Ever since he came to power in May 2004, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Dr Y S Rajasekhara Reddy has been touring the state's villages and is rarely found in Hyderabad, the state capital. The new chief minister says he does not want to remain in Hyderabad because he does not "want to become another N Chandrababu Naidu."
Naidu, the former chief minister and Telugu Desam Party leader, lost the state election because "he had lost touch with the realities in the villages," says Dr Reddy. The current chief minister -- an MBBS -- stresses that he does not want to be the CEO of Andhra Pradesh, a title that industry captains and investors had showered on Naidu, but would rather like to be known as the people's chief minister. "Naidu developed Hyderabad, but forgot the villages. I want to keep a balance," he says.
But the Congress chief minister is surmounted by teething problems. His historic initiative to talk with the Naxals has not really got off well; farmers across the state are continuing to commit suicides; his critics accuse that IT companies are leaving Hyderabad because Dr Reddy lacks Naidu's vision.
In his first major interview since the Congress politician came to power, Dr Reddy spoke to Deputy Managing Editor George Iype on how and why his government is entirely different from the one his predecessor led.
It is almost six months since you have been chief minister. How is it being in the hot seat?
Oh, it is really good. I am really trying to do what I intended to do. Things are going on in the right direction. My focus is clear and balanced. I have some important projects, which I wanted to launch. All of them are progressing well.
What is the focus? What are the projects?
The focus is on rural economy. I want to prove how rural economy can be improved and how development for the whole of Andhra can be initiated from the grassroots. My attention is only on the farmers, farm labourers, rural artisans and rural women.
In the past, rural economy was totally neglected by the government. It is time we shifted the focus and make a new direction for the common man. The immediate projects I am going to launch are on irrigation. Irrigation projects worth Rs 46000 crore are in the pipeline. It is the biggest irrigation project in the country.
You mean to say the Naidu government did not launch any projects for the rural people?
Absolutely nothing. Naidu completely neglected the rural areas. And he paid the price for that.
But Naidu is famous for taking Hyderabad and Andhra Pradesh into a technology revolution. Many believe Hyderabad has become a hot IT destination in India because of the previous government.
In Hyderabad, you can see some good roads made by the Naidu government. There is nothing wrong in making good roads. The IT boom that happened in Hyderabad is part of the technology boom that has been taking place across the country. But the problem is that while Naidu developed the city of Hyderabad, he totally neglected the rural economy.
In a state like Andhra Pradesh, irrigation and agriculture are the most important things. Almost 75 per cent of the people depend on agriculture and allied activities. If their incomes do not progress, definitely it is not good for the state. That is what has happened in the last one decade in the state. Since our government came to power, we have totally redefined our priorities. My focus is not just Hyderabad. My focus is the total development of Andhra Pradesh.
So attracting more foreign investment and IT companies to Hyderabad is not on your agenda?
That is also my agenda, very much. There is a saying in Telugu: the king's second wife is good does not mean that the elder wife is bad. When I say the focus is on agriculture and irrigation, it does not mean that I do not like to develop Hyderabad.
I interviewed Naidu the other day. He said your government is trying to drive out the IT companies from Hyderabad. Your critics also say you are not giving adequate importance to investment promotion in the state.
Naidu cannot say or prove that whatever his government did is not being done by my government now with regard to IT or investment promotion. On the other hand, we are doing something better than what Naidu was trying to do. But the difference is that I am tying to do things in a very transparent [way].
Naidu was not transparent?
Not at all. Naidu was very notorious in giving away prime land to IT developers without any sort of transparency whatsoever. On application, he used to sanction any project according to his whims and fancies. Now we have created a system wherein we identify the land, we call for expressions of interest for IT developers who want to come, we look at their qualifications and we go for the best in the bid. Naidu executed IT projects like a typical Nawab of Hyderabad.
Are you going to probe the IT deals of the Naidu government?
No, we cannot probe many IT deals in spite of the fact that they look shady. If you start digging everything the previous government did, it sends negative investment signals. So by and large, IT deals and other projects that the Naidu government inked, we are not trying to open up and probe. But any allegations of kickbacks and corruption are being looked into. Some deals, which relate to the infrastructure development like the international airport in Hyderabad and ports development, we are not trying to re-negotiate. In fact, the Naidu government had identified promoters for the new airport and seaports. We are continuing with them. We do not want to cancel the project allotments and embark on re-negotiations. We are not trying to do that.
The biggest problem that stares you in the face is the continuing farmers' suicides. Statistics say the suicides have increased alarmingly after you took over.
That is a big, sad number. We are trying to do our best to arrest the suicides.
What are you trying to do?
You know the farmers are committing suicide because of the lopsided priorities in the state in the last one decade of Naidu's rule. The farmers are paying the price and bearing the brunt today. We are now taking all possible corrective measures. The immediate measures are provision of free power to farmers, waiving of around Rs 13000 crore arrears of power belonging to the farmers and increasing bank lending to the farmers.
We have increased the lending to almost 40 per cent. We have brought in new farmers to the bank lending system. We have embarked on a new seeds policy. Seeds subsidies are now given. One of the major reasons for the farmers committing suicides was the drilling of bore wells. Nearly 50 percent of the farmers have committed suicide because they drilled many bore wells for water, and could not get any water. They increased debts by taking loans to dig the bore wells. They wasted money for water.
You made history by inviting the Naxal groups to the negotiation table. Where are the talks heading?
The first round of talks is over. They came over and discussed the problem of land distribution in Andhra Pradesh. We assured them that all these problems would be taken care of. We will appoint a committee to go into the demands of the Naxals. From our side, we have asked them to lay down arms. They should not indulge in any more killings and destruction. Naxals are free to form a political party. We are ready to solve the land problems and provide financial assistance to bring the Naxals back to the mainstream. We should get an assurance from them that they will not continue the violence. They cannot carry weapons. They have to lay down weapons. But it looks like they have reservations about our suggestions. They said they would come back once again for talks. Let us see.
Naxals have accused big companies like Satyam Computers of grabbing land?
Some of the demands and utterances of the Naxals do not hold much water. The lands which they claim have been occupied by companies like Satyam are all industrial, and they cannot say this land should be returned to the farmers. They gave a big list of land given to IT companies. It has only exposed the level of understanding of the extremists. They do not understand many things, many realities. The talks with them exposed many weaknesses of the Naxalites.
What is happening to the demand for Telengana state?
It is something the Central government has to decide.
The Telengana Rashtra Samiti chief K Chandrashekhar Rao is making a lot of noise. He says the Congress is cheating him and the people of Andhra Pradesh on the Telengana statehood issue.
The fact is that before the elections, the Congress and the TRS made a joint declaration that if we come to power, a second states reorganisation commission would be formed to study about the proposed Telengana state. But now Rao says he does not want a second commission. He says the first commission gave a report on Telengana 50 years back. But he fails to understand that the Central government had rejected the first commission's report on Telengana. So now the Congress-led government at the Centre has to set up a second commission on this issue. It is not done overnight. It takes time.
So now what happens to your alliance with the TRS, is it on a bumpy road?
Well, let us see. Wait and see.
Rao is also upset he is not yet given a portfolio though he has been made a Cabinet minister at the Centre.
That is something he should take it up with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images; Design: Uday Kuckian