Last week, a Big South Story was lost in the cacophony of the Presidential race. It wasn’t just another story on the rise of a son. In the massive victory of the YSR Congress is hidden a secret: the rise of the South as an indomitable challenge to the established national leadership. Jagan Mohan Reddy’s victory wasn’t in doubt. It was the margin and message of his triumph that signalled the likely fall of yet another Congress bastion. Andhra Pradesh is the only southern state that the Congress has been holding uninterrupted for the past 10 years. While the rest of the south betrayed the Congress, Andhra Pradesh in 2012 enabled it to reach the 200-mark figure in the Lok Sabha after almost a decade.
But 2012 is not 2009 for the Congress. In the past few months, it has lost almost every Assembly and Lok Sabha by-election. The YSR Congress has 17 MLAs and two Lok Sabha members now. Fifty-year-old Nallari Kiran Kumar Reddy, Andhra’s suave chief minister, remains in office but hasn’t been able to impose his authority. He is the youngest of the 13 Congress chief ministers to have ruled the state, yet he hasn’t been able to stop Jagan’s juggernaut from trampling the party. It is a measure of Jagan’s fighting strategy that his party could win 15 of the 18 Assembly seats even though he is in jail, facing a corruption witch-hunt. The Congress couldn’t even take advantage of the three-way split between its rivals. Voters trusted a tainted Jagan than a holier-than-thou Kiran. If the current swing in Jagan’s favour continues unabated, the YSR Congress will soon replace the official Congress. Then the Grand Old Party would have given yet another big state on a platter to one of its own siblings. It lost Tamil Nadu to regional parties three decades ago. In Karnataka, it vacated its space first to the Janata Dal, and later to the BJP because it failed to recognise the new leaders. Even in a tiny state like Puducherry, the leadership couldn’t read the writing on the wall when it denied power to a regional leader; when the elections finally happened, N Rangasamy won after leaving the Congress and floating his own All India NR Congress.
The fault lies with the Congress central leadership, which hasn’t learnt its lessons from the many electoral debacles of the past. As long as YSR was alive, no Central leader was able to dictate terms. He was a master of means and methods. He not only demolished Chandrababu Naidu’s halo but also made regional parties look like pigmies. He ruled through the might of the state and the mesmerism of money power. Barring Telangana, his writ ran large over almost every corner of Andhra. If there can’t be a Congress without a Gandhi at the Centre, it was almost a sin to think of an Andhra Congress without YSR. As he ruthlessly ran the state, he also trained his son Jagan Mohan in the same methods that sustained him in power. The Central leadership was totally oblivious of the generational transition taking place right under its nose. For others, Jagan was just an MP who was asked by his father to build a business empire and take care of the financial needs of the family and the state Congress. But he was secretly building his mass base and sharing his assets with trusted colleagues. According to local Congress sources, it was YSR who contributed over 30 per cent of the Central political collections for contesting the general elections. Jagan quietly adopted his father’s techniques and secrets of political commerce to his advantage.
His phenomenal rise as a political leader in his own right appears to be part of a spreading trend visible in many other states. If the Congress fails to accept dynastic succession in the states, its local leaders would either float their own parties or join a regional outfit to ensure their progeny’s political future. The Congress was replaced by NTR because it didn’t give recognition to any local leader. The Gowdas could stage a comeback because the local Congress was being run from New Delhi. In Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi has already carved out a succession plan for the DMK. Andhra Pradesh has joined the elite familial club of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Karnataka, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Meghalaya where democratic means are being used to impose dynastic succession.
The message from Andhra is loud and clear. The Congress and the BJP must stop ignoring genuine mass leaders from the states. The voters are willing to suffer a local leader—dirty or clean—who can do the job. The Andhra verdict also means that the country is gladly accepting the rule of family-owned smaller political parties and giving a thumbs down to national leaders lacking a popular base.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla