Bangalore: In April 2008, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy donated a 1.5kg gold chain to Lord Venkateshwara, the presiding deity of the famed Tirumala-Tirupati hills. Nothing unusual, one would think. One more politician seeking the blessings of the Almighty.
Except for the little-known fact that Reddy, popularly known as YSR, was a third-generation Christian.
Also See The YSR Reddy Timeline (click here)
It was this deft handling of the caste/religion equations in a state where power has traditionally been shared by the dominant Reddy and Kamma communities that helped YSR become only the second chief minister of Andhra Pradesh to ever complete a full term and be re-elected.
Reddy, who was killed in a helicopter crash on Wednesday at the age of 60, was a powerful and charismatic force in Andhra Pradesh politics. His death cut short the career of a feisty politician who helped the Congress return to power at the Centre in 2004 and led the party to victory in state assembly polls that year as well.
Reddy, whose father Y.S. Raja Reddy was killed in a 1998 bomb attack, was born in July 1949 in Pulivendula, a small town in the state’s Kadapa district. He graduated in medical science from MR College in Gulbarga, Karnataka, and served at a hospital in Jammalamadugu, Kadapa, before plunging into politics.
Known for his abrasive style of politics, Reddy was often accused by opponents of high-handedness. To his admirers, he was “Pulivendula Puli” (Tiger of Pulivendula).
Reddy, who was president of the students’ union in his college days, in 1975 became the head of the Kadapa District Youth Congress Committee. In 1978, he contested the assembly elections from Pulivendula and won.
When he was just 31 years old, he became a minister in the T. Anjaiah government and handled rural development. He later handled other portfolios such as health and education. A weightlifter in his younger days and a fitness fanatic addicted to yoga till the end, he became a heavyweight in Andhra politics.
In 1983, when the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) rode on the box-office charisma of its founder N.T. Rama Rao and routed the Congress party in state assembly elections, YSR was one of the few Congress leaders to retain his seat. Impressed by his organizing abilities, Indira Gandhi made him the Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee president in 1984. But Reddy quit the post after failing to lead the party to victory in the 1985 state elections.
In 1989, he was elected to the Lok Sabha from the Kadapa constituency, which he went on to represent three more times in the lower house of Parliament. In his political career of more than three decades, Reddy never lost an election he fought.
In 1992, when N. Janardhana Reddy, the then Congress chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, stepped down, YSR expected to succeed him. But then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao backed K. Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy, and YSR had to wait a decade to ascend to the position of chief minister after the Congress party lost power to the TDP in the 1994 state elections.
Between 1999 and 2004, he was the leader of the Opposition in the 11th state assembly. Becoming chief minister was a long-cherished dream for YSR, and to realize that he led a 1,400km padayatra, or walking tour, covering all the backward areas in the state.
In the 2004 assembly elections, YSR defeated the TDP led by NTR’s son-in-law N. Chandrababu Naidu and was sworn in as the 14th chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. More importantly, he helped the Congress come back to power at the Centre by contributing the maximum number of seats to his party’s kitty. Every fifth Congress MP in the 14th Lok Sabha came from Andhra Pradesh, where it won 29 of 42 Lok Sabha seats.
In the May assembly elections, facing anti-incumbency and a reinvigorated opposition, the Congress under YSR still managed to storm back to power, albeit with a reduced number of seats; it won 156 seats against the 185 it held earlier in the 294-member assembly. He also bettered the Lok Sabha tally, with 33 seats out of 42, helped by the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
Unlike his predecessor Naidu, whose emphasis was on industries such as information technology and biotechnology, Reddy tried to appeal to the rural masses by promoting irrigation projects, supplying free power for farming and starting health programmes for villagers.
A charismatic orator in Telugu and a tireless organizer, Reddy was accused of corruption by political opponents in irrigation projects executed in the state. In 2007, YSR “voluntarily surrendered” 1,600 acres of land held by his family. Naidu, the leader of the opposition in the assembly, also alleged that Reddy’s son Jagan Mohan Reddy was involved in the scam at Satyam Computer Services Ltd. Reddy was accused of doling out prime land to friendly industrialists in return for investments in Sakshi, a newspaper run by Jagan Mohan Reddy, a charge which both YSR and the accused industrialists denied. He was forced to defend his son-in-law on the floor of the assembly against charges of illegal proselytization.
It was a sensitive issue; Reddy was only the third Christian chief minister of the state, after K. Brahamananda Reddy and Janardhana Reddy.
His death creates a political vacuum in Andhra Pradesh that the Congress party will find hard to fill, although it enjoys a comfortable majority in the state legislature. His successor may find Reddy’s shoes too big to fill.
One challenge for the Congress—and the next chief minister—would be the Hyderabad city municipal elections that will need to be fought without the party’s most visible face in the state, a sure-fire vote-getter.
Congress leaders lamented the loss. “We are in deep mourning,” home minister P. Chidambaram said in New Delhi. “There’s a deep sense of grief, shock and loss.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described Reddy as a natural leader. “The country has lost an ideal chief minister who was a role model for other states,” he said.
Bloomberg contributed to this story.