How Andhra polls will be centred on NTR and YSR clans

Y.S. Sharmila merged her party with the Congress recently

PTI01_04_2024_000048B Scion of the times: Rahul Gandhi and Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge welcome Y.S. Sharmila into the Congress.

FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS of his uncle―Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy―Raja Reddy is also getting married at 24, next month. Before starting the preparations for the wedding, his mother, Y.S. Sharmila, went to the family’s farmhouse in Idupulapaya, near Kadapa, to pray at YSR ghat―her father, former chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, was buried there. The YSR Telangana Party president flew from Hyderabad in a special aircraft owned by BJP Rajya Sabha member C.M. Ramesh, who is known to be close to Telugu Desam Party president N. Chandrababu Naidu. Sharmila paid respects to her father, a staunch Congressman, and then took the same flight to Vijayawada to invite her brother and YSR Congress president Jagan to the wedding.

The TDP and the YSR Congress are headed by NTR’s son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu and YSR’s son Jagan, respectively. The BJP’s state president is NTR’s daughter Daggubati Purandeswari and the Congress’s new hope is YSR’s daughter Sharmila.

This is a brief summary of how politics and families are intertwined in Andhra Pradesh, where party lines have blurred and the power dynamics of two clans―YSR and N.T. Rama Rao―have taken over ahead of assembly elections, due in May.

With Sharmila now merging her party with the Congress, all the important political outfits in the state are under the control of the two families. The TDP and the YSR Congress, the major regional parties, are headed by NTR’s son-in-law Naidu and YSR’s son Jagan, respectively. The two national parties, too, are tied to the families. The BJP’s state president is NTR’s daughter Daggubati Purandeswari and the Congress’s new hope is Sharmila.

Sharmila had parted ways with Jagan in 2021; she was unhappy that she did not get a bigger role in the YSR Congress and that the party did not have a presence in Telangana. Her party, however, failed to take off despite her attempts to emulate her father’s padyatra. Sources close to her said that with party funds drying up fast and no known political faces joining her, she had been thinking of an honourable exit. That is when the Congress entered the picture.

The YSR family and the Congress have had a love-hate relationship. When Rajasekhara Reddy, as opposition leader in 2003, wanted to embark on a padyatra, the Congress high command was reluctant to let him do so. However, the party also chose him to be chief minister twice. After he died in a helicopter crash in 2009, Jagan was denied permission to tour the state―he left and launched his YSR Congress in 2011. He was later jailed on corruption charges by agencies under the Congress government at the Centre, which was widely seen as a vengeful act.

But now, the Congress has accepted a YSR scion with open arms. “We were received well by the top leaders of the Congress, including Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, and they assured us of all the support,” said P. Ram Reddy, a close political associate of Sharmila who was in Delhi during the merger.

All this while, Sharmila had never ventured into Andhra Pradesh; she wanted to avoid a face-off with her brother. But that is all set to change―the Congress has deployed her in Andhra Pradesh, which includes the Rayalaseema region where her family has its roots. The upcoming Lok Sabha elections will be a litmus test for Sharmila; the Congress has not had an Andhra MLA or MP in a decade.

But, before that, she also has to address rumblings within the party. Before she was formally inducted into the Congress, more than two dozen leaders from Andhra Pradesh were called to Delhi and asked of their opinion on Sharmila joining the party. While most responded positively, a couple of leaders vocally opposed it. “A lot of people do not like her, but they will not open up,” said dalit leader and two-time MP G.V. Harsha Kumar. An aspirant for the post of state Congress president, he declared he would resign if Sharmila was given that role. “She is a failed leader who is being forced on us,” he said. “How can she come here when she has already failed in Telangana? I have told the high command that this is a wrong step.”

16-Jagan-Mohan-Reddy-and-Chandrababu-Naidu Plans and counter-plans: (From left) Jagan Mohan Reddy and Chandrababu Naidu | PTI

Kumar has called for a dalit unity meeting in February, where he plans to appeal to the community to vote against the Congress if Sharmila is made state president.

The key tasks for Sharmila now are attracting leaders and cultivating a vote bank of Congress and YSR loyalists who have moved to the YSR Congress. The latter might not be easy, but the groundwork for the former has already started. Jagan, who has 151 legislators, is likely to deny tickets to several sitting MLAs for various reasons, including anti-incumbency. This has not gone down well with some leaders like Mangalagiri MLA Alla Ramakrishna Reddy, who has already joined the Sharmila camp. The Congress is hoping that more such disgruntled leaders jump ship.

But, are people ready to forget the pangs of bifurcation and forgive the Congress for including YSR’s name in an FIR in a corruption case? “The Congress has already accepted some of its mistakes, and people are ready to trust the party again,” said Ramakrishna Reddy. “The Congress promised special category status to Andhra Pradesh; it is the BJP that failed to grant this status as a ruling party. Even the YSR Congress and the TDP failed to get it. It is only the Congress at the Centre that can develop Andhra Pradesh, and Sharmila in the state can get the glorious rule of YSR back.”

The ruling YSR Congress, which is closely watching the developments, has accused Chandrababu Naidu of masterminding a conspiracy against it through Sharmila. The party pointed out that when Sharmila launched her party, it was pro-TDP media that gave her a lot of coverage. On Christmas, Sharmila wished Naidu’s son, Nara Lokesh, who reciprocated. Then there are questions surrounding Naidu’s interaction with Karnataka Congress leader D.K. Shivakumar at the Bengaluru airport. Similarly, a lot is being made out of Anil Kumar, Sharmila’s husband, meeting with BTech Ravi, a TDP leader and staunch opponent of Jagan, at another airport.

“The entire world knows who is behind this,” said Sajjala Ramakrishna Reddy, political adviser to the state government. “Chandrababu Naidu is managing the Congress and the BJP through his men sent over to the party. His target is to bring down Jagan in some way or the other as he cannot face him in the public sphere. Sharmila joining the Congress is part of Naidu’s scheming plans.”

The BJP, on its part, has said that there is no chance of a Congress resurgence, but it is wary of Naidu’s alleged role in the efforts to revive the party. “The Congress is on the ventilator, whether in Andhra Pradesh or the country. Even Sharmila cannot make a big difference to the party,” said Vishnu Vardhan Reddy, BJP state vice president. “Naidu will keep all doors open, whether aligning with the Congress or the BJP. He is an opportunistic politician and there is no discussion within the party to join hands with him. When he tried to align with us in the Telangana elections, we did not budge.”

If the Congress does indeed find its feet again, who will be the biggest loser? Will it be the YSR Congress, whose core voter base has the Congress DNA, or will it be the TDP or Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena, who could lose anti-incumbency votes to the Congress?

“What is happening with the Congress in Andhra Pradesh is completely its internal matter,” said Varun Kumar, official spokesperson of the TDP youth wing. “No voter who will vote based on anti-incumbency will vote for a party that is just trying to restart its journey. Also, whatever the Congress can pull off as a percentage of votes will be deducted from its once traditional vote bank that is now with the YSR Congress.”

He added that Sharmila joining the Congress would mean that Jagan’s family members do not trust him, and that the TDP, with a traditional vote bank of around 40 per cent, along with its alliance partner Jana Sena Party, would win in the upcoming polls.

Hyderabad-based political analyst Telakapalli Ravi analysed the developments from a national perspective. “All this while, the BJP was controlling Andhra Pradesh through regional parties,” he said. “Now, the Gandhi family wants to take control of Andhra Pradesh through Sharmila.”

As the battleground promises to hot up in coming days, one thing is for sure―the intra-family feuds and equations have made the battle for Andhra Pradesh just a bit more convoluted and intense than usual.