The King Is Dead; Long Live the King

10/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

India witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of grief this week. The popular Andhra Pradesh state Chief Minister, YS Rajashekhar Reddy, was killed in a helicopter crash on Tuesday, 2 September. The charred remains of his body, along with those of two co-passengers and two pilots, were found by an Indian Air Force helicopter in the morning of Wednesday, bringing to completion an almost 24-hour search.

Newspapers reported by Friday, the day of his burial (Reddy was a Christian), that 67 people of the state have died either out of shock at the death of the leader or have committed suicide in grief. Many of the victims were watching the proceedings of his dramatic disappearance; the equally stunning search and rescue operation; and eventually the news of his death.

Such was the scale of the developing human tragedy following Reddy's death that his bereaved son YS Jaganmohan Reddy had to issue a public appeal exhorting the people not to commit suicide. "I appeal to all of you to be patient and be brave in this hour of tragedy. He (YSR) wanted to see a smile on the faces of all and if you resort to such things (suicide) this (sic) will hurt him," Jaganmohan had said.

The scale of YSR's popularity can be gauged from the fact that early this year he created a record of sorts in the history of the state's politics. He became the first Congress Party chief minister of the state to complete a full five-year term; and then led the party to victory in the polls for another five years.

A medical doctor by profession, he showed early signs of being a politician when he was studying medicine at a medical college in neighboring Karnataka. Sensing his potential, Indira Gandhi had made him the president of the local state unit of the Congress Party when he was a callow 34 year old. His task was to hold the fort of the national party, then besieged by the rising tide of "regionalism" led by the aging cine-star turned politician of the state, NT Rama Rao.

He obviously passed muster because despite the adverse political climate, Reddy held on to his legislative assembly seat in successive elections, and later his Parliamentary seat. Returning to state politics from the national scene in 1999, he took on inheritor of the NT Rama Rao political mantle, N Chandrababu Naidu.

The latter, who became the darling of the World Bank with his reformist zeal when he was the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, had failed to improve the plight of the poor and the disadvantaged. That fact paved the way for the victory of the Congress Party in 2004 in the state polls, and YSR became the chief minister.

He launched a series of welfare measures, including doles to farmers. The measure of success of his anti-poverty programs is now reflected in the grief of the people in his death. YSR also ruthlessly countered the Maoist insurgency in the state that once threatened to engulf it. That his anti-Maoist operations -- in which many young cadres were killed and incarcerated -- had not earned him enough popular opprobrium is also a reflection of his superior political management skills.

The natural concomitant of this wave of goodwill for YSR is the demand that is arising in the state for the nomination of his son, Jaganmohan, to be the next chief minister. The latter is known in the state more for his business management skills than his political acumen.

While his personal website claimed that he had joined the Congress Party inspired by the leadership of the late Rajiv Gandhi, his website further held, "Jagan Mohan Reddy is an industrialist mainly setting up companies in remote areas not for profit but to employ unemployed in villages there by developing their lifestyles (sic!)."

Though he contested the Parliamentary polls for the first time early this year, clearly his political ambitions have been in the making for some time now. It may not be entirely due to their love and respect for YSR that 120 Congress Party members of the Andhra Pradesh legislative assembly out of a total 154 have written to the party leaders at the national level to make YSR's son the next chief minister.

But the dynastic nature of the proposed succession is raising the hackles of many. Some senior party Parliamentarians from the state have made statements against the attempt to make Jaganmohan the political heir to YSR's chief ministerial chair. They have even taken objection to the parallel being drawn for YSR's son with the late Rajiv Gandhi's succession to the Indian prime ministerial seat of power after Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October, 1984.

Jaganmohan, in turn, issued a statement that can best be termed a politically pregnant show of restraining his increasingly vociferous supporters. He said, "Our high command (Congress Party's apex leadership) knows and more particularly our beloved leader Sonia Gandhi respects the public perception and feelings of lakhs of Congress Party workers and she knows too well what is good for all of us and what is good for our state and people."

"I request you to await the decision of Ms Sonia Gandhi, president, AICC, on the issue of leadership and also urge you to abide the decision. (I am sure) she will take a decision in such a way that Rajasekhara Reddy's ideals, mission and zeal would not be compromised in any manner," Jaganmohan had pithily added.

Clearly, the political theater unleashed this week is not about to end soon.