“I’m an arrow,” Sharmila declared taking the first step of her 3,000 km padayatra last Friday. And the projectile is going straight into the heart of the people of rural Andhra Pradesh, if first reports are anything to go by.
Thousands of people from Kadapa and far places thronged the late Y S Rajasekhara Reddy’s family estate of Idupulapaya to see his daughter shoot through the state.
Sharmila is on her first solo road show on behalf of her brother Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy, who is in prison fighting cases of illegal amassment of wealth. Her debut in the byelection campaign back in July was as second fiddle to her mother Vijayalakshmi.
Having wowed the crowds then, the YSR Congress fielded her to draw the eyeballs away from TDP president Chandrababu Naidu who is on a 117-day padayatra aimed at bolstering his party’s status as an alternative to the Congress in the state. By sending his little sister out to the people, Jagan Mohan Reddy is trying to fight for every inch of that turf.
Very much a camera natural, Sharmila’s sisterly act is seen similar to what Priyanka does for Rahul Gandhi. So far along the padayatra route, people have been curious to see Rajasekhara Reddy’s 38-year-old daughter, who’s reputed to have a mind of her own.
As has Jagan, Sharmila draws her campaign style from her father, whose tactic was to radiate empathy, stopping to get close to individuals in the crowd and asking aabout their well-being.
Just a few days into her walk, Sharmila is playing her father’s daughter, while always taking care to deliver the credit to her brother, much like Priyanka.
Unlike Jagan, the sister isn’t shy, and comes across as the girl next door just trying to do a good turn for her big brother. She has a disarming smile, which she unleashes frequently. She raises her left hand slowly as if involuntarily while in deep thought and waves exuberantly, much in the manner of her father.
The spiel is the same everywhere but the style is what speaks for Sharmila. “Rajanna toiled day and night and brought the Congress to power twice,” she says. “Now see how the Congress is treating his family after his death. They have framed Jagananna in false cases and put him behind bars.”
She makes it a point to strike a chord with the elderly, going closer, sitting beside them and holding their hands as she speaks in a bedside manner. At Nandipalli on the second day of her yatra Friday, she singled out for special attention to Gangamma, a 65-year-old woman who was refused an old-age pension because she didn’t look that old. Gangamma breaks down as she tells her story and Sharmila feigns a flash of anger. “They need to wear spectacles if they can’t see you're old,” she says. “Wait for Rajanna rajyam. All that will change.”
The very young get some sisterly attention too. Along the padayatra way in Kathuluru, a boy grazing sheep in the fields gets to tell her why he isn’t at school. Shiva tears up as he says his father is suffering from several ailments and his mother has grown old. Sharmila comes down on the government. She asks the crowd: “Do this boy’s tears speak lies? He should be in school but he is grazing sheep.”
But these are early days in the padayatra and she has 3,000 km to go, much more than any politician in Andhra Pradesh, let alone a woman, has attempted. Fellow walkers in the YSR Congress have been caught by surprise by the pace she has cut and the determination she shows in her stride. At the end of day two, YSRC women stars B Shobha Nagireddy and K Surekha were both nursing sore feet while Sharmila looked good to go further.
“She is setting a brisk pace. The others are not able to keep pace with her,” says a YSR Congress admirer, Bharat Reddy who is in the retinue. YSR Congress activists are confident that Sharmila will be able to complete the padayatra without a sweat.