Is a high-handed Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy spoiling the prospects of the ruling Congress party in Andhra Pradesh?
On a day when the nation was remembering the dark days of emergency, Reddy, popularly called YSR, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, unleashed an emergency-like behaviour in the state last Tuesday, with the state police arresting and jailing three journalists, including the editor of Telugu newspaper, Andhra Jyothy, on flimsy grounds. Though the chief minister professed his trademark ignorance of the issue, the frontal attack on the freedom of the press led to spontaneous protests by journalists from all over the state.
This, even as the YSR government had made a sustained and a no-holds-barred attack—using the entire might of the state and Union governments—against media baron Ramoji Rao, whose publishing company brings out the widely circulated vernacular daily, Eenadu.
Failing in his attempts to simply browbeat the media, YSR, through his son, has also launched a 23-edition daily newspaper called Sakshi, which has turned quickly into a veritable party pamphlet. The arrests of the Andhra Jyothy journalists are being seen by many as an attempt to further the business interests of Sakshi, which stands to gain from the loss of esteem and circulation of other newspapers. YSR’s crude attempts to muzzle the press have now provoked most newspapers to go after the government with a vengeance and have actually given the newspapers greater credibility and sympathy.
It appears to me that YSR is following the Narendra Modi example of Gujarat. Modi handily won state elections despite a very negative regional media. But, the crucial difference is that Modi ignored negative media and never attacked it like YSR. In the public mind, Modi was a victim of the media fury while, in the case of YSR, it is the reverse: he is seen to be the aggressor and the media, the victim.
In the past four years, YSR has also unleashed his fury against political rivals and even allies. Those who have been at the receiving end of YSR’s fury include the opposition leader, Telugu Desam Party’s (TDP) Chandrababu Naidu, other TDP leaders in Rayalasema region as well as former Congress allies, such as the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and the Left parties.
Even popular film star Chiranjeevi (he goes by one name), who is yet to launch his political outfit, was targeted recently by YSR’s close aides as they fear that the film star, is likely to make the Congress his primary target. Speculation is rife that Chiranjeevi, whose political launch is expected in August, is likely to be subjected to continued verbal attacks and made-up government inquiries in the weeks to come.
Thanks to YSR’s high-handed ways, the Congress’s allies in the 2004 polls—the Left parties and the TRS—have already deserted it, and it will have to contest the next elections on its own.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, which has so far supported the Congress at the national level, has been on an confrontational path for nearly three years and has joined the TDP; the Communist Party of India is also likely to join one of the rival alliances.
Andhra Pradesh is a critical state and was a key reason why the Congress was able to form a government at the Centre in 2004. Of the 145 seats won by the party nationally, 29 came from the state. This was the highest number contributed by any state to the party’s national tally. Because of this, Sonia Gandhi has, until now, given a carte blanche to YSR in running the government as well as party affairs in the state. Even at the Centre, he has had his way using proxies to block a major investment by Blackstone Group into Rao’s Eenadu group. YSR has run the state like a regional satrap in the last four years and has had a veto on every matter concerning the party and the government in the state.
YSR’s personal popularity, populist agenda and his statewide padayatra, did contribute to the massive mandate in favour of the Congress party and its allies in the 2004 simultaneous assembly and Lok Sabha polls. Though YSR’s reign since then has been tainted by allegations of land grabbing and unbridled corruption, he is also credited with initiating many irrigation projects and populist schemes, such as free power for farmers, subsidized rice at Rs2 per kg, and free health care for the poor. Yet, rather than seek a mandate on his governance and track record, YSR has been increasingly adopting negative methods to try and return to power in the state when elections are early due next year.
By his desire to finish all opposition, political or otherwise, YSR has emerged as a polarizing and hated target for all the parties and, now, most of the state’s media as well. If all the parties get together in a mega, statewide alliance, as proposed by the state leaders of the CPM, it will be curtains for the YSR rule in the state and most likely curtains for the Congress at the Centre.
It is time the national Congress leadership advised YSR to refocus on governance and shun political stunts to scare opponents. If the Congress party fails to heed this advice, its last bastion in the South is set to fall in the next polls.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research and consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org