When the young try to defy death
By M J Akbar
The ageing rarely die suddenly, for they do not take life for granted. The young, particularly when armoured by success, laugh away danger, until danger has the last laugh.
Youth is more than a statistic. Y S Rajasekhara Reddy was 60 years old, when the tired are supposed to retire. But he had a youthful demeanour, the energy, spirit and mind of a man who saw more horizons before the inescapable grave or pyre. Risk is built into such a mentality, for the young, by definition, dismiss death as a distant fact. Madhavrao Scindia and Rajesh Pilot, like YSR, saw themselves as young, and behaved with the joie de vivre of youth. Scindia, in another fated helicopter, challenged the elements, and Pilot, driving a light car, pressed his foot too hard on the pedal. YSR must have smiled in disdain when told that the weather would be inclement. Optimism is synonymous with youth. Pessimism, or its boring cousin, realism, is for the depressed and the faint-hearted.
An election victory is an unreliable measure of a politician's value. Rajasekhara Reddy's triumph in 2004 might not have been possible without the hard work he put in, but it could be argued that it was Chandrababu Naidu's loss as much as Reddy's gain. One of the by-laws of democracy is that every good Opposition needs the full cooperation of a terrible government to succeed. The true worth of a politician is known only by his ability to manage the tedious task of administration. Victory prances on banners; there are no headlines for good governance. It is visible only after five years, during the battle for re-election. Rajasekhara Reddy was not without his share of controversy; his opponents accused him of corruption. But he won in 2009 because he understood that the key to delivery is what has been done for the poor. Fashionable economists sneer at populism. Any sensible politician prefers popularity to a certificate from the World Bank.
His death is a blow to his government, obviously, but an incalculable loss to his party, for he twice delivered the fulcrum of the Congress presence in the Lok Sabha. Factionalism was hardly the sole sin of the Andhra Congress, but it was the rampant crime. If you have any sympathy for the ruling party you don't want to know what the Reddys and Raos used to be up to. Their humiliation at the hands of N T Rama Rao intensified the civil wars, rather than calming them down; and the elevation of P V Narasimha Rao as the first prime minister from the state did nothing to improve the culture of this fractious lot. All that Rao did as prime minister was to add another faction to the Andhra Congress, this one headed by a less-than-competent son.
Rajasekhara Reddy found both ends of the solution. He won an election, without which factionalism cannot be controlled; and then he assuaged hunger on all sides. It is a stupid victor who believes in winner-take-all.
The danger before the Congress is obvious. A localized earthquake has scattered what had been built; rebuilding is so much more difficult, since moorings have been displaced. It will be virtually impossible for any successor to maintain internal peace, because we are back to a party of lesser-known equals. Irrespective of who gets the job - the suave and senior S Jaipal Reddy, the rugged veteran K Rosaiah who has served in every Congress government since 1978 and has been made caretaker leader, or the young and ambitious Reddy son Y S Jagan - there will be resentment among those who have been denied. Jagan has created a media sprawl across the state that could be particularly useful in any factional feud, and he will also consider himself beneficiary of the sympathy accruing from his father's early death. No politician considers himself an untested peer's inferior. Since only victory in an election will establish the next chief minister's credentials, and there are more than four years left for that, you can do your own political math.
Rajasekhara Reddy was a Christian; a close relative of his is a modern evangelist. He went to Jerusalem on a thanksgiving pilgrimage after his election victory. As a believer, perhaps he should have remembered that there is an angel of death. When you feel young, you never really worry if the angel leaves its visiting card behind after a close call. Three years ago Rajasekhara Reddy got into a hired helicopter at Giddalur and flew into dense cloud and incessant rain over Srisailam. His pilot dropped height, and his chief security officer studied maps he happened to be carrying to discover the nearest point at which a helicopter could land. The angel is rarely cheated twice. And the young are not invincible.