How Jaganmohan Reddy broke away from the Congress fold

07 May, 2014

In Seemandhra today, the YSR Congress faces its first full-fledged electoral test after Jaganmohan Reddy took over it in 2011 and re-launched it as a new party under his leadership. The party won 16 of the 19 Vidhan Sabha seats that went to polls in the 2012 by-elections in Andhra Pradesh. This election, the party is fielding candidates in all Lok Sabha and assembly seats in soon-to-be-divided Andhra Pradesh, including the 25 Lok Sabha constituencies and 175 Legislative Assembly seats in Seemandhra.

In this extract from ‘The Takeover’ in The Caravan’s May 2011 issue, Praveen Donthi tracks the sequence of dramatic events after the death of YS Rajasekhara Reddy, which led to his son Jagan’s split from the Congress. The conflict began with Jagan’s request 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.

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 CM, 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 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!”

An extract from ‘The Takeover,’ published in The Caravan’s May 2011 issue.Read the story in full here.