(Originally published in Economic & Political Weekly)
Feudal Roots of Democratic Politics in Andhra Pradesh
By Chinnaiah Jangam
Since May 2012 Y S Jaganmohan Reddy of the YSR Congress has been incarcerated in jail in Hyderabad as an accused in multiple financial scams and for amassing disproportionate wealth using his father Y S Rajasekhara Reddy’s political power.
This article throws light on the historical and social roots of the rise of such personalities and illuminates the complex dynamics of democratic politics in Andhra Pradesh.
Chinnaiah Jangam (Chinnaiah_Jangam@ carleton.ca) is at the Department of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.
India has a long tradition of stories of kings and princes coming to power and establishing royal lineages. With the passage of time, intricate stories have been woven about their fall and dethronement through usurpation and depositions. These legends also emphasise the glory of their lives and point out their decline or fading into insignificance due to the circumstances of their creation and situations over which they have no control. From ancient to modern times these stories have enthralled listeners and formed part of everyday folklore as moral lessons on appropriate conduct.
The story I narrate below too is part of the legacy of a precolonial tradition, which, ironically, thrived under the colonial gaze and continued in postcolonial India to crystallise into a crucial grid for the mobilisational politics of electoral democracy. This is the story of the feudal factionists’ tradition, whose origins go back to the Vijayanagara empire in south India.
As landholding administrative functionaries with military and revenue powers, the Poligars – ancestors of the current day faction leaders in the Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh – ruled and controlled not only the material resources but also the lives of millions in their sphere.
In the course of history, the Vijayanagara empire collapsed and its glory ceased but the landlords (Poligars) who were its backbone survived and remained a formidable caste group. They took complete control over the villages under their influence by organising armed gangs. They maintained their independence amidst changes in state structures and dynasties.
In the early days of colonialism, when the British first ventured into the interiors to have direct control over land taxes, it was the Poligars who fi rst revolted against the British rule, which they saw as threatening their independence. Even though the British East India Company, under the leadership of Thomas Munro, attempted to violently suppress the Poligar revolt, eventually the British subdued this formidable feudal class only by turning them into allies. This not only facilitated smooth revenue collection but also ensured law and order. Thus, in British India they were recognised as the landed elites of the villages with substantial control over land and, significantly, impunity in the use of force to ensure their domination.
The Poligars as feudal lords divided and distributed among themselves the fertile lands and the lower caste labourers and peasants in the region identified as their dependants or “followers”. Personal rivalries and differences between landlords often led to factional violence in which their followers lost their lives and limbs to protect the honour of their lords. Nothing moved or entered into the villages without their permission, and their protection was essential for any community-based activity, including the proselytisation by the Christian missionaries. As the Christian missionaries provided advantageous access to colonial administrators and institutions, the Poligars (though they belonged to a dominant Hindu caste, e g, the Reddys in Rayalaseema) did not hesitate to convert to Christianity.
Interestingly, in Rayalaseema, Reddy factionists visited churches and started reading the Bible to elevate themselves in the eyes of colonial missionaries and administrators, while simultaneously protecting their exclusive feudal caste status by maintaining strict caste boundaries between lower-caste converts and themselves. Thus, ironically, they maintained and continued to reap the benefits of both an upper-caste Hindu Reddy identity as well as a Christian identity. In fact, they ensured caste boundaries so well that when it came to marriages, they preferred a non-Christian Reddy alliance rather than a Chrisitian lower caste one.
Significantly, the colonial experience and Christian conversions among Reddy factionists of Rayalaseema did not disturb their precolonial feudal roots and helped them perpetuate those inherited privileges unhindered.
From Feudalism to Politics
As the anti-colonial nationalism picked up momentum in the early 20th century, the feudal factionist elites who were the successors of the Poligars in Rayalaseema jumped onto the bandwagon of nationalist organisations like the Congress to organise and mobilise rural folk under their leadership. Though they were playing politics in the field of colonial modernity, they kept intact their caste and lineage politics. Therefore, feudal factions continued their rivalries and violent outbursts even under the influence of non-violent Gandhian politics.
Following Independence, the same old caste rivalries and personal feuds formed the basis of electoral mobilisation. The best illustration of the control of factionists over electoral politics was the election of Neelam Sanjiva Reddy as the Janata Party candidate from Nandyal constituency (hotbed of faction politics) in 1977. He was the only non-Congress member of the Lok Sabha from Andhra Pradesh as he stood against Indira Gandhi’s electoral sweep. Sanjiva Reddy’s success is attributed to the unified decision of factionists to counter Indira Gandhi’s attempts at dismantling the local power structures under the garibi hatao banner. They succeeded in sending their message through Sanjiva Reddy, and his elevation to the post of president of India became an emblem of their political assertion.
The Rise of YSR
It was in this socio-historical context that Y S Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR), who was the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh from 2004 to 2009, began his political career. Competing with the veteran Congress leader and an established factionist like Kotla Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy, he gradually turned Cuddappah (Kadapa) district into his fiefdom. YSR also pursued his political ambitions outside Cuddappah as his father, Raja Reddy, organised his fellow caste men and factional gangs to ensure electoral victories for his son.
Beginning his political innings in 1980, YSR never lost an election, representing Pulivendula constituency in the state assembly, later shifting to the Cuddappah parliamentary seat. Facing stiff competition from fellow Reddy factionists in Cuddappah district, he built his political turf through traditional means of violence and intimidation. His unbroken electoral success, meanwhile, made him an important leader in the eye of the Congress high command in Delhi. Interestingly, while his feudal-caste factional heritage helped him gain social leadership, his practising Christian status brought him followers from the lower-caste Christian converts across Andhra Pradesh.
The Congress Party was in the doldrums after the Telugu Desam Party came back to power in 1994, riding on the wave of the anti-liquor movement. Congress fortunes under the leadership of P V Narasimha Rao continued to dwindle all over India, including in Andhra Pradesh. Sonia Gandhi’s takeover of the reins of the Congress Party, however, opened new prospects for the loyal, young and dynamic leaders within the party. YSR allegedly used his Christian connections and undefeated electoral success to gain the confidence of Sonia Gandhi to lead the party in Andhra Pradesh. Even though he failed to lead the party to electoral success in the 1999 elections, his unquestionable loyalty to Sonia Gandhi ensured the continuance of his leadership in the state. As the saying goes, “each failure is a stepping stone to success”, YSR turned the electoral failure of the Congress Party in 1999 to reorder the Congress ranks and gain control over the party structure using personal loyalty and the cross-regional caste network of his caste men.
He galvanised the party cadres and secured a complete grip over the Congress Party through his padayatra in 2003, covering 1,400 kilometres from Chevella village in Telangana to Itchapuram in Srikakulam district. The success of this padayatra not only galvanised the party cadres in the state, but also mobilised the masses against the misplaced priorities of the then Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, who had focused on information technology at the cost of millions of farmers devastated by continuous drought and the calculated negligence of the state. It also made YSR the unchallenged leader of the Congress Party and sidelined all his detractors within the party.
Riding on the anti-incumbency wave and the recently-concluded padayatra, the Congress Party came to power in Andhra Pradesh with a massive majority, winning 28 out of 30 Lok Sabha seats in the 2004 elections. The landslide win for the party (the number of Lok Sabha members from Andhra Pradesh proved crucial for the Congress Party’s stake in forming the central government) aided YSR in emerging as an indispensable leader for the Congress Party, even at the national level.
Having waited in line for leadership for years within the Congress Party, and through his feudal factional organising skills, YSR mastered the best technique in party politics to climb up the hierarchy ladder, viz, loyalty. He pledged unwavering loyalty to Sonia Gandhi; it is not a coincidence that every state government programme during his tenure was named after Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi! In return, Sonia Gandhi reposed complete faith in him and gave him absolute freedom in running the government and party in Andhra Pradesh.
While ruling the state and party with an iron grip, he reduced many other influential Congress politicians at the state and district levels into non-entities by promoting his loyal followers both in the party and the government.
True to his feudal factional caste background, loyalty was the best qualification in his eyes and he appointed die-hard loyalists to the highest positions in the state, even changing laws to suit their needs. His closest aides were given official positions in the state government to enable them to keep watch on government and party affairs. However, he also remained very conscious of his Reddy caste background. The combination of personal loyalty and caste fraternity was the best equation to win his favour.
An interesting example would be the case of the now notorious Reddy brothers (Gali Janardhan Reddy and his brothers) from neighbouring Karnataka. Though they were politically aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the arch rival of the Congress Party (they even campaigned against Sonia Gandhi in Bellary constituency when she contested from there in 1999), the Gali brothers, owners of the Obulapuram Mining Company, were promoted by YSR sanctioning contracts in Andhra Pradesh to mine iron ore.
Children of a police constable, the Gali brothers emerged as the wealthiest men in the region and the most influential politicians in Karnataka, who also enjoyed considerable clout in the Rayalaseema region as followers of YSR. They paraded their wealth in public through display of their helicopters and the gold furniture in their houses. However, with the untimely death of YSR, they not only lost their “godfather”, but their fates were sealed as they now lurk behind bars accused in multiple criminal cases and embezzlement of wealth. Therefore, for YSR, along with personal loyalty, caste camaraderie was very important, which he successfully exploited to promote himself as well.
YSR was so successful in his caste networking that he was able to engineer splits in other parties and encouraged them to migrate to the Congress by offering material benefits and positions of power. Even in the Telangana region, where the sentiments in favour of a separate state forced all political parties to espouse the demand as a common agenda, YSR was able to maintain his hold over the party organisation through personal loyalty and caste networking. He was worshipped and projected as the symbol of Reddy caste power across the three regions of Andhra Pradesh (Telangana, coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema) as a uniting force to perpetuate the domination of the Reddy caste.
By consolidating his hold over the party at the state level and winning the confidence of Sonia Gandhi at the centre, YSR became the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh by a massive majority. As Andhra Pradesh had already undergone structural changes under the leadership of Chandrababu Naidu as a laboratory for World Bank policies, it became imperative for him to undertake some populist projects to help poor farmers and people below the poverty line. His first signature directive was the order of free electricity for farmers and he also introduced a policy of medical treatment for people below the poverty line in corporate hospitals. The latter project, though theoretically laudable, siphoned money from the already dilapidated government hospital infrastructure and doled it out to corporate hospitals in the name of the poor, and reached a scandalous proportion like any other financial scam involving hospitals, politicians and bureaucrats.
However, he won over farmers and the poor through the above-mentioned policies and he kept the central leadership of the Congress happy through diverse means, ensuring they would not interfere in his turf, now expanded to Andhra Pradesh as a whole, not just Cuddapah.
While he sailed against the current of the Telugu Desam Party’s government for nearly nine years, he had learnt important lessons to succeed in his political career. The Telugu Desam under the leadership of Chandrababu Naidu aided the expansion of the Kamma caste’s capital power in Andhra Pradesh. For instance, Eenadu group’s chairman, Ramoji Rao, expanded his business empire into multiple fields, and the Film City he has constructed on the outskirts of Hyderabad by forceful evacuation of villagers in Ranga Reddy district, was done with the help of the state police. The necessary infrastructure, especially roads connecting the city and the airport, were built by the state government. Moreover, the distribution of money and alcohol to win elections in Andhra Pradesh reached unimaginable heights under the leadership of Chandra babu Naidu.
In return, Chandrababu Naidu controlled and preened his image in the media with the help of propaganda through the Eenadu television channel and newspapers. People who had the money to distribute and mobilise muscle power to win elections were offered seats for the Lok Sabha and the state assembly without any consideration of party membership, let alone ideology.
These were important lessons for YSR. However, he did not rely on his caste men or loyalists for this endeavour, rather he made his son Y S Jaganmohan Reddy realise his dreams in amassing wealth and enjoying political power. As a true feudal patriarch, YSR believed in the law of primogeniture and wanted only his son to succeed and carry on his mantle. He made his brother Vivekananda Reddy (who was a Lok Sabha member from Cuddappah) resign in order to make his son a Member of Parliament (MP) in 2005, but had to backtrack after Somnath Chatterjee brought this to the notice of Sonia Gandhi.
During the first term of his father (2004-09), Y S Jaganmohan Reddy, who was in his 30s, accumulated wealth and built a feudal empire using his father’s political clout. His business expanded phenomenally, from hydroelectricity power projects to a newspaper, television channel, cement factories and mining corporations. As the mainstream Telugu media reported, he built palaces in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Cuddappah, which added to their landed properties to the tune of thousands of acres, like the one in Idupulapai in Cuddappah. Audaciously, YSR used to ridicule his political opponent, Chandrababu Naidu, saying: “I did not start my political career with two acres of land and had thousands of acres even before my political innings”.
The nature of political mobilisation has transformed drastically in the last few decades. In the pre-independence period, despite relying on the dominant caste Hindus, the Congress Party recruited committed social activists and organisers to mobilise the illiterate masses. Though a majority of these activists were drawn from the traditionally dominant caste Hindus, some of them really believed in the mission of social transformation and the nation’s emancipation. Post-Independence India’s electoral politics changed the strategies and the Congress managed on the euphoria of the anti-colonial nationalist legacy till the 1960s. But in the post- Nehru era, the Congress experienced many convulsions.
During Indira Gandhi’s tenure, known for its ruthless realpolitik, she sidelined regional heavyweights and handpicked docile non-entities to lead the party. Therefore, in states like Andhra Pradesh, she changed chief ministers frequently replacing one insignificant person with another. She also encouraged factional politics in the party within the state to have them checkmate each other. Most importantly, she never allowed economically well-established individuals to take the leadership of the party, though most of the leaders came from socially dominant castes, especially the Reddys, and were not industrialists or multi-millionaires.
Economically-established people were used as financiers for the party and were kept at bay to encourage the pro-poor image of the party. But the Telugu Desam Party, under the leadership of Chandrababu Naidu, started giving tickets to non-party members who were rich and could buy the votes before the elections. The Congress realised it would be impossible to compete with the Telugu Desam without similar resources. This was one of the reasons why the Congress failed to win the elections in 1999, despite the anti-incumbency factor against Chandrababu Naidu’s rule.
In the 2004 elections, however, the Congress also gave tickets to candidates who had the ability to distribute money and organise muscle power. Now, the majority of Congress Members of Parliament from Andhra Pradesh, except for reserved constituencies, are rich businessmen involved in multimillion construction and real estate businesses that have interests from Afghanistan to the north-east of India. Most importantly, they have also occupied the outskirts of Hyderabad to promote real estate empires.
Incidentally, a majority of these MPs belong to the coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions. And, these are the very same politicians who vociferously oppose the formation of Telangana primarily because of their vested business interests. Even the Congress high command was unable to act against these rich politicians and was forced to retract its own decision about the formation of Telangana in December 2009. Andhra Pradesh is now hostage to these politicians who are businessmen and use their office to promote their own businesses, rather than public welfare.
Ironically, YSR came to power in 2004 attacking Chandrababu Naidu’s pro-rich and corporate image, but after he assumed power he handed out acres of lands for free to businesses that invested in his son’s companies. This way, in terms of policies and access to the power corridors, rich business did not see much of a difference between Chandrababu Naidu and YSR. The agriculture sector continued to stagnate and nothing creative came from the government to help them overcome difficulties and the challenges of globalisation and the attack of global seed companies like Monsanto and others.
The Crown Prince
Meanwhile, Y S Jaganmohan Reddy, as the son of the chief minister, emerged like a crown prince and concentrated on building an economic empire while his father concentrated on the political domination of Andhra Pradesh. Both son and father systematically and symbiotically expanded their respective fields. As the Mahabharata says: Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana (one only has rights over one’s actions, but not over the fruits of the actions).
Similarly, YSR built his fiefdom and groomed his son to be the natural heir to inherit his glory and success. Even Y S Jaganmohan Reddy was preparing himself to step into the big shoes of his father. But neither he nor his father expected fate to turn against them in the form of the unexpected helicopter crash that cut short his advancement as the rising king of Andhra Pradesh in September 2009.
Jaganmohan Reddy as the natural heir apparent thought that he would ascend to the throne of his father, but the throne proved unexpectedly elusive. As his father’s detractors enlightened the Congress high command about its loss of hold on the party and government affairs in Andhra Pradesh, things started going against him. Jaganmohan Reddy mobilised his father’s loyal soldiers and made numerous rounds around 10 Janpath (the residence of Sonia Gandhi and the seat of the Congress high command) lobbying for chief ministership. But Sonia Gandhi, realising the dangers of the continuation of YSR’s family empire in Andhra Pradesh, refused to hand over the power to him.
Frustrated by the non-committal attitude and reluctance of Sonia Gandhi to make him chief minister, he left the party in 2011 with his father’s foot soldiers, who are also Members of the Legislative Assembly. YSR had built a solid network of loyalists across the regions on the basis of caste networking and personal loyalty, and the attachment of dalit Christians across Andhra Pradesh ensured an independent political base for Y S Jaganmohan Reddy’s political future.
Therefore, he sounded the bugle of revolt against the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh in the form of the Odarpu Yatra, a march to console the families whose kith and kin allegedly took their lives unable to bear the news of YSR’s death. Jaganmohan Reddy’s own newspaper Sakshi carried banner items about these suicides and reported his cross-regional tours visiting the families of the deceased.
Meanwhile, the Congress high command was unable to find a suitable replacement to match the stature of YSR. At first, it made Konigeti Rosaiah the chief minister, but he neither had the social backing (he hails from the politically marginal caste of Komati or Vaisya) nor the personal charisma to lead. Then, the Congress replaced Rosaiah with Kiran Kumar Reddy, who hails from Rayalaseema and also comes from the Reddy caste background, to contain Jaganmohan Reddy’s influence. But Kiran Kumar Reddy, though young in age, grew under the shadow of YSR, and in his own admission was surprised with the chief ministership since he had never been a minister before.
Meanwhile, Janganmohan Reddy started emerging as a formidable political force, and the Congress’ traditional vote bank, especially the Reddys and dalit Christians, started shifting in Jaganmohan Reddy’s favour. With the death of YSR, his detractors launched vengeful attacks on Jaganmohan Reddy. Shankar Rao, a sitting Congress member of the Andhra Pradesh assembly, filed a case against Jaganmohan Reddy in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh to enquire into his illegal assets. The court admitted the case and ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry. The findings of this investigation led to the arrest of Jaganmohan Reddy, who remains incarcerated in the Chanchalguda Jail in Hyderabad since May 2012.
Even though the story behind the disproportionate amassment of wealth is known to everyone in Andhra Pradesh, his loyal followers blame the Congress for victimisation, but the inherent irony of the situation is not lost on a political analyst. While Jaganmohan Reddy wanted to ascend to his father’s throne as the “rightful” heir, the equations of democratic electoral politics sent him to jail instead. It does not mean that his political future is sealed. In fact, the jail term is proving to be a boon in disguise as it accentuates the victimhood narrative and even Andhra Pradesh reporters write sympathetic columns urging people to consider the rampant corruption in Indian politics, justifying Jaganmohan’s corruption as a routine matter.
Moreover, Jaganmohan Reddy has turned Chanchalguda Jail into his political camp office, as leaders from different political parties and his own followers continue to visit him for advice and direction. Jaganmohan Reddy’s sister Sharmila and mother Vijayalaksmi continue the political mission to keep the memory of YSR alive and to portray the jail term as political vendetta. Jaganmohan Reddy, meanwhile, waits to return and reclaim the throne of his father in the next elections in 2014.