Won and dusted, but Jagan has miles to go

Reddy has a great opportunity to come good on his most crucial promise—emerging as a better leader than his father YSR Reddy. Long-term thinking and flexibility will be his path to success

Firstpost print Edition

I am not aware if Andhra Pradesh chief minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy is well versed with the musings of the Bard of Avon, or if he plays chess for distraction. If he has read Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Reddy would perhaps reflect on the lines, “O partial sleep, give thy repose… Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down! Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” And if he plays chess, he would know once you accept the King’s Gambit, almost all variations ahead—King’s Knight or Bishop’s Counter-Gambit, the Kieseritzky Variation, Schallop Defence or Falkbeer Counter-Gambit—bring tremendously complex middle games, packed with high risks for the end.

When Sonia Gandhi turned down a seemingly crude claim, even a bratty claim, of a 36-year-old Reddy as an inheritor for his father’s post after Dr YS Rajasekhara Reddy died in a helicopter accident in September 2009, he had accepted the power gambit. He was locked up in prison on allegations of massive corruption and making astronomical gains in quid pro quo deals. Reddy came out on bail and narrowly lost power to the Telugu Desam Party in 2014. He then undertook a gruelling 3,648-km padayatra and returned to power winning over 150 out of the state’s 175 Assembly seats last month, demolishing his rival N Chandrababu Naidu , so decisively that the veteran’s political career looks finished.

Yet, the crown pinches. And the head within lies uneasy.

Even as Reddy languished in prison, he helplessly witnessed the progress on the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh. He was one of two major stakeholders in the region’s politics who opposed the formation of Telangana—the other being the AIMIM led by Asaduddin Owaisi. And now, when power came, it was minus Hyderabad. It must feel like successfully raiding Mughal emperor Jahangir’s unparalleled jewel chest but finding the Kohinoor missing.

Reddy confessed the emotion when he visited his father’s house, now the camp office of the chief minister of Telangana, K Chandrasekhara Rao, after his election win, to be received as a guest: “I have mixed feelings.”

Beyond feelings, there are concrete troubles. The bifurcated Andhra Pradesh, sans Hyderabad, was short of sustainable revenues from day one. The denial of the special category status as promised verbally by the-then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh on the floor of the Rajya Sabha meant there was no easy way to make up for the deficit. Naidu, adopting the approach of Jacques Necker—the financial adviser to French emperor Louis XVI—of borrowing at high interest and spending his way to prosperity by convincing lenders all was hunky-dory, further pushed the state’s dwindling financial bases below the danger-line doldrums.

With no special category about to materialise, or even a special touch from the NDA government led by Narendra Modi, another emotion Reddy was unable to contain, when after meeting the PM he told journalists, “I prayed to God that the NDA must get less than 250 seats but it was not heeded.” Reddy must know all options for an easy panacea are ruled out, making the crowned head hurt further.

For someone getting ready to lead a fiscally precariously placed state, Reddy has not once spoken a word about ways to bringing in new investment, increasing revenues, reducing spending or any aspect of fiscal discipline or deficit management. His promises—a slew of populist moves, some drawn from his father’s regime covering senior citizen pensions, unemployment doles, spends on farmers, free healthcare and enhancing spends on education, besides his obsessive keenness to implement “complete prohibition in phases”—are a sure-shot roller-coaster ride towards bankruptcy.

In his post-oath-taking speech, he increased pensions, talked of additional spending on welfare and his plan to change the order by eliminating corruption. In his first week, he undertook the mandatory transformation by nomenclature exercise: renaming all existing welfare schemes, from NT Rama Rao to Chandrababu Naidu to YSR.

Reddy plans to shelve two of the biggest projects undertaken by his predecessor—building a new capital city, Amaravati, and Polavaram. Pitching reverse auctioning in government contracts and procurement like a newly invented idea, and a shift from the rampant corruption in the previous regime, Reddy has initiated investigations into the contracts awarded by the previous government—bringing to a standstill all work on projects worth over `54,000 crore. Maybe he was not informed that during the scam-riddled UPA government’s tenure, reverse auctioning was a mandated CVC guideline, and it could not provide minimum optics of transparency.

Reddy’s argument that making all contracts come under the proactive watch of a sitting high court judge and making fiscal savings thus, would help fund the welfare schemes.

Reddy’s political mindset is not too different from the politicians of yore—Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav. He is open about his wish to cultivate the unshaking loyalty of two groups—the Reddy caste and the Christians. In all major appointments since he took charge, Reddy seems to have placed loyalty and identity as the most determining factors for postings.

YV Subba Reddy, Member of Parliament and a close relative, is being finalised as chairman of the holy Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) board, despite being a Christian. On cue, Solomon Raj would be secretary to CM, Dhanunjaya Reddy additional secretary to CM, Krishna Mohan Reddy an OSD. In top police postings, Gautam Sawang is the new director general of police while Stephen Ravindra is being considered for chief of intelligence on deputation. Significantly, all of them are either Reddys, or Christians.

This comes at a time when the opposition Telugu Desam is crumbling. It’s an opening the Bharatiya Janata Party, and a certain Amit Shah, despite the hurly-burly schedules of the home ministry, with his problems of Kashmir, Naxals, West Bengal will not miss.

For a long time, the RSS and BJP have been concerned about the gargantuan evangelist network operating in south India, especially Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The moment the BJP takes to Andhra seriously, Reddy would find his arm twisted and his political capital turn southwards sooner than he would believe possible.

Reddy has a great opportunity to make good his most crucial promise—to emerge as a better leader than his father, no easy task, but whose foundation must be long-term thinking and flexibility. The first year is the best for the toughest decisions, not the most populist. Removing prohibition, prioritising welfare, adopting fiscal responsibility, joining the NDA before the expiry date on the invite, and focusing on building the economy through investments and jobs, would keep him in good stead, especially if he can also eschew the perception of nepotism, communal thinking in governance and be vigilant to the biggest threat—party pressures to resort to corruption.

If he errs in this tightrope walk, the lover of English sayings would holler—the king is dead. And the chess lover would declare—checkmate!

Sriram Karri is a leading columnist, speaker, literary interlocutor and political analyst

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