ON A SULTRY FEBRUARY MORNING that augured a harsh summer ahead, a tiny village in coastal Andhra Pradesh called Rompicherla—in Guntur district, famous for its fiery red chillies—was feverishly preparing itself for the arrival of the man likely to be the state’s next chief minister: Yeduguri Sandinti Jagan Mohan Reddy.
The atmosphere was festive: loudspeakers blared party anthems praising “Jagan anna”; women in the village had decorated the pavements with colourful rangoli, and children in brand new clothes ran helter-skelter, sticks of sugar cane in their hands. A police van circled the area, making sure the roads were clear for Jagan’s arrival. And at the centre of it all, with a sea of yellow marigold petals surrounding its pedestal, was a brand new statue of Jagan’s father, YS Rajasekhara Reddy—known to all as YSR—a lifelong Congressman who was the state’s chief minister from 2004 until his death in 2009.
Jagan, the only son of YSR, is a 39-year-old Member of Parliament, the president of his own breakaway YSR Congress Party, a billionaire businessman and the most popular politician in Andhra Pradesh. Under Jagan’s father, Andhra contributed 29 Lok Sabha seats to the Congress party’s majority in 2004—without which Manmohan Singh would still be the opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha—and sent 33 Congress MPs to Parliament in 2009.
But when, in the wake of his father’s death, Jagan was not selected by Sonia Gandhi and the Congress “high command” in Delhi as the next chief minister, he split from the party and turned his energy towards its defeat. For two years, Jagan has been moving across the state at a snail’s pace on his Odarpu Yatra, a “consolation” tour to mourn his father’s death with the state’s grieving citizens that also happens to involve promoting YSR’s legacy and campaigning against two parties that have dominated Andhra politics, one since the state’s formation in 1956—the Congress—and the other for the past 30 years, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Guntur is one of 23 districts in Andhra Pradesh, with a population of some five million. You could drive across the entire district in less than six hours, but by 22 February, Jagan’s Odarpu Yatra had already logged 62 days (in four months) in Guntur alone.
The new statue of YSR in Rompicherla had been built in the middle of a Dalit neighborhood called SC Colony, whose residents had pooled together money to erect a monument to Jagan’s father. “Thanks to YSR, we could build cement houses,” an elderly man told me as he chewed on some sugar cane, explaining that under the late chief minister’s Indiramma scheme—a massive programme launched in 2006, which encompassed the building of houses and latrines, the distribution of pensions, free power and irrigation projects, and much else—each family had been given cement worth R40,000. “We added some more money and built this house,” he continued. “Earlier we lived in huts.”
Shortly after noon, a colourful broadcast van from the Sakshi TV channel, part of Jagan’s local media empire, rolled into the village, followed by a bus full of policemen. Chatter about Jagan filled the air in anticipation of his arrival. He had been scheduled to visit the previous week, but the slow pace of Jagan’s yatra—and then a week-long break for cheneta deeksha, one in a series of fasts dedicated to the issues of various communities (in this case weavers), had forced a postponement. In the meantime, the residents of the street next to this one, known as BC Colony, had hurriedly raised funds to put up their own statue of YSR, all of 50 metres away from the first one; when I arrived, the cement on the statue’s pedestal was still wet. One of the posters hung nearby said in Telugu, “He shook Delhi’s seat of power with his victory and gave a shock to Sonia. Hail the warrior and young lion, Jagan anna.”
When Jagan finally arrived in SC Colony at around 2:30 pm, the villagers burst firecrackers as his SUV drove up to the statue; he got down, moved slowly through the crowd, and delivered a speech from a makeshift platform next to the statue of his father. Then he got back in the car, which drove around the block to the other YSR statue, in BC Colony, and repeated the process. After about an hour, he was back on the road to yet another village with yet another statue to be unveiled, one of eight that he christened over the course of the day; on the basis of my own travels across the state in the past three months, it seems safe to say Andhra now has more statues of YSR than of Gandhi and Ambedkar put together.
JAGAN’S ITINERARY for this particular day called for visits to three villages, across a total distance of only about eight kilometres. But as I saw when I got inside the bulletproof black SUV carrying him later that evening, the yatra makes impromptu stops whenever anyone spots Jagan passing by, or when he sees women or elderly people along the way. Our conversation in the SUV was interrupted about 20 times over a distance of five kilometres—a trip that took two and a half hours to complete. At one point, Jagan abruptly paused in the middle of an answer, just as he caught sight of someone outside the window, and said “avva, avva, avva, avva”—granny—and before I realised what was happening, the driver had stopped the car and Jagan was already outside, greeting an older woman like she was a long-lost family member. He held her shoulders and kissed her on the forehead, as her face lit up with delight.
By this time darkness had fallen, but the SUV was equipped with a set of two interior lights on its dashboard, which the driver switched on whenever he noticed people by the roadside, so that they could see Jagan as he drove by. Some would smile and wave; others shouted slogans like “Jai Jagan anna”; he smiled and waved at almost everyone we passed. During his fast for weavers the previous week, he had fallen ill with a high fever, which further delayed his return to Guntur by two days. He still seemed to be slightly unwell: I noticed a strip of paracetamol tablets along with a bottle of hand sanitiser and a packet of dried fruit next to his seat; his voice had a nasal tone, and he chewed on a clove as we talked. But none of this seemed to have slowed him down or diminished his energy, a small confirmation of what everyone, friend or foe, said about Jagan: that he was stubborn, determined and indefatigable. I asked him how much longer he could sustain the momentum of the Odarpu Yatra. “Two and a half years we have sustained it,” he replied, proud and confident. “Did anyone think two and a half years ago when I quit the party that I will come this far?” There was no doubt that he intends to do whatever is needed to capture the chief minister’s chair, which Jagan feels he has been denied by the very party his father loyally served for three decades.
As we reached the last village on the day’s itinerary, Buchibapanapalem, at around 8:30 pm, Jagan was informed that here, again, there were two statues rather than one to be unveiled; he looked a little surprised, but certainly not displeased. En route to the site of the first statue, we drove past the village church, whose pastor was standing outside, holding a Bible and surrounded by a small crowd, evidently expecting Jagan to pass by. A devout fourth-generation Christian, Jagan motioned to the pastor and stopped the car so he could go inside for a short prayer before continuing. (“The entire state knows that two things can stop him on the road wherever he is—a group of women or a church,” the YSR Congress leader Jupudi Prabhakar Rao told me.)
After two years, the protocol of Jagan’s yatra has become almost standardised: once the SUV enters a village, Jagan opens his door and stands leaning out from the vehicle as it moves, waving at people and wishing them with his hands pressed together high above his head—almost his signature pose—taking care to make eye contact and give individual greetings to as many people as possible. By the time we pulled close to the first of the two statues in Buchibapanapalem, a massive crowd had surrounded the SUV: people were banging on the sides of the car, rocking it back and forth like a tiny boat in a storm. I looked around nervously, afraid that the SUV was going to roll over on its side, but everyone else inside the car—two local YSR Congress leaders and two of Jagan’s personal assistants—just smiled placidly, and I realised this was only my first time experiencing what must now be routine for them.
Finally, Jagan stepped away from the car like a boxer easing himself through the ropes and into the ring, swimming through the crowds on his way to throw punches at his opponents from the pulpit. He was surrounded by a tight circle of bodyguards, which broke frequently as he moved towards the statue, stopping to greet everyone who wanted to shake his hand, each time with the same obliging and practiced expression, one that seemed to say, to each person he met, “It is I who should feel lucky to be shaking your hand.” Jagan contested his first election only three years ago, but he has evidently learnt much from his father, who had a similar talent for connecting directly and emotionally with voters.
As an orator, Jagan is not yet a match for YSR, but he already exceeds his father in his intuitive sense of political theatre. A photographer from his newspaper, Sakshi, told me that when Jagan sits for posed pictures, he seems shy and uneasy in front of the cameras. But when he gets a microphone in his hand and takes the stage, he looks like he could have stepped off a Telugu film poster. His body language becomes confident and comfortable, and he projects an appealing blend of swagger and humility—as the devoted son who only reluctantly entered the political arena to defend his father’s legacy, with righteousness on his side and a sure sense he will prevail.
After unveiling the gold-coloured statue of YSR, he apologised to the crowd for his late arrival—a standard part of his routine, but a rare thing to hear from an Indian politician addressing a rally. As he does at each stop, he began by loudly pronouncing the name of the village—“Buchibapanapalem!”—before pausing for a dramatic moment to take in the applause. Holding the microphone in his left hand, and taking care to make eye contact with individuals in the crowd, he lifted his right arm while he spoke, chopping the air like a knife to emphasise each sentence. He always starts slowly, but then like an approaching train his voice rises as he bears down on his opponents. “In these days of political wars, if there was no third party, they would have the ground free for themselves,” he said, conjuring the image of a secret alliance between his rivals. “If the people are fed up with the Congress, they will vote for Telugu Desam Party, and if they are fed up with Telugu Desam, they will vote for Congress again. So the ruling party and the opposition have come together to prevent the rise of a third party.”
One issue where the Congress and the TDP, led by YSR’s old rival N Chandrababu Naidu, are indeed in alignment is the allegations of corruption both have pressed against Jagan, who is accused of taking investments in his own businesses in return for favours granted by his father’s office. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed a 68-page chargesheet against Jagan and 12 other accused on 31 March, though they have made no effort to arrest him, evidently fearful of the public unrest that would follow. But at a moment when corruption is said to be a critical issue for voters, neither the CBI chargesheet nor the revelation of Jagan’s vast wealth—approximately R3.65 billion, according to his declaration of assets—seem to have dented his popularity.
In his speeches, Jagan does not refer directly to the charges against him; instead, he cannily turns the tables on the Congress and the TDP by accusing them of unnamed slights against his father’s legacy. “They have come together to malign the great departed leader, YSR, with all kinds of false charges,” he said in Buchibapanapalem. “There is a different kind of justice for the great leader, YSR, who is no more, and for Chandrababu Naidu, who is alive. Today, they might still have power, but I am warning them—God is watching them from above.” They are the villains, and he is the hero: it was pure theatre, and the crowd applauded wildly.
In no other state are politics commingled so thoroughly with melodrama as Andhra Pradesh—as if the state’s two dominant public passions, films and politics, had simply merged into one. As I sat inside the SUV listening to Jagan confidently deliver his address to the adoring crowd, his loyal assistant Narayana, who accompanies Jagan on all his travels, turned to me with an anxious question: “Sir, what do you think will happen to the CBI cases? Will he be arrested?” I responded that I didn’t know the answer, though it didn’t seem likely at that moment. “But the newspapers write something bad every day,” Narayana said nervously, with a look of embarrassment that suggested this was a topic that had never before been discussed inside the SUV. The next day, Jagan’s newspaper Sakshi carried a front-page picture of him talking to an old woman in Guntur; the local edition ran an entire photo essay devoted to the yatra, with the headline ‘Sneha sameeram’—a wave of affection.
My interview with Jagan had come to a close just before he got out of the SUV to give the day’s last speech. Answering my final question, he returned to the two words he had used the most in our conversation—God and history—for one last time. He turned back to look at me, a faint smile on his face and a great assurance in his voice, and said, “We are going to create so much history that history will remember us forever. We will sweep the state.” He paused, and quickly corrected himself: “God will provide us with such numbers that we will sweep the state.” Already his voice was being drowned out by the uproar outside, and he opened the door and vanished into the crowd.
THE LATEST CHAPTER IN THE LIFE of Jagan Mohan Reddy—the one that has brought him into the spotlight, onto the road, into conflict with Sonia Gandhi and under the scanner of the CBI—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 15 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 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 in-charge 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.
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, the behind-the-scenes lobbying continued in full force. Congress MLAs who were supporters of Jagan threatened to resign if he was not made CM, while YSR’s close associates continued to negotiate with the high command. On 22 October, Jagan met Sonia Gandhi with Moily and KVP, 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 like “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!”
THE JOURNEY TO PULIVENDULA from coastal Andhra, where I had seen Jagan on his yatra, is defined by a gradual and dramatic shift in the colour of the landscape, from innumerable shades of green to the drab and endless brown of Rayalaseema’s semi-arid terrain. These are the badlands of Andhra, with a history that is violent and feudal. The meek don’t survive here, only the mighty, and it is impossible to understand how Jagan’s father rose to power—and how he later deployed it—without his rough education in the hard ways of Rayalaseema.
The future chief minister was born in 1949 in southern Andhra Pradesh’s Kadapa district (now formally known as “YSR Kadapa district”). His father, Raja Reddy, was a local strongman with a fearsome reputation as one not to be trifled with: according to lore, when a tribal man was caught trying to rob a woman in the Pulivendula bazaar, Raja doused him in kerosene and burned him alive in broad daylight. A former Congress state minister who was a close friend of YSR told me that “this reputation got Raja Reddy a job supervising some barytes mines owned by a man named Venkata Subbaiah, who hoped he could rein in the Communist labor unions; later Raja Reddy usurped the mines, and things changed financially for the better for the family ever since.” (Other published accounts also suggest that Subbaiah lost his life in the process.)
YSR left this all behind to pursue a degree in medicine at the Mahadevappa Rampure Medical College in Karnataka, but when he returned to Rayalaseema after completing his studies, he became a powerful player in the area’s bloody factional struggles. The late K Balagopal, the noted Andhra human rights lawyer, summarised the amoral brutality of Rayalaseema politics in an essay in the Economic and Political Weekly published soon after YSR became chief minister. “His rise in politics,” Balagopal wrote, “has been accompanied by more bloodshed than that of any other politician in this state. Not bloodshed for some avowed ‘higher cause’, but bloodshed for the narrowest possible cause: the rise of one individual to political power and prominence.” The state got a first taste of YSR’s violent background in 1978, after he became an MLA, when one of his local rivals came into the secretariat in Hyderabad and fired a shot intended to kill him; he dodged the bullet, but it struck and killed the superintendent of the secretariat. In 1998, Raja Reddy was killed in a bomb attack launched by a rival faction; the next day, one of his attackers was found dead.
YSR had been pushed towards politics by his father, who realised it held the possibility for greater power than the factional struggles of Rayalaseema. Impressed by Sanjay Gandhi, YSR joined the Youth Congress, and headed the district unit from 1975 to 1978. In 1983, at age 33, he became the president of the Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) at the behest of Rajiv Gandhi. Despite his early success in the party, he quickly earned a reputation for indiscipline. According to the former Congress state minister who was close friends with YSR, in 1985, after Rajiv Gandhi, then the Congress president, sent YSR the list of candidates selected for tickets in the state assembly elections, “he replaced 50 of the names with his own loyalists,” the former minister told me. “Rajiv was furious, and kept YSR at arm’s length until his death”—though it was Sonia Gandhi who appointed him APCC chief once again in 1999.
After he became chief minister in 2004, even his critics claimed to perceive a change in his manner. “He would speak very gently—he was far less vociferous,” one Union minister told me. “He understood the polity and its nuances, unlike this boy [Jagan] who is like a bull in a china shop. This boy is more of Raja Reddy’s grandson than YSR’s son. YSR had some finesse.” His ascent to the chief minister’s chair finally dispelled the perception that he was merely a Rayalaseema strongman, but his management style had clearly been forged during his days mired in the factional feudal politics of his home region. The Andhra Congress has always had a reputation for self-destructive infighting, a tendency that received tacit encouragement from the party high command, which from the time of Indira Gandhi had been wary of strong regional leaders and shuffled chief ministers in and out of office on a whim.
As chief minister, YSR’s feudal style became an asset. His Congress predecessors had been undone by dissidents, bitter internal rivalries, and the capricious moves of the high command. But he ruthlessly suppressed any internal opposition and made loyalty the greatest virtue inside the party: his followers believed in him, and he repaid their devotion by ensuring party tickets went to his loyalists. “He destroyed all the factions systematically,” the Union minister said. “Except those that were loyal to him.
“He had one weakness—which was manavadu (‘my man’),” the former steel minister A Sai Prathap, a college friend of YSR, told me. “If some loyalist did something wrong, he would ignore it, and very rarely would he reprimand. It was a weakness many people took advantage of,” Prathap said. “Eighty percent of the state Congress leaders went to him for personal favours. But today all of them criticise him for corruption.”
AT THE END OF FEBRUARY, during one of my visits to the YSR Congress office in the up-market Jubilee Hills area of Hyderabad, I met Suguna Reddy, a 65-year-old farmer from a village in Khammam district, in Telangana. Reddy, who had weathered skin, unkempt grey hair and worn-out clothes, was carrying an MRI scan of his son’s skull, which had been punctured in a bike accident in 2008 that left him blind. His son needed surgery costing R1 million, but Reddy had only managed to raise R150,000. The cost of his son’s medical care was too large for Reddy to take advantage of YSR’s flagship Rajiv Arogyasri scheme, which provided free health insurance to families below the poverty line, because payments were at R200,000. But in 2009, Reddy and his son managed to meet YSR at his official residence in Hyderabad. “He put his hand on my son’s shoulder and said, ‘Emaindi naana? (What happened, son?)’ After listening to us, he said, ‘Don’t worry, I will give you money. I will give you a date to come back,’” Reddy recalled. “We were relieved, but to our misfortune, one day before we were supposed to return, his helicopter crashed in Nallamala forest.”
“We came to meet Jagan anna,” Reddy’s son told me. “We keep hearing about his problems on television, so we are waiting for his problems to get solved. We know that after that our problems also will get solved.”
Even before the people of Andhra started putting up statues of the late chief minister for Jagan to unveil, YSR had erected an enduring monument to himself in the form of his numerous big-budget welfare schemes—which secured his reputation as a leader who delivered on his promises to the people. According to several of his close associates, his vision was that every family in the state would benefit from at least one of the programmes, and he wanted to implement—at “saturation levels”, I was told—schemes that captured the public imagination.
Many of the schemes had their own flaws: the Rajiv Arogyasri community health programme, for example, covered specialised procedures rather than primary care, and critics argued that its public-private model benefited corporate hospitals most of all. But it was hugely popular with voters, and played a crucial role in his re-election victory in 2009. He had a scheme to provide mobile health care in rural areas, and another scheme to ensure emergency ambulance service; a fee reimbursement scheme for poor students, a scheme to provide free power for farmers, a scheme to give pensions to the elderly; and a scheme to provide irrigation to more than eight million acres of farmland, at an estimated cost of R650 billion. As I travelled around the state, it was hard not to stumble across people who had been touched by one scheme or another.
In The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani describes Indira Gandhi’s populist turn after she split the Congress in 1969 as an attempt to “regroup society and appeal directly to India’s millions of poor people”. Working within the framework of Mrs Gandhi’s party—with power concentrated at the centre and chief ministers taking orders from Delhi—YSR replicated and regionalised Indira-style populism.
He realised that in an age of regional parties, you had to think like a regional party to beat the regional parties: rather than waiting passively for schemes from the centre, YSR created and implemented his own welfare programmes, and the credit went to him rather than the Congress. Though he frequently appealed to the centre for additional funds, he raised his own money and pushed incessantly for clearance on costly projects like free power, which the national party was reluctant to sanction. I asked Janardan Dwivedi, a Congress party general secretary, how YSR secured permission for the power scheme, which had been his biggest campaign promise in 2004. “He was our very important CM, so I don’t want to say anything about him,” Dwivedi told me, reflecting a general unease among party leaders in Delhi to discuss the messy situation in Andhra. “But usually in other states we do cut such things out of the election manifestos—we don’t encourage populist schemes, because otherwise there’s no end to it.” Digvijaya Singh, another Congress general secretary, and the former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, gave me a more direct answer: “At the state level he was paying bills through state resources, so there was no effect on central funds or national funds.” YSR had an ironclad hold on the Andhra Congress, and the high command was content to leave him alone as long as he was sending 30 MPs to the Lok Sabha and raising funds for the national party. “YSR kept them happy,” a former Congress Working Committee member told me. “As long as the suitcases of money were coming, they were happy.”
With a massive mandate and near-absolute power, YSR ran the government like he would run a business, and staffed it with his own men. The chief adviser to the government was KVP Ramachandra Rao, his close friend from college; his private secretary, PR Kiran Kumar Reddy, was a chartered accountant who had married a woman from YSR’s hometown and known the chief minister for three decades. It is one of the paradoxes of YSR’s reputation that his commitment to personal loyalty—which his critics would call cronyism—bolstered his populist image among the public: he was seen as a man who took care of his friends, and therefore a man who kept his promises. (It is an image Jagan has successfully attempted to cultivate as well: all of the YSR Congress pamphlets describe him as “a leader who doesn’t go back on his word”.)
Among YSR’s allies, I often heard the word “credibility” used as a way of explaining the public’s apparently unwavering faith in the sincerity of his populist rhetoric. People believed he would deliver what he promised, and they voted for him because they believed they would get it; the same held true for his partymen in Andhra Pradesh, who gave YSR their loyalty with the expectation it would be rewarded. A political scientist would call this clientelism—the exchange of political support for tangible benefits—and the term aptly summarises YSR’s skillful deployment of patronage, whether to voters, state partymen, corporates or his ostensible superiors in the Congress high command. “Usually, when you have a strong CM, it is up to the AICC [All India Congress Committee] general secretary to play the balancing act,” a Union minister said. “But in Andhra under YSR, the general secretaries sided with him.”
YSR’s populist credentials were further burnished by two highly-publicised battles with major corporates. In January 2006, his government filed a successful case before the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission against the agribusiness giant Monsanto over “abnormally high” prices for genetically modified cotton seeds, which led to an injunction that reduced the cost of seeds by 50 percent. In 2007, YSR staged a confrontation with Reliance over the allocation and price of natural gas from the Krishna-Godavari basin on the Andhra coast, arguing in a series of letters to the prime minister that Reliance had proposed an artificially high price, and that Andhra should receive a share of the gas on a preferential basis, given the location of the reserves inside the state.
YSR’s efforts against Reliance came to naught, but they reaffirmed the public perception that he would fight on behalf of his state and its people, a perception whose strength was demonstrated by a bizarre episode in January 2010. After a Telugu news channel broadcast a report suggesting that Reliance had a hand in YSR’s death—on the basis of a conspiracy theory posted on an English-language news website in Russia—people took to the streets and attacked Reliance outlets. To this day, many people in Andhra believe that the investigation into YSR’s death remains incomplete, a notion that has been kept alive by Jagan’s media, if only to hold open the possibility that YSR sacrificed his life fighting for the people. When I asked Jagan about the conspiracy theories regarding his father’s death, his response was notably vague. “So many things went wrong on that particular day,” he said. “It is very difficult to believe it is a coincidence for so many things to go wrong on one particular day. But it is very difficult for me to say what happened.”
While he was alive, YSR carefully cultivated his reputation as a populist, and Jagan has worked hard to strengthen it further since his death. But alongside his lavish spending on social welfare schemes, YSR quietly implemented reforms to liberalise the state economy and promote business and investment. D Somayajulu, YSR’s economic adviser, pointed me to a 2011 report on “economic freedom” among Indian states produced by the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, which ranked Andhra under YSR as “the Indian state that improved economic freedom most between 2005 and 2009”. The report notes that YSR’s spending on irrigation and infrastructure led to a boost in growth and increased wages, and tallies a series of reforms designed to improve the business climate and increase revenues to help fund new social schemes. The state allowed private companies to execute government contracts for infrastructure projects, setting off rapid growth in the construction industry amid allegations of crony capitalism. One of the report’s authors, Swaminathan Aiyar, writing in the Economic Times, credited YSR with having “created a new model where populist giveaways, smelly deals that converted politicians into millionaires, fiscal prudence and economic freedom all improved together to yield accelerated economic growth”, and suggested that YSR’s example “holds lessons for other chief ministers. They too would like to get re-elected, but also make millions on the side.”
DURING THE 2009 ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS in Andhra Pradesh, the state’s opposition parties came together in an alliance in order to defeat YSR on an anti-corruption platform, attempting to capitalise on the allegations they had repeatedly aired in his first term—many of which focused on the sources of funding for Jagan’s newspaper, Sakshi. But the Congress eked out a narrow majority and YSR formed the government once again. “It only shows there is no moral vengeance in the society against corruption,” said K Nageshwar, a professor at Osmania University and a member of the Andhra Legislative Council. “Within the system, one party is not seen as an alternative to another party, people see all of them as corrupt. But YSR was seen as credible, unlike Naidu. He used political power very effectively for political patronage by creating a politician-contractor nexus. Political corruption became a distributive phenomenon under YSR. Party workers down to the lowest level benefited, and even the opposition MLAs. In the end, corruption also turned out to be a welfare scheme.”
While his father was still alive and running the state, it was easier for Jagan to brush aside charges of corruption, especially when there was little chance that the Congress government at the centre would launch an investigation against one of its most powerful chief ministers. But the issue of corruption roared back to life in 2011 after Jagan resigned—a matter of timing he is at pains to stress as frequently as possible. (“My one act of not going back on my word frustrated the Congress so much that I received income tax notices one month after I left the party,” he told me drily.) P Shankar Rao, then the state handloom and textiles minister and an old Gandhi family loyalist, wrote a letter to the High Court alleging that Jagan’s assets rose from R1.1 million in 2004 to a whopping R430 billion by the time of his father’s death. The court ordered an inquiry in July 2011, and in just over a month’s time the CBI had filed an FIR and formed teams to conduct raids and gather evidence across the country. Across the state, people waited for Jagan’s reaction, but he remained defiant and outwardly unperturbed, firing counter-accusations of corruption at his rivals and painting the charges as a politically motivated attempt to smear YSR.
After a seven-month investigation, the CBI filed its chargesheet on 31 March of this year, naming Jagan as the prime accused, along with 12 others. Among the allegations is that Jagan sold shares in two of his companies at massively inflated prices to companies and individuals who were then granted preferential allotments of land during YSR’s time as chief minister. The CBI has sent letters rogatory to Luxembourg, the British Virgin Islands, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mauritius and Great Britain, asking their assistance in tracking black money that was allegedly routed to Jagan’s accounts. But they have made no move to arrest the number one accused, who has both insisted on his innocence and suggested, implicitly, that he is no more corrupt than his rivals.
When I raised the chargesheet with one of Jagan’s supporters, he fired a question right back at me: “Didn’t Chandrababu Naidu start off his political career with only two acres of land? Look at where he is right now!” I recognised this line of argument, because it was frequently featured in Sakshi, and it had clearly wormed its way into the public psyche, simultaneously deflecting attention from the allegations against Jagan and suggesting that political corruption today is so widespread to be almost unworthy of attention. On a recent flight into Hyderabad, I sat next to an engineer from Kurnool, who had his own take on the issue. “To be able to implement the kind of schemes YSR did, the government will need a lot of money,” he said. “It will help if you have a lot of black money.”
A brief perusal of Jagan’s various and well-worn responses to all such charges suggests both an implicit acknowledgement of his guilt and an argument that if corruption is pervasive, and all politicians are corrupt, there must be some malign reason for picking on him in particular. He also seems to understand that the public is less likely to be outraged by illicit transactions when they don’t involve pilfering the exchequer. Above all, he knows that the Congress cannot easily capitalise on charges of corruption that involve YSR—given that the party was all too happy to ignore them while he was still chief minister, raising money for the party and sending dozens of MPs to Delhi. It was no coincidence that after Jagan was chargesheeted, “sources” inside the party indicated he might reveal that proceeds from the transactions under investigation had been funneled by YSR into Congress coffers before the 2009 elections.
The lion’s share of the accusations against Jagan concern what the CBI characterises as bogus investments in Jagati Publications Private Limited, the parent company of Sakshi. When the paper was launched in 2008, the idea was to negate the influence of Eenadu and Andhra Jyothy, which were loyal to the TDP and openly hostile to the Congress—YSR often referred to them dismissively as “those two newspapers”.
When I visited the plush Sakshi office in Banjara Hills—supposedly the most expensive neighbourhood in Hyderabad—there was no question as to its editorial alignment: the security room inside the entrance was papered with posters of YSR and Jagan, and their pictures were ubiquitous on editors’ desks and walls, or as wallpapers on computer desktops. The office has already been raided several times by the CBI, but as one employee told me, “We got used to it. We realised they are all false charges, so nothing will happen to the newspaper.” Inside the office, a protective loyalty for their owner set the tone: most people would only open up and answer questions after attempting to ascertain my feelings about Jagan.
S Ramakrishna Reddy, the editorial director of Sakshi and one of the most powerful YSR Congress leaders, told me the launch of the paper had been long overdue. “We always used to tell YSR that we should have a newspaper of our own,” Reddy said. “But he always brushed it aside, saying ‘We are on one side of the table and the media on the other side.’ But Naidu focused only on the media. Even when YSR introduced good schemes, those papers used to criticise him.” At the time, Reddy said, “Jagan already had plans to launch a news channel, but we felt a newspaper had more credibility.”
The paper launched in March 2008, with 23 simultaneous editions and a print run of 1.2 million copies. Jagan declared on the first day that the paper wouldn’t be a Congress mouthpiece, but everyone took this for a bit of good humour. Indeed, the paper played an active role in YSR’s re-election campaign in 2009, and many give it credit for helping return the Congress to office.
When I asked Jagan about the decision to launch Sakshi, he depicted it as an obvious business opportunity. “There was a vacuum in the arena,” he said. “Eenadu in those days had about 10 lakh circulation. Number two was four lakh. There was a huge gap of six, seven lakh. And in Andhra Pradesh, we have a very polarised media—Eenadu blatantly supports the TDP and Naidu. So we could air the other side of the coin, which had good business potential.” At the same time, he was well aware of the political clout that came with owning a newspaper. When I asked him if he had always wanted to enter politics, he said he had been happy running the paper. “I was reluctant, but my father asked me to think about it,” he recalled. “I told my dad, even if I don’t get into politics, if I am running Sakshi with 14 and a half lakh circulation, every politician will come to me. That’s the power of the media, so why get into politics.”
Later I learned from a close associate of YSR that Jagan’s political ambitions had begun earlier than he let on: in 2004, he asked to contest for the Lok Sabha about two weeks before the nomination deadline, but it was too late—the party had already cleared the list of candidates. After the elections, I was told, YSR asked his brother YS Vivekananda Reddy to resign his seat in Kadapa so that Jagan could run in a by-election, but the high command vetoed the plan: at that point the Congress-led coalition at the centre had a slim majority, and they didn’t want to risk losing even a single seat.
Until the founding of Sakshi, the Andhra Congress had never been able to challenge the might of Eenadu. Ramoji Rao, the paper’s owner, had played a central role in the history of Andhra politics, creating the state’s first non-Congress political force in 1983 when he backed a former matinée idol, NT Rama Rao, who swept to power as the head of the newly-formed TDP. Twenty-five years later, the state Congress finally had a paper to counter Eenadu. But it belonged to YSR rather than the party, and Jagan has skillfully wielded the paper and his TV channel to batter the Congress, which appears helpless against his media power. The CBI cases have failed to neutralise Jagan’s rebellion, and the reluctance to place him under arrest suggests that Congress leaders know the backlash would give Jagan a landslide victory at the next elections.
Among the Congress leadership, the disarray in Andhra is cause for embarrassment, and fingers are pointed in every direction; the defensive reactions and outright evasions I got from senior leaders made it clear that the topic remains radioactive. Many place the blame at the feet of the AICC general secretaries in charge of the state during YSR’s tenure, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Veerappa Moily and Digvijaya Singh, who are accused of giving YSR a free hand and failing to convey critical information to the high command. “Whether it was Digvijaya, Azad or Moily, they all became partisan and aligned with YSR,” the Union minister told me. “They had all developed vested interests.”
Moily, who refused multiple requests to be interviewed for this story, was singled out for particular criticism by his senior colleagues. Multiple sources, including a former Union cabinet minister, described him as a “puppet” of YSR. “He was removed [as Andhra in-charge] because he couldn’t handle the Jagan issue,” the former cabinet minister said. “He sided with Jagan.”
Palvai Govardhan Reddy, a veteran Andhra Congressman elected in March to the Rajya Sabha, was equally blunt in his recent assessment. “Moily misled the high command on the issue of YSR’s corruption,” he said. “It was Moily who encouraged Jagan and blocked all efforts to nip him in the bud.”
I asked Digvijaya Singh if the party now regrets having granted so much autonomy to YSR. “Regional leadership has to be given a free hand,” he said. “Yes, we are a national party, but we need to encourage state leaders. But it’s not correct to say that the high command wasn’t in the know—I was going to Hyderabad every month for coordinating committee meetings.” With regard to Jagan, Singh told me, “I wish he had not left the party. He and his family owe a lot—everything—to the Congress party, and he should have had some more patience.”
The current scenario for the party in Andhra Pradesh is certainly not what any Congress leader would have wished; in fact, it looks ominously like the chaos of the early 1980s, which left a vacuum for the birth of a new regional power in the form of the TDP. But the worst-case scenario posed by Jagan’s brazen revolt looks even more grim, and threatens to reveal a profound weakness in the very structure of the Congress, if it can no longer nurture its own strong state leaders nor compete with regional parties. “The party is a sinking ship,” one senior Congress minister in Andhra Pradesh confessed when I met him. “Why would a smart guy like Jagan think of rejoining?”
THE FIRST TIME THAT I SAW JAGAN in person was in January of this year, on the final day of his rythu deeksha, a fast for farmers held in Armoor, part of Nizamabad district in the state’s Telangana region. The stage was packed with top leaders of the YSR Congress, all clad in white, and Jagan stood out in his blue shirt and grey trousers. Police battalions waited outside the venue, and the sky was filled with balloons advertising the event. Beginning at 7 am, people began to file into a long queue to meet Jagan. He spoke to them one by one, with a smile fixed on his face; he placed his hand on the heads of children and women when they greeted him, as if bestowing a blessing. There was another smaller stage close by, where a dance troupe was performing songs that had been written for Jagan, most of them involving barbs at Sonia Gandhi: “Oh, the doll of Delhi, what have you done?”
Some of the farmers had brought their plants—sugar cane, cotton, turmeric—to explain their agricultural problems to Jagan, and he listened patiently, silently noting bits of information to mention in his speech at the end of the day; the next morning, photos of Jagan deep in conversation with a few farmers would be splashed on the front page of Sakshi. The assembled party leaders looked confident and relaxed, and it was difficult to perceive even the slightest worry over the CBI investigation into Jagan’s assets, which was still ongoing. Just before Jagan broke his fast, a reporter from Sakshi came over to Jagan with some data he had gathered on local issues for Jagan’s speech.
When Jagan took the stage, he spoke for about 25 minutes: he focused on the lamentable plight of farmers in the region, and attacked Chandrababu Naidu as “anti-farmer”. He urged the crowd to support the 17 rebel Congress MLAs who had voted against their own party in a no-confidence motion the previous month, which would lead to their expulsion and another round of by-elections pitting the YSR Congress against the Congress. “For the first time elections will be fought in the name of the farmers and the poor,” Jagan declared. “This state government being run with a remote control from Delhi will not understand the woes of the farmer.”
On the face of it, there was nothing particularly remarkable about Jagan’s deeksha in Armoor, given that he makes similar appearances across the state almost every day. But eight months earlier, his yatra had ground to a halt when he tried to visit Telangana, disrupted by violent agitations for an independent Telangana state. The fact that he had returned—and been warmly welcomed—said a great deal about the evolution of his campaign in the space of less than a year. The Telangana issue is a toxic one for the major parties in Andhra: support for independence alienates voters in the state’s other two regions, Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra; refusal to support independence ensures certain defeat inside Telangana. During YSR’s tenure as chief minister, he managed to contain the Telangana issue, but the Congress had fumbled after his death—pledging support for independence and then reversing their promise—saddling the party with not one but two major crises in the state. Jagan, who is rumoured to have reached a covert understanding with the pro-independence Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), declined to field any candidates in by-elections this March against seven TRS MLAs who had resigned in protest over Telangana. Of the eight seats up for election, seven were in Telangana. The TRS swept five of those, while the pro-Telangana Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and an independent candidate each took one. The YSR Congress took the remaining seat, in coastal Andhra; the Congress and TDP both drew a blank, echoing a prediction many now see as the most likely outcome in 2014, with the TRS sweeping its home base and Jagan’s party winning both coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema.
Though Jagan prevailed easily in his first electoral test—winning his own by-election in Kadapa district by a record margin in May 2011, a little more than four months after resigning from the Congress—there were a few hiccups at the start. After he suggested he might be willing to support a government led by the BJP if it would agree to a 10 percent reservation for Muslims, Jagan was forced to backtrack: in an interview with the Hindustan Times intended to clarify his earlier remarks, he said, “Let there be no confusion... I do not feel I should not support Sonia Gandhi.” This sowed further confusion: having pitched his own campaign as a struggle between Sonia and his father’s legacy—and a battle for Telugu self-respect in the face of Delhi’s high-handed arrogance—critics demanded to know why he had left the party only to turn around and promise to give his support at the centre. Sakshi ran an article rubbishing the Hindustan Times report, claiming the journalist had twisted Jagan’s words. (Jagan’s current position, in any case, is identical to what the Hindustan Times reported at the time.)
Though the result of Jagan’s 2011 by-election—and that of his mother, who contested an MLA seat—was a foregone conclusion, his massive victory, by more than half a million votes, provided a much-needed fillip for his nascent party, which has been steadily gathering steam and support ever since. His rivals in the Congress, meanwhile, have lurched from crisis to crisis. “Jagan has taken credit for all YSR’s schemes,” a senior TDP MP told me, “and the Congress is left dealing with all the corruption.” The party leadership is divided by bitter infighting, especially between the chief minister, Kiran Kumar Reddy, and the president of the Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee, Botcha Satyanarayana, whose squabbles regularly spill into the newspapers. At the moment, one observer of Andhra politics told me, “People say there is no government and no opposition.”
Jagan has stepped confidently into that vacuum, and seems to draw closer to victory every day. With the help of his media power, he has been able to carefully craft an image for himself that best suits the moment and mood of the state. Early in his career outside the Congress, he earned the confidence and trust of a considerable proportion of the public, allowing him to implement his preferred script: one that focuses on his determination and not his ambition. The debate on corruption will be impossible to avoid, but Jagan has managed thus far to shift its terms towards a debate about why the Congress has targeted him in the first place. Already he seems to have grasped a golden rule of political narratives: that every story has a protagonist and an antagonist. When he chose Sonia Gandhi, the country’s most powerful politician, as his antagonist—and still prevailed—his own stature increased immeasurably. One of Jagan’s detractors, a former cabinet minister, told me that he was fighting for his life. But that too suits his preferred narrative, of the loyal son struggling under the pressure of imminent arrest: a political matador living dangerously and desperately close to dying in Andhra’s own fiesta brava.
In many ways, the YSR Congress Party is strictly a one-man show, with almost everything determined by Jagan’s unilateral decisions. Even the older party leaders, however, seem convinced of his leadership. “We might not have concurred with him at the time of all his decisions,” the former Congress MP M Rajamohan Reddy told me. “But until now, all of his decisions have turned out right. After touring with him for 20 days on the yatra, I’ve seen his shrewdness, boldness and kindness—his leadership qualities.”
Before his father’s death, Jagan had been an unknown quantity; he’s usually described as stubborn, arrogant and short-tempered. But these days he is most often called “shrewd”, and it is an article of faith among his most devoted supporters that the battle with the Congress and the strain of the yatra have revealed a new determination and maturity. His brother-in-law Anil Kumar, an evangelist who rarely speaks to the media, said the experience had been eye-opening, even for Jagan’s own family. “He was not exposed before to this kind of situation,” Kumar told me. “As the time goes by we are seeing him change. The rejection and persecution made him stronger. If Sonia had allowed him, he would’ve been just another leader in Congress. He never thought there would be such an outpouring of public support for him, but now he is just going with the flow.”
“If I had become the chief minister the day my father passed away, I wouldn’t have been a good chief minister,” Jagan told me. “In spite of all these difficulties, I am glad I stood by my word. Because I have now covered around 14 districts, toured thousands of kilometres, visited villages where no politician would have stepped in. It changes your perspective. Today, if I get onto that chair—if God permits me to get onto that chair—the perspective is different. It is so different that we are going to make history.”
Finally, I asked him what he hoped to achieve as chief minister. “Passion in politics is lacking,” he began, like a veteran politician chiding his younger colleagues. “If only one person becomes a chief minister, out of eight crore people, only one person has been blessed by God. When somebody sits on that chair, he is answerable to God. Today’s chief ministers get there because somebody in Delhi is putting them there. That’s why there is no passion. Politics is about passion.”
“There are two things nobody has ever done: to stay alive after death, and to have your picture in every man’s house. Every poor man should have a picture of you in their house. That is a dream. If that passion is not there, why the hell should you be in the chair?”