Jagan anna… I love you, anna,” yells a young woman, clasping her child with one hand and using the other to steer her way through the crowd and hold “anna (meaning elder brother in Telugu)” Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy in a tight embrace. As his security personnel pull her away, she screams again, “Jagan anna…!”
Jagan, leader of the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP), walks ahead briskly, making brief stops to meet people who have lined up on either side of the Chilakaluripeta-Narasaraopet State Highway 45 at Narsaraopet in Andhra’s Guntur district. He kisses an elderly woman on her forehead, calling her “aava (mother)” and thanking her for turning up. “It is your turn now. Nuvve ravali (You must come to power),” the woman says as she blesses him.
Jagan is used to such adulation on his yatras — he has been on at least five since the death of his father, the late Congress leader Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, in September 2009 — but hasn’t managed to make much political capital of those.
This time, however, his Praja Sankalpa Yatra, a 2,000-km journey on foot across all 13 districts and 130 Assembly constituencies of Andhra Pradesh, has sent political temperatures soaring, from Hyderabad all the way to Delhi, forcing his rival and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader Chandrababu Naidu’s hand and rocking what seemed until now a steady alliance between the TDP and the BJP.
But not too long ago, Jagan seemed a spent force. After his loss in the 2014 Assembly and Lok Sabha elections by a narrow margin of less than 2 per cent votes, he had steadily lost ground to the ruling TDP. A string of high-profile exits from the party had left the party reeling. From 66 MLAs and eight MPs in 2014, the YSRCP is now down to 46 MLAs and six members in Parliament.
In August 2017, his party was defeated in the keenly contested Nandyal Assembly constituency, which the ruling TDP wrested from his party. Besides, the trial in the disproportionate assets case, filed against him in August 2011, is on in a CBI court in Hyderabad and he has to appear there every Friday.
Then, on November 6 last year, Jagan started the state-wide yatra, hoping it would do for him what the padyatra of April 2003 did for his father, who had been catapulted to power in the then unified state of Andhra Pradesh in 2004.
But while Jagan’s latest padayatra drew crowds, it rarely made news. He urgently needed an issue and, in December last year, somewhere near Uravakonda in Anantapur district, he came up with one: Special Category Status. While the demand crops up periodically, he knew that few understood the specifics of such a status. Besides, special status was an emotive issue for a state that had been the reluctant byproduct of the demand for a separate Telangana state.
And so, Jagan changed gears: he announced that “all problems” facing the state — from low prices for agriculture produce to the state’s revenue deficit — were because the TDP had failed to get the state special status.
Today, on the 117th day of the Praja Sankalpa Yatra, Jagan is walking from Chilakaluripet to Narsaraopet south of Guntur, a distance of 21 km. With him are his personal staff and a few district-level leaders of the party.
A part of his entourage travels ahead of him, setting up cloth tents, where he takes short breaks for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and halts for the night. A posse of private security men and personal security officers provided by the government guards these tents and clears the way for Jagan as he walks through the crowd. He usually addresses gatherings at night, emerging from the sunroof of an improvised van.
So far, he has covered 1,500 km across five districts — Kadapa, Kurnool, Anantapur, Chittoor, Prakasham — and over half of Guntur, averaging 12 to 16 km in a day.
In Guntur, Andhra’s chilli hub where farmers last year brunt their crops and blocked the highway as a glut led to a crash in prices, not many relate to special category. In some of his short speeches, he mentions special status, but it evokes no response from the crowd. Jagan realises that and subtly changes tack, attacking the government for not extending the minimum support price.
“If the government and Chief Minister Chandrababu had cared for farmers, he wouldn’t have let you suffer like this. Farmers are unable to sell their produce as they are not even getting their investment on the crop,’’ says Jagan, drawing a loud cheer from the crowd.
Experts say Jagan’s ability to mix local issues with the special status demand explains his new-found success on the road.
“Although he has not always been saying it explicitly, he has, through his speeches, implied that special status is the solution to all problems such as agrarian distress, low crop prices, unemployment etc. That is what has got him going so strongly during this padayatra,’’ says political observer Vijay Babu.
That the special status demand was a change of strategy is evident from the press release issued by YSRCP on October 26, 2017, 11 days before the start of the yatra. “The main aim is to visit every household in the constituency, listen to their needs, tell them about the failure of the Chandrababu Naidu government and highlight policies and promises of our party…” it reads, making no mention of the demand for special status.
Sources in the party credit the idea — of renewing the demand for special status —entirely to Jagan, calling him the “chief strategist and planner”. Last February, the YSRCP had hired political strategist Prashant Kishor as advisor to Jagan. “But after the party’s defeat in Nandyal and municipal elections, Kishor has taken a backseat,’’ says a YSRCP leader.
TDP leader and Special Representative in New Delhi K Rammohana Rao dismisses talk of any strategy, saying Jagan hasn’t raised any new demand. “We have also been pursuing special status from our side. We pulled out of the NDA to protest against the Centre for not granting it. People can tell the difference between those who simply talk and those who have been working seriously for special status. This won’t go on for long,’’ says Rao.
But on the ground, as Jagan’s yatra wound along, the demand for special category status caught on. Lawyers in Anantapur staged a protest demanding special status and local TV news channels held debates and discussions in schools and colleges.
Explaining the sentiments that Jagan tapped into, a former Andhra chief secretary says, “The people of Andhra were against the bifurcation of the state. It left it in financial doldrums. Jagan has been saying special status is the only solution to all of the state’s problems: from bringing industry to job creation. People have been watching how dismissive the BJP has been about Andhra’s demands for special status, how bluntly they rejected it without citing any valid reasons. So when Jagan raised the issue and forced the TDP to not only withdraw its Central ministers but also break its alliance with the BJP, he struck a chord with the crowds. They think, at least someone is doing something about the special status demand.’’
Experts say that behind Jagan’s move was also some simple electoral math.
In the 2014 elections — the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections were held simultaneously that year — the TDP, in alliance with the BJP, had managed to win with a wafer-thin margin of less than 2 per cent. Jagan reckons that without BJP support, the TDP may not stand much of a chance.
“Jagan knows that even a 1 per cent vote swing can sink the TDP. Without an ally like the BJP in 2014 to shore up its chances, the TDP will be at a disadvantage. Ever since it was founded in 1982, the TDP has never contested alone — it has always been in an alliance, either with the Left or other parties. The 2019 elections may be the first time the TDP will contest alone,’’ notes political commentator Telakapalli Ravi.
Once he had latched onto the special status demand, Jagan took other steps to force Naidu to play catch-up. On February 26, he ambushed the TDP by announcing that eight of his MPs would resign if special status was not granted by April 6.
On March 17 and 22, with annual examinations on, student unions across the state called for a two-hour bandh in support of special status.
Caught between the popular demand on the ground for special status and his alliance with the BJP, Naidu found himself on the back foot.
“The CM was livid. The TDP could not be seen as doing nothing when Jagan was ready to sacrifice his MPs. It’s another matter that YSRCP MPs were not consulted before the announcement was made,’’ says a TDP leader who didn’t want to be named.
Naidu tried to regain the upper hand by announcing that the TDP’s two Union ministers, P Gajapathi Raju and Y S Chowdary, would resign if the Centre did not announce special status by March 6. As Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley categorically declined to give special status to Andhra, Naidu asked Raju and Chowdary to resign.
Just then, Jagan announced another move: that his party would move a no-confidence motion against the NDA government. The CM was caught unawares again. The TDP initially tried to take the moral high ground by announcing that it would support the YSRCP’s no-confidence motion “in the interest of the state”, but realising how the party was ceding space to Jagan, the TDP decided to move a no-confidence motion on its own and broke its alliance with the BJP.
“It is a huge loss to the TDP that they decided to walk out of the alliance with the BJP. I won’t say who set the trap or who gains the most but the TDP is the loser and the BJP gets an opportunity to grow in Andhra. Naidu has made so many U-turns and flip flops that it seems he has no strategy at all on anything,’’ says BJP MLA from Visakhapatnam (North) P Vishnu Kumar Raju, who is also the floor leader in the state Assembly.
If the TDP fails to stitch an alliance ahead of the 2019 elections, it will get what Jagan exactly what he wanted — a straight contest between the TDP and YSRCP.
Says Vijay Sai Reddy, the YSRCP’s Rajya Sabha MP and a close confidant of Jagan, “It’s because of Jagan that special category has become an issue. For four years, no one in the TDP talked about special status. Now, we have forced the CM to follow our every move on the issue.”
But as Jagan walks on, strategists and political analysts wonder if he can sustain the rhetoric on special status. They point to how, in October 2015, Jagan sat on a fast for a few days at Nallapadu in Guntur to demand special category, but the issue soon petered out.
“Right now, he seems to be on top of things but elections are still a year away. Fatigue usually gets the better of such issues. We have to wait and see if he can keep the special-status momentum going on or not,’’ says political observer Babu.