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Triangular contest for YSR’s political legacy

Chandrababu Naidu, Jagan Mohan Reddy and the Congress are wooing voters with YSR themes

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The Lok Sabha and assembly polls are over in Andhra Pradesh and chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu is traversing the country to campaign for allies. Yet, across the state, it’s still impossible to miss the larger-than-life cut-outs and posters of him staring at you with folded hands and a smile on his face, alongside a smaller picture box of a group of happy farmers or a throng of satisfied women from the numerous Self Help Groups (SHGs) expressing approval of their leader. A decade back, there would have been images of the hi-tech city in Hyderabad, of world-class airports and cut-outs of Naidu rubbing shoulders with Bill Clinton and Gates decorating the lanes and by-lanes. Drivers, passers-by, students and shopkeepers say that the TDP chief has carefully and consciously decided to undergo an image makeover to project himself as a flag-bearer of welfare schemes in the same mould as YS Rajasekhara Reddy, the former chief minister, who had dislodged him in 2004, promising a slew of social schemes and hand-outs directed at the populace.

Strangely, posters from his bête noire Jagan Mohan Reddy and his party YSRCP were harder to find even before the single-phase polling in the state on April 11. People in the know of the turf battle say that being in power not only helps decide policies but also ensures the highest visibility through billboards and cut-outs. However, the shrewd politician in Jagan devised a ploy to counter the TDP’s campaign. During elections as soon as one entered Andhra and tried to play a video on YouTube and similar sites, out popped the YSRCP’s poll campaign advertisement with Jagan being the centrepiece of the show going through the routine of posing with smiling rural women, participating in grain harvest with farmers, comforting and assuring the needy and the distraught – a throwback to the YSR days when the Congress campaign in 2009 focused on his larger-than-life image to romp home. Despite the cut-throat competition, the underlying message and target audience was the same as in YSR’s time with more than 80% of the population covered by one scheme or another.

“The larger-than-life persona of YSR as being synonymous with Sankshema Rajyam – welfare state – will always remain palpable in public memory as he delivered each and every scheme to the last man standing,” Sriram Karri, an author, columnist and political observer of the state said. “Whosoever comes to power has to project himself in accordance with that image.”

In fact, close to a decade after the demise of the Congress leader, the latest election in Andhra is also a sideshow on the one-upmanship over who can be the sole inheritor to YSR’s legacy of welfarism. Cutting across the political divide the ‘aam aadmi’ never shied away from acknowledging YSR’s contribution and how he enriched their lives. The fight to endear oneself to the bottom half is so intense that Rajasekhara Reddy’s son and Naidu’s main challenger, Jagan, has repeatedly accused the TDP of copying and renaming YSR’s schemes. Naidu though tried to go one better – from hiking old-age pension to increasing financial assistance to providing free cellphones to members of numerous SHGs to dangling income assistant schemes for the farmers, the chief minister has left no stone unturned to woo voters. Even TDP’s Jayadev Galla, the richest MP of the outgoing 16th Lok Sabha and scion of the Amara Raja Group, made it clear that farmers have to be assisted by income support to make agriculture attractive.

In his election tours, Naidu didn’t shy away from admitting that reforms should benefit the people and they have to be integrated with social benefits, echoing what YSR had said a decade-and-half back that economic reforms have to be people-friendly. The YSRCP chief on the other hand has promised to raise the upper ceiling for health insurance from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 5 lakh, besides promising an upturn in financial assistance to SHGs, backward castes and other fringe groups. In fact, every single showpiece of his social schemes is named after his father to attract votes.

Naidu might find it tough to buck the anti-incumbency factor as he woke up at the eleventh hour to implement the schemes. While the quantum of loan waiver was brought down, experts say that only 35% of the farmers have benefitted so far. In January this year, the TDP government played its women’s empowerment card to reach out to the SHGs, promising them a grant of Rs 10,000 in three tranches and providing smartphones and enhanced insurance cover. “Post the voting, it seems that chances of Jagan coming to power are bright as the TDP chief only reacted to what the YSRCP had promised already,” political analyst A Saye Sekhar summed up.

The Congress, too, reacted quite late to the situation. The untimely death of its last big regional satrap and the subsequent bifurcation of the state forced the party to ask for votes in YSR’s name. “Till the day of his death, YS Rajasekhara Reddy remained a Congressman with unflinching loyalty towards Sonia Gandhi,” the late CM’s close aide and minister in his cabinet Shabbir Ali said. Other Congress leaders maintain that it’s the grand old party which has always made it a point to celebrate YSR’s birthday. “Jagan is playing politics and attaching the name of his father to a host of schemes for narrow political gains,” said a former MP on the condition of anonymity.

However, V Vijayasai Reddy, the national secretary of YSRCP contested the claim and reminded that in the aftermath of YSR’s death, the treatment meted out to Jagan by lodging “false cases” against him that led to his subsequent incarceration and the refusal by party high command and Congress president Sonia Gandhi to allow the late CM’s widow to meet the family members of those who committed suicide after hearing the news of the death of their leader had robbed the party of public sympathy and support. Naturally, not only YSR loyalists but a large section of the general populace deserted the Congress and switched over to Jagan and the YSRCP. “YSR never made a false promise. He delivered more than what he had assured unlike Chandrababu Naidu who keeps on reiterating these schemes year after year without implementing them. So when Jagan asks for votes in the name of his father, people know that he will keep his word the way YSR did,” Vijayasai Reddy said.

Today when loan waiver, offering income support to farmers and launching the world’s largest free healthcare scheme for around 50 crores people are touted as a political game changer, one might forget that it was YSR who pioneered these programmes. It was the strongman from Rayalaseema who rewrote the social contract by reaching out to those in dire need of state support. The voters haven’t forgotten him and they won’t let state politicians forget him either. Elections may come and go, but in Andhra Pradesh YSR’s legacy will continue in perpetuity.

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