The younger men get a warm and lasting handshake, the older among them a more reserved namaste. As women flock to see her in large numbers, she leans forward for a whispered comment in the ear, or just nods understandingly. Old YSR loyalists rarely leave her side, but fighting her second election, four years after her husband’s death, Y S Vijayalakshmi is clearly a woman who has come into her own.
Not the first example of the transformative power of both Indian politics and circumstances, the wife of the late Y S Rajasekhara Reddy moves effortlessly from being a warm matriarch and a wronged wife and mother to an angry leader seeking her due from an ungrateful ruling party.
Far from the comfort zone of YSR’s home district Kadapa in Rayalaseema region, it may appear a bold gamble by son Jagan Mohan Reddy to field Vijayalakshmi, popularly known as Vijayamma, from an area where the YSR Congress Party is not very strong and where the TDP is giving a tough fight. However, as he pitches to win most of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in Seemandhra on May 7, there is a reason he has fallen back on the 58-year-old in Visakhapatnam.
The housewife has been long gone, transformed steadily into the sheet anchor of the YSRCP. The party’s victory in the by-elections when Jagan was in jail for 16 months was largely credited to Vijayalakshmi’s ability to hold things together.
“I was a 100 per cent housewife, and still don’t want to be an MLA and MP. I told Jagan that it was enough that I was honourary party president, but he thought my contesting from here would influence the three north coastal districts and assure people that all the promises made by Rajasekhara Reddy (as she unwaveringly calls YSR) will be kept,” Vijayalakshmi, currently an MLA from YSR’s seat Pulivendula, reasons with a smile.
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Nudged, she admits some role in YSR’s schemes, a bedrock of his politics, which touched the lives of almost every resident of the state and continue to dominate Andhra politics.
Recalling a fortnight-long trip to the US in 2003, Vijayalakshmi says, “Everybody was talking of free education, health and pensions and people told me that women could afford even going to the beauty parlour with those pensions. We were coming back via Dubai, and Dubai glowed even more than the US. I remembered that the Bible talks of how Ishmael was born to Abraham and because of that Lord blesses him and says you will have 12 wealthy countries — which is the 12 Islamic countries — and then God blessed the US also. Similiarly, I prayed to God to bless Rajasekhara Reddy… All the schemes that were introduced were not here in India… I told Rajasekhara that, when we went to the US you saw how people were benefiting. ‘Can we give the scheme to people here?’ That is how Aarogyasri came about. Education loans, pensions, we wanted a situation where no one would lift their hand when asked who doesn’t have a ration card or a house. He didn’t want a hand to be raised, he was that sort of a person.”
Now “five signatures” are a part of Jagan’s poll promises — five files he says he would sign the minute he comes to power. These include the Amma Vodi scheme, enabling mothers to educate their children, a market stabilisation fund providing protection to vulnerable farmers and the poor against price rise, and increased pensions.
Ask her whether they were too hasty in exiting the Congress, perhaps prompting the division of the state, and Vijayalakshmi’s bitterness shows. “For 18 months post YSR’s death, Jagan was with the Congress. They did not speak of YSR. After 389 people died grieving for YSR and the Congress still showed no interest… Jagan had to take the decision… All his life, he (YSR) named all programmes after Congress leaders, not himself. People collected money and got a statue made of him. Because of public pressure, we started the Odarpu Yatra (Condolence Yatra). But the Congress refused to give permission. With tears in my eyes, I went to meet Sonia Gandhi, but she didn’t agree. They offered a Cabinet post in the Centre, but Jagan said ‘No, my interest is here, to fulfil what my father started’. They said that only in one place you can have a statue, ‘call all people to that place’. They had died, their families had to be consoled. One can’t call them to some place so they can be consoled. So Jagan said he would have to do the yatra.”
In the context of the division of the state, Vijayalakshmi talks at length about a purported conversation between YSR and Sonia on Telangana. According to her, the Congress chief discussed forming Telangana before 2009 as the party’s assessment was that it would get very few seats in the Lok Sabha polls that year, “about 14”. “Rajasekhara Reddy said he will quit if forced, and assured her 33-36 seats from Andhra. Sonia Gandhi was delighted when the promise was fulfilled.”
Accusing the Congress of levelling the same charges against her “Jagan babu” as the TDP now, Vijayalakshmi speaks of CBI raids on the house for 12 days as her son was away on the yatra, and the “witch-hunt” against officers and ministers, to “confine the family to Kadapa”.
In public meetings, addressed from atop noisy and cheerful vans, Vijayalakshmi attacks the TDP as a failed idea and continuously talks of YSR’s schemes. “Jagan is the best vehicle for his unfinished business to continue,” she says.
The crowd at one of her roadshows says she appears “less rehearsed”, more “authentic”, and is impressed at her efforts to “talk to us”. Andhra has always seen active participation of women voters, and they have traditionally revered ‘Indiramma’, followed by Sonia. However, in an indication of the changed times, Sonia has been almost absent from the campaign here.
Will the post of chief minister be acceptable to her in case Jagan gets embroiled in his numerous legal wrangles? Dismissing the charges against him, Vijayalakshmi says she sees no possibility of Jagan not making it to the CM’s post.
At the same time, the quick political learner knows the value of keeping all doors open. “We will discuss after the results,” Vijayalakshmi says to questions on an alliance with either the Congress or BJP. “We will need to be on good terms with the Centre and the new PM, whoever that might be. It’s Andhra Pradesh’s welfare that will dictate what we do.”