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The Rediff Election Interview/Dr Y S Rajashekhar Reddy

May 05, 2004

Dr Y S Rajasekhar Reddy is surrounded by people at his Jubilee Hills home in Hyderabad, people who believe he will be the next chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. He smiles when asked if he agrees with that assessment and then repeats a line immortalised by generations of Congressmen -- "The legislators will elect their leader. The high command's decision will be final."

Just back from a quick getaway in Kumarakom in Kerala, Reddy, the Congress leader in the dissolved Andhra Pradesh assembly, has little to worry about. Exit polls, opinion polls, opinion makers, all believe that Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu and his Telugu Desam Party are on their way out. This assessment, a good week ahead of the May 11 results, is a good position to be in for the Congress.

But Reddy, a doctor-turned-politician, is keeping cool. He has seen far too many ups and down in his long political career to celebrate a victory prematurely or to give up a fight before it is over.

Both he and Naidu started their political careers in the Congress in the late 1970s. While Naidu jumped onto the TDP bandwagon after his father-in-law N T Rama Rao's party dislodged the Congress in 1983, YSR remained with the Congress.

In the 1984 Lok Sabha and 1985 snap assembly election, he led the battle as the AP Congress Committee president without much success.

In his second stint as APCC chief, he revived the Congress on the eve of the 1999 election, but the TDP-BJP alliance proved formidable. The Congress trebled its strength to 91 in the 294-member assembly, but contributed only five Lok Sabha members to the party's kitty out of 42 from the state.

As leader of the Congress Legislature Party, YSR turned into a bitter critic of the TDP's 'anti-people' policies. He undertook a grueling padayatra in the drought-hit state in the oppressive summer heat last year. After the dissolution of the assembly by Chandrababu Naidu, YSR, along with senior Congress leaders, criss-crossed the state in what has since come to be called 'the Congress unity bus yatra.' He covered over 5,500 km.

He spoke to Contributing Correspondent Syed Amin Jafri at his home.

How do you rate the Congress' prospects in the assembly polls in the state?

The prospects of the Congress party are very bright. I am quite sure the Congress alone will get not less than 180 seats and the alliance (Congress + Telangana Rashtriya Samithi) will get anywhere between 210 to 220 seats. I think the Congress is going to come to power.

But Chandrababu Naidu insists the exit polls are wrong and that he is sure of retaining power. The Congress, he claims, can celebrate its 'self-conceived victory' till counting day.

Chandrababu was happy when the television channels predicted his victory in 1999. He welcomed the exit poll findings by the same (television) channel (NDTV, then Star News) in 1999 when it gave a majority of assembly seats and all but five Lok Sabha seats to his party. But now he is opposing exit polls. His double standards on the issue only betray his sense of insecurity.

In any case, Chandrababu has been scaling down the number of seats that he expected the TDP to win. From the earlier forecast of 250 seats for his party, he now talks about getting the required number of seats to form a government. He is aware of what lies in store for him. He knows the people want the TDP government to go.

What factors have contributed to the upswing in the Congress' electoral fortunes?

On one side, there was total neglect of various sectors and sections by the present government. The TDP turned a blind eye to the rural economy, the plight of farmers and rural artisans, widespread unemployment and rampant corruption. On the other hand, the people compared the present regime to the earlier regimes and the steps that we had taken to tackle these issues when we were in power and realised that the TDP was making empty promises and doing pretty little.

If the Congress comes to power, what will be its priorities?

Agriculture and irrigation, clubbed with industry, power sector and employment. These are our prime areas of concern, our priority sectors. Now, on all these fronts, we will do everything and anything that needs to be done.

Now, the leadership question. Everyone thinks you are the front-runner for the CM's post.

Let us not talk about it right now. Let the MLAs decide this after May 11. After they get elected, the Congress Legislature Party, I am sure, will decide this. I am sure the high command will give proper advice and guidance to the legislature party.

But the popular perception is that since you have put in a lot of effort for the party in the last 18 months or so, by undertaking the padayatra, bus yatra and jaitra yatra, you are the natural choice of the party for the CM's job.

Whatever I had to do as a front-line Congress party fighter, I did my best. I can only say I am a front-line worker of the Congress party. I do not want to say anything beyond that. Yeah, I did my best.

Why you are hesitant to say that you have better prospects than others to become chief minister this time if the Congress regains power?

I can only say the CLP will elect a leader who enjoys the support of legislators and the high command's blessings. I have no doubt that the MLAs will choose a good leader.

Will it be you?

I think it is not good for the health of all of us to comment on the issue. It will be premature to talk about this even before the counting of votes is taken up.

There is uncertainty about the IT sector if the Congress comes to power.

IT may never take any backseat. The only thing is when we give thrust to the areas which have been neglected, that should not harm the other sectors. It is not that we are not focusing on IT or that we do not know how to look forward. There is nothing like that. We only want to ensure that every sector gets sufficient attention.

But don't you think that Chandrababu Naidu's focus on IT, bio-technology, travel and tourism and World Bank-sponsored reforms contributed to the anti-incumbency against the TDP because nothing was done to mitigate the hardships of the rural people.

He is trying to project himself as the most IT-savvy man. Fine. If he could have done that, we have no objection to that. But he has neglected the core sectors that mattered. That he ought not have. That has resulted in such a grave situation. Farmers were committing suicide. That is not proper.

What about the Telangana issue?

Our party's stand on the issue is very clear. Our party will press its demand for a second States Reorganisation Commission to go into the issue of smaller states, including Telangana.

Once the Congress comes to power at the Centre, we will definitely constitute the second SRC. We are committed to the Congress Working Committee resolution favouring setting up the second SRC while showing healthy respect for the recommendations of the first SRC.

But TRS chief K Chandrasekhar Rao says Telangana state will be formed within six months.

Let us not get into specifics at this stage.

Chandrababu Naidu says the Congress would need Rs 100,000 crore to fulfill its poll promises with regard to irrigation and other sectors. Where will the Congress find the resources for its grandiose plans?

We are going to fulfill our poll promises for strengthening the rural economy, developing irrigation potential to the optimum level, supplying free power to the farmers and weaker sections, empowering women and creating employment opportunities for the youth.

Free power for farmers will entail a burden of Rs 250 crore on the state exchequer. On the other hand, we can save Rs 350 crore a year which the government was spending for publicity during the TDP regime. True, we will be inheriting a difficult fiscal situation with the state debt touching Rs 57,000 crore under Chandrababu's rule. But we will complete all the irrigation projects by saving money on populist measures that have been draining the state's resources in the TDP regime.

Image: Rahil Sheikh

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