THE BRIDGE ACROSS the river Godavari that links Kovvur and Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh is an engineering marvel. Supported by steel trusses, it has a railway line on the lower deck, and a roadway above it. Every day, thousands of vehicles and tonnes of cargo cross the iconic bridge, which is built over India’s longest river after the Ganga.
On June 12, political tremors shook the usually unshakeable bridge, as more than 40,000 people thronged the overpass end to end. Leading their march to Rajahmundry was Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, opposition leader and president of the YSR Congress. For the past several months, Reddy has been on Praja Sankalpa Yatra, a marathon journey on foot across Andhra Pradesh, trying to connect with the people before the Lok Sabha and assembly elections due next year. He is already said to have walked 2,500km, and is aiming at covering another 800km in two months.
The reception he got at Rajahmundry, a stronghold of the ruling Telugu Desam Party, was extraordinary. “I have never seen anything like this,” said Rajesh Babu, a local trader. “The number of people who turned up to welcome Jagan was one surprise; the bridge vibrating under the sea of people was another.”
The bridge connects two districts—East and West Godavari—which are bellwethers of the state’s political climate. It is widely believed that the party that wins the maximum number of seats in the districts gets to rule the state. In 2014, the TDP-BJP combine won 29 of 34 assembly seats in the two districts. This time, though, the tide seems to be turning.
A case in point was how Kovvada, a village on the outskirts of Kakinada in East Godavari, wore a festive look as Jagan passed through it on a weekday. At least one member of each family was either out on the street or waiting just outside their homes to catch a glimpse of him. ‘Thurupu kondallo, udayinche suryudilaa [Like a son that rises from the eastern hills]’, a song composed for the padyatra, played in the background. Banners and flags of the YSR Congress could be found in every corner of the village, where the sitting MLA is from the TDP.
I had to struggle through the crowd to reach the place where Jagan was camped—an empty plot off the main road, where a tent and a caravan stood. After finishing his lunch, Jagan came out of the caravan and resumed his padyatra. The security men had a tough time keeping up with the 45-year-old—a brisk walker who likes to mingle with crowds. Every day, he shakes hands with hundreds of people, listens to their problems and patiently obliges those who want to click selfies.
Having lost several kilos, Jagan now looks frail and tanned. Hardcore supporters who have been accompanying him have lost at least 5kg each; some of them, as much as 15kg.
Jagan covers around 20km every day, no matter what happens. “In West Godavari district, a mischief-maker threw a stone at a beehive near a place where Jagan was walking. A huge swarm of bees attacked, and people who had come to meet Jagan ran for cover. However, he continued walking and told his security personnel to follow suit. Despite suffering bee stings, he did not seek refuge or stop for medical care,” said a member of Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), an advocacy group led by political strategist Prashant Kishor, that now works for the YSR Congress. Videos of the incident went viral.
The padyatra has helped Jagan build a certain image—of a leader who means to keep his promises. Wherever he goes, he tells people that he promises only those things that can be done. One such promise is that he would ban liquor in phases, and it has won him great support among women voters.
“After listening to his speech, I decided to follow Jagan till his padyatra ends,” said Shaikh Najeem of Gudiwada, who is wheelchair-bound and has been a part of the padyatra since May. “Jagan asked me not to do it. But, I have immense respect for his family, and for what they are doing for the people. I will do it, even though it is not easy.”