How Jagan Mohan Reddy broke away from Congress to launch his bid for chief ministership

Sonia Gandhi gestures in consolation to Jagan Mohan Reddy on 4 September 2009, two days after his father, the chief minister YSR, was killed in a helicopter crash over the Nallamala forests in Andhra Pradesh. HO / AFP PHOTO
11 April, 2019

Today, as the first phase of voting for the 2019 general elections begins, the state of Andhra Pradesh will also vote to elect the members of its state assembly. The past few months in the state saw high-voltage campaigning, by both the sitting chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, of the Telugu Desam Party, and his main challenger, the billionaire businessman Jagan Mohan Reddy. Jagan heads the YSR Congress Party, named after his father, the former chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy. Jagan appears to have gained an edge in a close contest, owing in particular to his padayatra—between November 2017 and January 2019, Jagan undertook a state-wide campaign on foot, walking over 3,600 kilometres across 134 of Andhra Pradesh’s 175 constituencies, speaking directly to rural voters, especially distressed farmers. Though the TDP has rubbished Jagan’s attempts to reach Andhra’s rural voters, many political observers see the padayatra as having tipped the scales in Jagan’s favour.

Jagan has also remained vociferous in his commitment to securing special-category status for Andhra Pradesh, a strong demand among many of the state’s powerful voting blocks, and one that his rival, Naidu, is seen as having failed to fulfill. The YSRCP chief recently said that in the Lok Sabha elections, he is “hoping” for a hung parliament. “Only then will the national parties learn not to mock democracy,” Jagan added. His party has previously lent support to the Bharatiya Janata Party in parliament, and enjoys an amiable relationship with the ruling party. But in these general elections, the party chief has declared that the YSRCP will support any party that can guarantee special category status for Andhra Pradesh—even the Congress, from which he broke away after a bitter months-long stand-off, following his father’s death. Jagan’s open declaration to support any party that is able to wrest control at the centre and use it to benefit Andhra will likely safeguard the billionaire politician as well. In his 2019 election affidavit, Jagan declared that 31 cases against him are pending, including investigations by the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate, with charges that include criminal conspiracy, forgery, money laundering and corruption, among others. Support to—and from—a party ruling at the centre could insulate Jagan from having to answer for the crimes he is accused of.

The political chapter of Jagan’s life—the one that brought him into the spotlight, onto the road, into conflict with the Congress, and under the scanner of the CBI—began in September 2009, after his father died in a helicopter crash. In the following extract from “The Takeover,” a profile of Jagan published in The Caravan’s May 2011 issue, Praveen Donthi reported the dramatic sequence of events that followed YSR’s death. The conflict began with Jagan’s request to Sonia Gandhi for approval for the Odarpu Yatra, which he described as a condolence tour for the people who had committed suicide on hearing of his father’s passing. It ended in his split from the Congress, the formation of the YSRCP, and the launch of Jagan’s bid to secure both his father’s legacy and the chief minister’s chair.

The latest chapter in the life of Jagan Mohan Reddy began on 2 September 2009, the day his father died in a helicopter crash over the Nallamala forests in western Andhra Pradesh.

The chief minister was on his way to a village meeting in Chittoor district in the southern end of the state to launch the latest in a series of new welfare programmes when his helicopter disappeared from radar. By the early morning of 3 September, when I arrived in the area to report on the crash, I was surprised to discover that crowds of people had already poured into the tiny village of Nalla Kaluva, the last outpost at the edge of the dense forest where YSR had gone missing, to join the massive search effort. The suspected crash site was some fifteen kilometres from the village, through difficult and marshy forest terrain with at least a half-dozen streams in full flow, which had stopped more than a few SUVs and even tractors driven by would-be rescuers. People continued to arrive by the hundreds throughout the day, even after YSR’s body was found later that morning and the official news of his death was released by the prime minister’s office.

One day later, on 4 September, YSR was buried at his favourite retreat, an estate called Idupulapaya near his hometown of Pulivendula. The roads leading to the funeral were choked with traffic, as thousands of people flocked to the remote hamlet to pay their last respects. I had to get out of a taxicab and walk for the final 15 kilometres. Lines of people were walking alongside me, streaming across rice fields and riverbeds, all of them eager to tell a reporter about their affection for YSR. I asked one elderly man why he was making such an effort to attend the funeral, and he responded immediately: “He walked 1,500 kilometres in the hot summer for the people—can’t I walk ten kilometres for him?”

In April 2003, in the run-up to the elections that YSR had declared would be his last attempt to take the chief minister’s chair, he set out on a padayatra, travelling 1,470 kilometres on foot across 11 districts in 60 days, from Chevella in Telangana to Ichchapuram in coastal Andhra. A brutal drought had left people starving across the arid regions of Telangana in the north and Rayalaseema in the south that summer, and YSR’s padayatra harnessed the growing rural anger to unseat the TDP government headed by Chandrababu Naidu, who had been regarded as all but invincible. “Until the padayatra,” a senior journalist with Sakshi, a media group controlled by Jagan, told me, “YSR was just a leader. But after the padayatra he became a mass leader.” I had heard an eerily similar line in a recent Telugu film—in which the hero’s father, a politician, is described as “not any politician, but a mass leader,” and it was hard to determine whether the Sakshi journalist was unwittingly echoing the movie or the movie was echoing the heroic perception of YSR that had taken hold in the years after his death. But there is widespread agreement that it was the padayatra which put YSR in the chief minister’s chair, and Jagan clearly believes that his own yatra will have a similar outcome.

On the morning of 3 September 2009, Andhra Congress leaders had already begun plotting to quickly appoint Jagan as the new chief minister. Less than two hours after his body was found, a coterie of YSR’s closest allies, led by KVP Ramachandra Rao—a college friend, chief adviser and right-hand to YSR, who conceived the padayatra and had since become the second most powerful man in Andhra—started to rally Congress MLAs to pledge their support to Jagan. By the afternoon, 150 of the party’s 157 MLAs had reportedly signed a petition to make him the CM. (The precise number is unknown, as the petition has never been made public.) YSR had run the state and the party with absolute authority and had demanded unwavering loyalty: he took care of his men and expected their unstinting support in return; those who benefited richly from this arrangement were naturally eager that it remain in place.

A group of YSR loyalists rushed to meet with Veerappa Moily, then the union law minister and the Congress party’s incharge for Andhra, to lobby for Jagan. The party’s then chief whip in the assembly, Mallu Bhatti Vikramarka, called an informal meeting of the Congress Legislature Party to marshal the MLAs and MPs in support of Jagan, which was broken up after Moily conveyed the displeasure of the party’s “high command” in Delhi—which is to say, Sonia Gandhi, who was receiving “minute-by-minute” updates from Hyderabad—at the unseemly haste on display. “We were all worried about who will become chief minister,” M Shajahan Basha, a Congress MLA, told me. “We wanted somebody good. We were all YSR’s loyalists, so if Jagan was made the CM, we felt there would be no problems. But the party changed its stance—Madam gave a different message.” On the night of 3 September, the 79-year-old party veteran K Rosaiah became acting chief minister, even as his colleagues in the cabinet pledged their support to Jagan; the high command indicated that a final decision on YSR’s successor would be postponed until after the mourning period had come to an end.

YSR (centre) on his 1,470-km long padayatra in 2003. Most agree that it was the padayatra which put YSR in the chief minister’s chair.

The Congress party, of course, is no stranger to power struggles after a leader’s death or to dynastic successions—in fact, Sonia had been asked to take control of the party immediately after Rajiv Gandhi was killed in 1991, a request that she reportedly found insensitive and distasteful. Jagan maintained an obedient posture amid the dramatic manoeuvring on his behalf, publicly urging that his supporters wait patiently for Sonia Gandhi’s decision, but he was more than willing to oblige the demands of his father’s loyalists. He saw his family as the first family of Andhra, and fully expected to succeed YSR just as Rajiv Gandhi took the reins after his mother’s assassination.

Jagan first showed his hand three weeks after his father’s death, at a condolence meeting on 25 September in the village of Nalla Kaluva, near the crash site, which set the template for almost everything that followed. If the campaign to anoint Jagan as his father’s political heir had previously been managed and directed by YSR’s own men, who had their own pressing interests in maintaining the status quo, the Nalla Kaluva meeting marked the moment that Jagan seized the mantle for himself. The stage was crowded with many of the state Congress leaders, both past and present, but none were given a chance to speak. After prayers were conducted by three priests—Hindu, Muslim and Christian—blessing Jagan for leadership, he delivered a dramatic oration very much in the style of YSR. “Almost 660 people have sacrificed their lives for my father. Some of them committed suicide,” Jagan said. “I am telling all of them the great leader YSR is not dead, he lives inside us through his ideals. I will come and meet every family affected by these deaths and find out about their well being.” Jagan made no overt references to politics beyond his call to carry on YSR’s programmes and ideals; there was no mention of the Congress party or the ongoing dispute over who should become chief minister. But in a single stroke, he managed to assert control of his father’s legacy and set the stage for his Odarpu Yatra—implicitly suggesting that if the Congress did not pass him the torch, he would appeal directly to the people and carry it on his own.

While the party waited for Sonia’s final decision on the state’s new chief minister, the behind-the-scenes lobbying continued in full force. Congress MLAs who were supporters of Jagan threatened to resign if he was not made chief minister, while YSR’s close associates continued to negotiate with the high command. On 22 October, Jagan met Sonia Gandhi with Veerappa Moily and KVP Ramachandra Rao, who had already made three trips to Delhi to lobby for Jagan. After the meeting, Jagan declared that “I have full faith and trust in her. I will abide by whatever decision Madam takes.” But the party high-command was unpersuaded—and indeed, actively dismayed—by the overt pressure campaign, and Sonia opted to continue with Rosaiah, who was formally confirmed as the chief minister on 29 November. Sonia had ostensibly closed the door, but the agitation for Jagan did not fade away. Rosaiah, who had been YSR’s finance minister, had no political base of his own, and he was not a Reddy—the powerful landed community that dominates the Andhra Congress. (Though they are only five percent of the Andhra population, one-third of Congress MLAs and MPs in the state are Reddys.)

It was at this point that Jagan turned his attention to the Odarpu Yatra, which he characterised as the fulfilment of his vow at Nalla Kaluva. “I had given a word,” Jagan told me, “that I would go visit every family who had given up their lives for my dad.”

“It was an emotional spur-of-the-moment promise,” he recalled. “I don’t know why—if you ask me why I had given that word, I have no answer. I myself was experiencing the same pain. There were no politics then, it was just an emotional decision that I took. That was the turning point for this whole thing to start.”

But having decided that Jagan was not the person to carry the Congress flag forward in Andhra Pradesh, the high command was understandably uneasy with the prospect of his barnstorming the state and solidifying his grip on the legacy of YSR—a sentiment that Jagan, even today, describes as an attempt to prevent him from keeping his promise. “Congress high command wanted me to forgo that word,” he told me. “They ridiculed it to the extent of saying, arrey, it’s only a word, what’s the big deal? If I had done that they would have probably elevated me to some central ministry.”

For the time being, however, he remained within the party, and appealed to the leadership for permission to begin the yatra. “For the first six months [from October 2009 to April 2010] I tried to convince them that I need to do this,” Jagan told me, taking care to stress the purity of his intentions and his initial deference to party authority. “No matter how many times I approached the high command, they were reluctant. Though they were not fully convinced, I had gone ahead and started.”

By June 2010, to no one’s surprise, the yatra had brought Jagan into open conflict with the party leadership, and an increasingly vocal anti-Jagan faction in the Andhra Congress began to condemn his indiscipline. The clamour among party workers and officials in favour of Jagan had also diminished, as the high command made it clear that it would discipline anyone continuing to agitate for him, which was a good enough reason for most of the state’s Congressmen to keep quiet.

But Jagan was undeterred, and continued to insist—as he does today—that the yatra had nothing to do with his desire to become chief minister, and everything to do with honouring the memory of his father and the grief of the mourning families. “If I were a person to think of a chair, I wouldn’t have left the party for a word—not if a little bit of buttering and selling your character gets you to that seat,” he told me with a tone of solemn conviction. “If it is written on my forehead it will come. If it is not written, none can give it.” At the end of June, Jagan travelled to Delhi, accompanied by his sister Sharmila and his mother, YS Vijayalakshmi, who had requested an appointment with Sonia Gandhi so that they could “explain the real purpose behind the OdarpuYatra.” After a 40-minute meeting at 10 Janpath, they left via the rear gate to avoid the media, which quickly filled with speculation as to what had been discussed. When I spoke with many of Jagan’s close associates, they all related the same account of his meeting with Sonia, which Jagan also recounted for me. “She wanted us to call all the [bereaved] people to district headquarters and do some favour for them,” he said. “But this is not our tradition. We told her that nobody asked us for a favour. I am going to see them because of a word I had given them. And going to their houses, the very act gives them emotional support. Because they have given up their lives.”

She was evidently not convinced, but Jagan announced he would resume the yatra on 8 July, the anniversary of his father’s birth, and do so in Ichchapuram—the same place that YSR had concluded his epic padayatra, a decision heavy with symbolism. He publicly aired his disagreement with Sonia Gandhi, releasing a statement that said, in part, “We explained to her the need to resume the yatra to console the family members of those who died following the death of my father. She did not cite any specific reason but did not appear to be favourably inclined over resuming the yatra.” Rosaiah, presumably acting under orders from Delhi, instructed Congress MLAs and MPs to stay away from the yatra, and scheduled the opening of the assembly’s monsoon session for the same day to prevent them from attending—many of the MLAs sent their family members instead.

By this point, Jagan’s course was already set: the only question was whether he or the party would blink first. He was almost daring them to kick him out, confident that the people’s sympathy would be on his side—but the party did not take the bait. “We gave him a long rope,” a former Congress minister told me. “Sonia for a long time used to say, ‘Maybe it’s because he’s lost his father that he’s behaving like this.’”

After two senior YSR loyalists sympathetic to Jagan were dismissed from the party for criticising the chief minister, Jagan escalated his defiance. On 19 November, his Sakshi television channel broadcast a special programme called Hastagatam—The Hand is History—an extremely critical look at the state of the Congress and its leadership. The on-screen titles posed questions such as, “How will Sonia respond to the corruption charges plaguing the UPA government?”; “Are scams suffocating Congress?”; and “Is the Congress going to be a thing of the past?” Even those who later sided with Jagan after his resignation told me they were shocked at the time by the programme, but it had been carefully planned: Jagan had already told some of his closest associates he would soon quit the party, though senior party leaders who supported him were still in the dark. (M Rajamohan Reddy, the sole Congress MP to resign in support of Jagan, told me that he only learned of Jagan’s decision from his son Goutham, one of Jagan’s old schoolmates.)

When Rosaiah, who had failed to impose any order on the fractious state party, announced his resignation the following week, the party selected N Kiran Kumar Reddy, a four-time Congress MLA and former assembly speaker, as the new chief minister. Jagan seemed to have concluded—whether by instinct or out of hubris—that in its weakened state, the Congress needed him more than he needed the Congress. He was only waiting for the right moment to script his dramatic exit. It arrived when YS Vivekananda Reddy, YSR’s brother and a former MP, met with Sonia Gandhi and promised to bring his nephew Jagan back into line.

Two days later, on 29 November, Jagan announced his resignation in an emotional open letter to Sonia Gandhi, which had been carefully written to elicit maximum public sympathy, stressing his “deep anguish” and “utmost restraint” while “suffering humiliation in silence during the last 14 months.” “The last straw,” Jagan wrote, “was the conspiracy that is being hatched to vertically split the family of the great leader who brought back Congress party to power in Andhra Pradesh twice. I was shocked at the murky and disgusting politics being played at my back. Is it fair to lure my uncle YS Vivekananda Reddy to Delhi, thereby paving way for fissures in my family?”

A week later, in his family’s hometown of Pulivendula, Jagan announced he would launch his own party to carry on YSR’s memory. “I assure you that our new party will put up a fight and protect the Telugu people and Andhra’s self-esteem,” he declared at a meeting of his supporters, borrowing a page from the playbook of the TDP, which had first defeated the Congress in 1983 with an emotional appeal to Telugu self-respect.

“I have been thinking about all that has happened in the past 15 months. I don’t think I’ve committed any mistake. Everyone knows what has happened and who is responsible for my decision to resign from the Congress,” Jagan said, as the Pulivendula crowd chanted in response: “Sonia, Sonia!”

This is an edited extract from “The Takeover,” a profile of Jagan Mohan Reddy by Praveen Donthi, published in The Caravan’s May 2011 issue. Subscribe now to read the full story, and for access to The Caravan’s complete archive.