enjoys mass attention during his yatra at a tricky moment in his career
The heir Jagan Mohan Reddy enjoys mass attention during his yatra at a tricky moment in his career
Photos: Vijay Pandey

WHEN SHARAD Pawar led PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar out of the Congress in 1999, over the choice of Italian-born Sonia Gandhi as party president, the rebellion came in a meeting of the Congress Working Committee. The Congress was not entirely prepared for it, but it got its assessment right: they calculated that Pawar would be a problem, but he would not get big enough to take Sonia’s place.

Now, when first-time Lok Sabha member YS Jagan Mohan Reddy challenges Sonia over what he considers his rightful place as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, the revolt comes from the streets. Pawar had demanded that an Indian should head the Congress; it didn’t deliver for him. Jagan Mohan says he is the heir to his father’s office; his father YS Rajasekhara Reddy died in a helicopter crash in September 2009. It is a tricky pitch.

Jagan has, in what must be considered as the second phase of his campaign to be Andhra Pradesh chief minister, made himself party to a dispute. In the first phase, when he led a huge group of Andhra MLAs against Chief Minister K Rosaiah, he was an upstart. Now, the Congress leadership might have to talk to Jagan, either in peace or in war. The brashness of his revolt shows how things have changed in the Congress. This is about media power, OB vans, an army of reporters, non-stop coverage; this is about packaging a man keen on grabbing his share of the political pie. This is not about sacrifice or service. And it seems to be working, at least in part.

The legacy Children in a coastal Andhra village line up in YSR masks, a reminder of what Sonia is up against
The legacy Children in a coastal Andhra village line up in YSR masks, a reminder of what Sonia is up against

It’s around 3 pm on July 9, the second day of Jagan Mohan’s ‘Odarpu Yatra’ (condolence journey), a name he gave to make his politics seem above board. In Srikakulam, in a village square about 25 km from the district headquarters, a magnificent reception is being planned. Padmapriya, wife of local MLA Krishna Das, and her son Ramalinga Naidu are trying hard to ensure everything goes according to plan. A huge crowd has assembled, people are hanging from trees, some sitting on balconies of shops, many on rooftops. This is not Jagan Mohan territory in the real sense; he is an MP from the Rayalaseema area, and this is coastal Andhra.

But there are huge posters of Jagan. The only people big are Jagan and his father YSR. Everyone else is dwarfed in the posters and other publicity material. Local Congressmen senior to Jagan have been reduced to small photos. Sonia Gandhi can be seen only on party flags. There’s a group of people dancing to Telugu songs and extolling YSR and Jagan, all for the television cameras. This is a carnival, not a condolence meeting.

“It’s like I already told you. There is nothing political about it. I made a promise to visit the families of the 700 people who gave up their lives after my father’s death,” Jagan says in a moment of conversation with TEHELKA as he hustles forward between speeches. But he can’t stop himself soon after he begins his speech. “Politics in the state has hit a new low after my father’s death nine months ago,” he says, surrounded by the spouses and children of local MLAs and MPs. “But I’m not alone as you are all with me. You have shown me so much love. My life is indebted to you.”

HE KEEPS it brief and moves on. Almost on cue, his men take over. The local MLA’s son takes the microphone and starts to shout, “We want Jagan anna (brother) as CM”, “YSR amar rahe”. Rosaiah, the man who Jagan seeks to replace, is playing by the book. “Some MLAs sought my permission to attend the tour. I told them party discipline is most important for a Congressman. It is for them to follow what I said and I expect they will follow the party line always,” Rosaiah said in Hyderabad.

Rosaiah thinks Jagan is rushing things. “He is still young. He has a long way to go and there is a method to becoming the chief minister.” Trouble is, the Rosaiah way is old school Congress. Jagan is new school Congress. Jagan’s pitch is the biggest open revolt in Indian politics at the moment. There may be people plotting in several parties, but no one is flashing the money and ambition that Jagan is.

The Congress leadership is playing cool for now. Indications are that New Delhi would prefer to wait for the 10-day Jagan show to conclude mid-July, before it gets into it. The Congress tends to wait for rebels to shoot their ammo before it makes its move. Mostly, it works. For instance, Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh, ND Tiwari and others returned chastened to the Congress after forming their own parties. Sometimes it doesn’t. VP Singh became Prime Minister. Sharad Pawar runs an active party. Either way, Jagan’s yatra will have consequences. He can’t be what he was: a businessman making his money, under the radar, from his Bengaluru headquarters. He is on the streets now, and that’s where his life will take a turn.

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Past Rebels And Their Fate

VP SINGH > Quit after Rajiv Gandhi dismissed him from his post as Finance Minister. Formed Jan Morcha and became Prime Minister in 1989, within two years

SHARAD PAWAR > Left after opposing Sonia Gandhi’s election as party president. Formed NCP in 1999 and stayed in Congress-led coalition ever since

PRANAB MUKHERJEE > Opposed Rajiv Gandhi and formed the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. Made peace when it didn’t work and returned in 1989

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