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Sunday, October 17, 2021

The tragedy and the trend

In death as in life,YSR symbolised the powershift to CMs —something Congress was the last to get...

Written by Shekhar Gupta |
September 5, 2009 3:10:55 am

You have probably seen bigger outpourings of popular grief,and partymen’s sycophancy,following the deaths of many other regional or state leaders. I was once caught for hours on Christmas Eve 1987,at the peak of the IPKF’s Op Pawan,in the middle of a minefield of sorts,just a mile short of what is called Elephant Pass,connecting the Jaffna Peninsula with the rest of Sri Lanka. Across the Palk Straits,MGR had passed away and there was no way the mourning Sri Lankan Tamils would let anybody move on the road. Meanwhile,many were committing suicide in Tamil Nadu.

The deaths of N.T. Rama Rao,even Sheikh Abdullah in the rather distant past,had led to similar twin reactions: grief,and demands for the anointment of family heirs.

But when was the last time you saw that on the death of a regional Congress leader? Most of them died more or less unsung,their funerals consisting almost entirely of their family and relatives,besides some token presence from the local party and the high command.

This should put Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy in a proper perspective,in life and death. Normally,such an unexpected departure of a Congress chief minister would have resulted in routine utterances of sympathy — and then the usual jockeying to grab the space he would have vacated. But the entire Congress party,and the Telugu street,turned out to mourn as if he wasn’t just another Congress chief minister but some Southern celluloid cult-figure. Almost the entire legislature party demanded that his still wet-behind-the-ears son be made chief minister. The entire cabinet passed a resolution endorsing that. You can of course say that YSR,in his decade-long leadership of the party,had squashed all dissidence. But normally,it is precisely for that reason that you would have seen many former dissidents rise just as he died. What are they afraid of,now that the man is gone? Yet,all of them,including 77-year-old caretaker chief minister Rosaiah,are saying they would have no objection if YSR’s son steps in. This is not the way you treat a departed state leader or his family in the Congress party.

So,just what is it that made YSR so different? That he was one of the most fascinating and powerful political figures to arrive in the past decade,we all know by now. Millions of words have been written on him the past few days,and lots spoken on TV by friend and foe. But the special power — and appeal — of YSR did not just reside in the fact that he had his high command’s total trust or in his ability to defy anti-incumbency. Maybe one quarter of his power did,as did another quarter come from his own personality,his ability to slog 20 hours a day,his take-no-prisoners politics and a remarkably open mind when it came to constructing his politics.

A very good example of that is the way he completely tossed the idea,made fashionable by the entire pink intellectual class in the summer of 2004,that his victory over Naidu was an agrarian revolt against pro-rich reform. If he had fallen for that very tempting formulation,he would have junked all reform and wealth-creation,and focused,instead,entirely on populism,like NTR. But YSR was smarter. He figured Naidu lost because he had become arrogant and smug,did not even imagine he could be defeated and,thereby,had completely ignored the poor. So what did YSR do? He picked up all of NTR’s populist ideas,multiplied them several times over in scale,created some of his own,named most of them after a Nehru-Gandhi,and accelerated reform and wealth-creation because that was the only way to finance these. Besides,he saw the value in being,looking and getting acknowledged as a modernising,urbanising leader.

But all this would account for only 50 per cent of the YSR phenomenon. Where did the rest come from?

Could it be that it did indeed come as a confirmation of a shift we saw beginning to happen a few years ago (see ‘Yes,Chief Minister’,National Interest,September 3,2005,indianexpress.com/oldStory 77490/). I had then argued that a fundamental shift was taking place in our politics and governance whereby real power was shifting from the Centre to the states,making the chief minister the most powerful functionary in the new system.

It was partly because of the rise of coalition politics,and partly because of the strengthening of ground-level democracy caused,in turn,by a rising tide of expectation. People were impatient for change,progress,development,better quality of life and because “Dilli” was always so “door”,had begun to look at their chief minister in an entirely new light. Certainly,the first beneficiaries of this change were regional party leaders. But this shift was too powerful,widespread and even virtuous for the big national parties to resist. The BJP accepted it first. Modi and Vasundhara Raje emerged as the party’s first empowered chief ministers who did not particularly see the need to go to the “high command” for most of their decisions. They were to be left entirely unharmed as long as they kept on delivering electorally. Now even the relatively meek ones,like Yeddyurappa,Raman Singh and Shivraj Singh Chouhan are getting there.

The Congress,as you would expect,was the last centrist,“high-command-ist” bastion. If you see how its central satraps still manage to treat its chief ministers in Maharashtra like a chaprassi you would know that this bastion has not yet fallen. But YSR breached it,and did so very gainfully,for himself as well as his party. He became the Congress party’s first chief minister since 1969,that is,in four decades,to be able to seek votes in his own name,and win. That he managed to acquire that stature without getting his leadership suspicious — in fact,as you would have seen from Sonia Gandhi’s emotional tributes,having them dote on him — is what made up for that remaining 50 per cent of a political phenomenon that was one of a kind.

Postscript: I can’t just mention that frightful Christmas Eve on way to war-torn Jaffna without telling you the rest of that story. Finding it impossible to move on,to preferably reach Jaffna by sunset — intense fighting was on in the entire region and most approaches were mined — I back-tracked to the outskirts of Vavunia and found refuge for the night at the headquarters of the 72 Infantry Brigade,which had just suffered heavy casualties in the capture of Jaffna. I had forgotten all about that evening until last year,when a tough-looking former soldier-type came smilingly and stuck his hand out to shake mine while I was having lunch with a friend at Mumbai’s ITC Grand Central. “Remember Jaffna,December 1987?” he asked. And the penny dropped. Here was Lt Col (now retired) K.C. Menon,head of HR at the hotel (now moving to ITC’s new Royal Gardenia in Bangalore),who,as a very young captain in Mahar Regiment had so readily shared his very modest tent with me at Vavunia that evening. So even in his death,MGR found me a friendship that endures.

sg@expressindia.com

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