From YSR’s shadow to seizing Amaravati, the euphoric rise of Jagan Mohan Reddy

Back in September 2009, the state of united Andhra Pradesh was delivered with perhaps the most shocking jolt in its history – Chief Minister Yeduguri Sandinti Rajasekhar Reddy, popularly known as YSR, lost his life to a chopper crash in the Nallamalla forests. One of the tallest leaders of the Congress who had wrested the state back from the TDP’s iron grip, his death left a void difficult to fill. As TV cameras at the CM's camp office in Hyderabad zeroed in on his grieving family, YSR's son, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy stood steady next to his mother Vijayamma and sister Sharmila.

Jagan was not a major political force back then. He was considered the mollycoddled son of the Congress scion, a businessman who mostly lived in Bengaluru, away from the political clamour and public scrutiny in Andhra. The Congress leadership preferred K Rosaiah as YSR's successor due to his seniority, and Jagan, who was lobbying for the top post, was upset. Meanwhile, the Telangana statehood movement was gaining traction. Thus began his decade-long feud with the Congress, amidst political alienation and several cases of corruption.

In May 2019, he rose to become the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, amidst chants of his campaign’s blockbuster soundtrack, “Ravali Jagan, Kavali Jagan… mana Jagan”.

‘Betrayed’ by Congress

Jagan made his electoral debut in 2009 on a Congress ticket, when his father led the party to power for the second time in a row. He was elected from Kadapa Lok Sabha constituency, considered a bastion of YSR family, trumping his nearest rival P Srikanth Reddy of TDP by a margin of 1.78 lakh votes. 

With the backing of a section of YSR loyalists, Jagan defied the Congress leadership to embark on a ‘Odarpu yatra’ to console the families of those who reportedly died of shock on hearing the news about his father's death. Determined to show that he possessed his father's political prowess, he embarked on the tour across the state, waving his hands and greeting supporters in the exact same way that his father used to. Even then, Jagan's image continued to be that of YSR's son, a soft-spoken and reserved politician.

The Congress by then, had inducted Jagan's uncle YS Vivekananda Reddy into Rosaiah's cabinet. Angry over what he called "attempts by the Congress to create division in the family", Jagan quit the party and also resigned from the Lok Sabha. His mother YS Vijayalaxmi also resigned as MLA from Pulivendula, from where she won unopposed following YSR's death.

Creating his own destiny

In 2011, Jagan launched Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) with a promise to bring back what he called 'Rajanna's rajyam' (YSR's rein). Till then, the YSR family had won Kadapa and Pulivendula six and ten times, respectively, on Congress tickets. 

Within three months, Jagan was re-elected from Kadapa in the bye-election with a record majority of over 5.43 lakh votes. Vijayalaxmi also won from Pulivendula, defeating her brother-in-law Vivekananda Reddy by a margin of over 85,000 votes. The margin of victory in both the constituencies by the YSRCP bettered the record held by YSR, thus sending a message across to political opponents, that they had to be taken seriously.

But a political victory did not ensure he was safe from his adversaries. In May 2012, Jagan was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in a disproportionate assets case. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) also started investigating him for money laundering. Even today, he has seven cases under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), and 11 cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act pending against him, as per his most recent affidavit before the Election Commission.

Several chargesheets were filed against Jagan and those close to him, including former state ministers, IAS officers, corporate entities and businessmen. He remained in jail for 16 months, until September 2013, when the special CBI court granted him conditional bail.

When Jagan was behind the bars, his mother ran the party as its honorary President and his sister YS Sharmila conducted a padyatra. By now, the padayatra had become a brand of the family's politics to mobilise public support.

In 2014, Jagan contested and won from Pulivendula while his mother contested and lost from the Visakhapatnam Lok Sabha seat. Though TDP came to power, YSRCP replaced the Congress as the second biggest player in state politics, bagging 67 seats in the 175-member Assembly, and emerging as the main Opposition. Even after entering the Assembly, Jagan continued to face challenges as over 20 legislators defected to the ruling TDP in the state. 

Snatching the state back from TDP

While a lot has been said about Jagan's padayatra and how it has helped him storm to power, a key incident that may have made the political leader introspect, was the bye-election in Nandyal Assembly constituency in Kurnool district held in August 2017.

The bye-election, necessitated by the death of sitting legislator Bhuma Nagi Reddy, saw the YSRCP lose a battle of prestige. Coming three years into Chandrababu Naidu’s tenure as Chief Minister, it was pitched as a crucial referendum for 2019. However, the YSRCP candidate was unsuccessful in his attempt, losing to the TDP with a margin of around 27,000 votes.

Following a striking debacle in the bye-polls, Jagan sat down with political strategist Prashant Kishor and the latter's I-PAC team, to come up with the idea of the 'Praja Sankalpa Yatra', a 3648 km-long foot march. In November, just a few months after the Nandyal bye-polls, Jagan set off on his walkathon, that would eventually propel him forward in the race for the Chief Minister's chair over the span of the next year. 

The padayatra also played another crucial role. Though many political observers have said that Jagan aped his father YSR when it came to public gatherings, Jagan was no longer just YSR's son. With the success of the padayatra, his image as a politician had been crafted, as he completed a decade in active politics.

Jagan had managed to scale up his oratory skills, a true test of any politician. Addressing people as "Avva (Mother), Ayya (father), Akka (elder sister) Chelli (younger sister), Tammudu (younger brother), Anna (elder brother) and Snehithudu (friend)", Jagan managed to grab the attention of large crowds and make them hoot and whistle as he launched a fierce tirade against his political opponent, Chandrababu Naidu.

As Jagan is now set to take over the reins of Andhra Pradesh, which is in dire straits due to bifurcation, it remains to be seen if the fortunes of the young, residual state will turn.