It was about 6.30 in the evening on August 24. He broke away from addressing a gathering of bankers to have a chat with some of us on how the NREGS was doing in his State. And he was as concerned with its failures as he was pleased with its overall performance. The one point where Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy laughed was when we came to changing attitudes to the work among the village elites. Especially the decline of the contemptuous manner in which landowners used to summon Dalit or Adivasi labourers to work. “Those old attitudes had to change,” he said.

Rewind to 2004. Andhra Pradesh was seen as the one State where the Congress had no chance of making a comeback in the polls. Those were the glory days of N. Chandrababu Naidu. Something YSR was soon to demolish. The terrible summer of 2003 had seen thousands of non-state “gruel centres” trying to combat a rising tide of hunger across Telangana and Rayalaseema. Remember, there was no NREGS then ( The Hindu Sunday Magazine, June 15 and 22, 2003: “Gruel Centres & the Politics of Free Lunches and Hi-Tech, Low Nutrition”).

Today, in the drought, the NREGS works where gruel centres struggled. But in 2003, the phrase “Congress leadership” was a contradiction in terms in the State. Most of the State’s senior Congressmen were themselves in awe of Chandrababu Naidu.

He thought differently

YSR thought differently. He went out on a mass contact ‘padayatra’ and walked through village after village tapping the rising discontent. It would be wrong to call it, as some have called it, “an undercurrent.” It was a torrent. One that YSR harnessed for a pathetic, demoralised, self-doubting party that leapt in alarm if the media just said ‘boo.’ Going to the spot was a practice he retained even after becoming Chief Minister. If he thought he saw a problem developing, he did not wait for it to come to him. This was so even with a natural calamity. As during the 2006 floods when he was all over the place directing relief operations — while his counterpart in Maharashtra, for instance, never got his feet wet.

Years before that, when the national media were still dismissive of a spate of suicides among distressed farmers, Rajasekhara Reddy was quick to visit Bandi Lakshmamma in Anantapur. She was the wife of the first reported farm suicide victim to have caught attention in Andhra Pradesh, thanks to some exceptional reporting by a few reporters in the Telugu press. By April 2004, farmers’ suicides were to be among the most decisive issues of the elections in Andhra Pradesh, both to the Lok Sabha and the Assembly.

One of the first things Rajasekhara Reddy did upon becoming Chief Minister was to appoint an enthusiastic Agriculture Minister — Raghuveera Reddy from Anantapur, the district that had perhaps suffered the worst of the crisis.

Together they tried to tackle the distress. No other State declared compensation payments to so many families affected by the suicide of their breadwinners. Andhra Pradesh set up a Commission, chaired by Professor Jayati Ghosh, to study the entire gamut of agrarian distress. The macro-policies of the State and the Centre conflicted with the thrust of the Commission’s excellent report, but this was still the first such effort by any State to engage with the farm crisis.

Rajasekhara Reddy as Chief Minister was ruthless, shrewd, alert and on-the-ball. Despite a larger vision that invited big trouble down the line — like his wrong and relentless stance on Special Economic Zones — he understood his State better than his colleagues. He saw the importance of hunger in all of Andhra Pradesh and not just in the rural regions. Rajasekhara Reddy massively added to the number of Below Poverty Line family cards in the State. His 2004 victory was viewed as a “rural revolt.” In 2006, he swept the urban bodies, leading the Congress to an absolute majority in 68 municipalities and grabbing the chairperson’s post in 75 out of 96.

The great “USP” of the Telugu Desam Party came with NTR’s promise (and delivery) of rice at Rs. 2 a kg. The Congress of that time ridiculed the measure (now firmly in place in several States) and was buried in the electoral avalanche that followed. Years after the TDP moved away from that legacy, YSR was to grab it and even project it (in factual terms quite wrongly) as a Congress idea — Indiramma’s dream. In 2009, cheap rice on the Public Distribution System proved a huge boost to all those governments providing it. Andhra Pradesh gave the Congress more MPs than any other State. More than Maharashtra and Karnataka put together. Rajasekhara Reddy had stolen the clothes the TDP had discarded. Among Congress Chief Ministers, he stood out as someone who was his own man. Irascible and on a short-fuse but decisive, he rose above and held together an incoherent and faction-ridden party. As a leader he was cocky, contradictory, yet often strangely convincing.

The 2009 polls also saw him at his shrewd best. YSR was delighted when the Left opted to go with Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP and not with Chiranjeevi’s PRP. He was gambling on Chiranjeevi doing what Chiranjeevi did — draw away the anti-Congress vote. Rajasekhara Reddy was going by the only precedent there was — the 1978 State elections when the then “Brahmananda Reddy Congress” polled roughly what the PRP did this time, diverting the anti-Congress vote and gutting the Janata Party. That was the year YSR entered politics, and he remembered its lesson well. He ends his innings as the only Congressman in the State with a mass following and appeal, so evident in the outpouring of grief across the State.

Corruptions and scams

Rajasekhara Reddy’s time in power also saw charges of corruption against his government, and a range of scandals in both government and the crony corporate world close to it. Like the Satyam scam.

Some of those charges were serious, some of the scams massive.

And some policies were very regressive. Still, on the NREGS, aspects of rural development, welfare schemes and pensions, he promoted and encouraged a fine if small group of officers who delivered.

Distress migration fell as the NREGS expanded. In Anantapur, the number of people seeking work under the NREGS in just the first 15 days of August was 150 per cent higher than the number during the entire corresponding month last year. In many villages, almost every family sends a member to the NREGS site.

But YSR’s legacy will also carry the burden of some very damaging irrigation projects and a bizarre number of SEZs — 103 approved at last count. The displacement all these will entail will be stunning and will affect one and a half million human beings or more. Some of those irrigation schemes will incur bills no one can pay. In that sense, he was lucky in Elections 2009. The progressive policies paid off. The outcome of the more negative policies will be felt later, perhaps around 2012, had he lived on.

YSR was dynamic and effective, ruthless and authoritarian. An idea he liked would translate into an order shortly after he heard it. He seldom kept it pending. The suggestion that the Land Development Work under the NREGS in the State be prioritised to first benefit Dalit, Adivasi and women-headed households was such an idea. He also sat up at the mention of Dr. M.S. Swaminathan’s idea of sending all students and faculty members of agricultural universities and colleges to the fields and farms for two months in this time of crisis. You could see he was making a note of it.

Somebody was going to receive an order.