It’s an episode that is now nearly forgotten. Back in mid-1990s, veteran environmental activist Sunderlal Bahuguna, on a fast in protest against the damage the Tehri dam in Uttarakhand was wreaking upon the fragile ecosystem, was allegedly whisked away for coercive persuasion by a contracting firm. The firm had an earth-moving contract in the dam project. It was also associated with an upcoming Andhra politician, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy. In post-liberalised India, as a wider world of opportunities beckoned, this was the first visible instance when the brazen attempts at control over territory and resources left trails way beyond their localised context.
The same process has now struck our polity with full force—Jaganmohan Reddy, YSR’s son, and the brothers Reddy (Janardhan, Karunakar and Somashekhar) hold national parties like the Congress and the BJP hostage to their ambition in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka respectively. Parties nowadays are but tools of political and economic ambition, as is apparent from the connections the Karnataka BJP’s very own Bellary brothers share with the family of YSR across the border.
The area of Rayalaseema in south Andhra Pradesh, bordering Karnataka, has seen violent factional fights for domination over land and resources ever since the decline of the medieval Vijayanagara empire, through British times, to the present day. Its roots lie in the land tenure arrangement peculiar to the region and the turf war it spawned among groups led by the clans of the erstwhile nayakas of the Vijayanagara kingdom. YSR’s father, Raja Reddy, was a mines supervisor who deposed the owner of a small mining interest to acquire his business. This gave him an edge in the local factional tussle. Yet, Rayalaseema was on the margins of Andhra politics till the time of single-party domination by the Congress. With the rise of the Telugu Desam Party in the 1980s, protagonists of the scuffle in Rayalaseema could play one party against the other. In a patronage-based political system, Congress and tdp leaders who came from the dominant coastal and Telangana regions of Andhra vied with each other to give sops to the competing Rayalaseema leaders. This brought more contracts, and hence more resources, to the leading players in Rayalaseema, which in turn generated more unrest. For all their talk about radical socialism, even the Naxalites were sucked into the vicious scrimmage. Yet the ring-leaders still didn’t have a significant presence in Hyderabad and Bangalore.
Things began changing in 1991, when P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was from Telangana, contested the Lok Sabha elections from Nandyal, a constituency in the heart of the faction zone. The major stakeholders tried to outdo one another in getting bulk votes for the ‘Telugu bidda’. This time, the rewards were higher, of a hitherto unimaginable scale, as prime minister Rao liberalised the economy. Though the rhetoric of liberalisation stressed on open economic competition, in practice it relied on time-tested cronyism. So rich were the pickings of the beneficiaries in Rayalaseema that an upstart YSR could flex his newly bolstered political muscle in 1995 in the faraway Himalayas. During this time, big civil contracts flowed to the well-connected Rayalaseema leaders who had for ages fought one another on the grey margins of law. As contractors, they also saw opportunities in the obscure corners of economic and legal zones; with newly minted money they started wielding political clout in Hyderabad and New Delhi.
Along came the India Shining growth rate of the new millennium. Modest mining interests of yore now promised enormous economic prizes. Moreover, the shores of an even faster growing China beckoned. These dual growths would naturally guzzle more iron ore and steel, supplied legally and otherwise, worth hundreds of millions of rupees. Political clout gave a competitive edge, legal or extra-legal, over competitors and bought economic resources. And economic resources bought political clout—a veritable cycle of influence and preferment. The successful faction leaders became successful state politicians and ambitious economic players. Aggressive defiance, buying loyalty or commanding it through bullying are fundamental to survival and domination in the narrow, ruthless scrum of factions. The Reddy brothers-Jaganmohan episode shows how this set of feral rules are now being transposed on to institutions of governance and polity, and threatening to corrupt them in entirety.