Summer holidays were fun for the Reddy youngsters when they gathered at their sprawling ancestral home in Pulivendula. The only snag was the young cousin from Hyderabad who always came armed with a brand new Monopoly board. He insisted that they play the game — which they did, and lost. The cousin won every round.
In a hurry: Jagan Reddy being taken for interrogation by the CBI at Chanchalguda Central Jail, Hyderabad, and (below) the MP at a demonstration in Delhi last year
Thirty-nine-year-old Yeduguri Sandhinti Jaganmohan Reddy appears to have translated the board game — where the winner is the one with the most assets — into real life. And it seems that the richest member of Parliament is collecting votes quite as easily as he gathered property in Monopoly as a young lad.
Last month, Jagan Reddy watched the news from his cell in Hyderabad’s Chanchalguda central prison as his year-old Yuvajana Sramika Rythu (YSR) Congress trounced two well-established parties in Andhra Pradesh — the Congress and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) — in the June 12 by-elections. Reddy, charged with corruption and amassing wealth, had just cocked a snook — like he did during the summer holidays — at his opponents, winning 15 of 18 Assembly constituencies and the Nellore Lok Sabha seat with huge margins.
“He has arrived,” a senior Congress leader says glumly. “Nothing other than a conviction in the corruption cases will deny him his political career.”
The disquiet is understandable. In September 2009, when the then AP chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR) died in a helicopter crash, few expected his only son, Jagan, to position himself as an alternative. The Congress turned down demands that Jagan be appointed CM. Fourteen months later he walked out of the Congress and soon formed his own party. Now, with a spate of electoral victories behind him, the YSR Congress president has marked his place in state politics.
“He has effectively become a third force in the state,” says Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, his senior in school.
Those who watched him outmaneouvre his opponents as a child are not surprised. “I have never ever seen him lose a game of Monopoly,” says old friend J.J. Reddy, who is now a director in several of his companies. “He lost only when he felt that we were losing interest in the game or when he wanted somebody he liked to win,” adds close relative Madhulika Reddy. “But those occasions were very rare.”
All those who’d penned Jagan’s political obituary after he left the Congress are watching his rise with unease. In the last few weeks, he has once again underlined that he doesn’t believe in the runners-up slot. And for that, if he has to trounce the party that the Reddy family reposed faith in, so be it.
His father, old-timers recall, was a bit like that. YSR was a permanent dissident against every Congress chief minister from 1989 to 1994. But the charismatic leader knew his lakshman rekha — he never took on the central leadership through his 30-year career. His impatient son dared the High Command in less than a decade.
“Jagan is a man in a hurry,” says an Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) office bearer. Some argue that you can’t blame him — the trait is a legacy of his homeland, the mineral-rich Rayalaseema area in the southwest. “There is something about the soil that makes its people stubborn,” says a political commentator who is supportive of Jagan. The people are also generally seen as big risk takers.
Indeed, Jagan has never been a man to bide his time. A Congress MP recalls that he had wanted the Congress to field him from Kadapa in the 2004 election. It didn’t, offering the ticket instead to his uncle, Y.S. Vivekananda Reddy, who went on to win the seat. Two years later, Vivekananda Reddy resigned — apparently persuaded to do so by YSR, who had been egged on by Jagan — to make way for his nephew. But Congress president Sonia Gandhi nixed the neat little family arrangement. Since then, insiders hold, Jagan has been resentful of Gandhi.
It’s not personal, explains D.A. Somayajulu, advisor in the YSR Congress. Jagan, he says, is only making a larger point: Delhi should not be making decisions about leadership in the state. The systematic elimination by the Congress of strong grassroots leaders has brewed resentment across states, he argues.
Jagan thought he was being snubbed over and over again by the party. It rejected his bid for chief ministership, and then ordered him not to go on a yatra to console the families of supporters who had committed suicide following YSR’s death. Jagan flouted the party and went on the yatra. That was the breaking point.
Ambition, clearly, is in his genes. It was his grandfather, Raja Reddy, a prosperous mine owner from Pulivendula in Kadapa, who scripted the family’s entry into politics and its dominance in the district. Some political observers believe Jagan carries traits of his grandfather, who was murdered in 1998.
Jagan exhibited his leadership qualities even when he was a teenager studying at Hyderabad Public School — whose alumni include the current chief minister Kiran Kumar Reddy, cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle and Owaisi. “He was an average student. But he was a leader once he was out of class,” recalls a former teacher.
Fond of sports, he was the captain of the school’s Nagarjuna House, which won a trophy for best performance under his captaincy, thanks mainly to his knack for spotting and nurturing talent. He was also popular with the girls — possibly aided by his hairstyle, which imitated that of the then reigning Telugu star Krishna.
After school, YSR sent him to the US for undergraduate studies. No one The Telegraph spoke to was aware of what course or which university he got admitted to. What’s known is that Jagan returned within a few months, prompting TDP leader N. Chandrababu Naidu to make snide comments about the “return post”.
A friend holds that Jagan returned because he missed his friends. It’s a fact that Jagan doesn’t make friends easily. His close circle consists mostly of old pals. Even when he was elected to Parliament in 2009, he largely kept to himself. “Jagan is a little reserved and finds it difficult to indulge in idle conversation,” reasons Somayajulu, who, however, adds that he has inherited from his father the “amazing” ability to bond with ordinary people and work the crowds.
It wasn’t this talent, however, that got him into college. In November 1991, when he was 19, he sought admission into Hyderabad’s Pragati Mahavidhyalaya Degree College, five months after admissions had closed. A former college administrator recalls that he got his father’s trusted lieutenant, A. Suryanarayana Reddy, to pull strings to get him into a BCom course without YSR’s knowledge. “He is very single-minded in whatever he does,” stresses Madhulika.
His interest in business is a case in point. In the mid-1990s, Jagan moved to Bangalore after winning a contract for a mini-hydel project in Karnataka. YSR was the leader of the Opposition in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly then and did not want his son to be affected by the bitter political rivalry in the state. Jagan lived there with his wife, Bharathi, whom he married in 1996, and daughters Harshini and Varsha. He expanded his business, acquiring a power company, Sandur Power, in 2001.
By 2011, when he quit as Congress MP and returned to Parliament on a YSR Congress ticket, he had become the richest MP with moveable assets of Rs 365 crore, and land and property worth Rs 25 crore. His assets included Jagati Publications, incorporated in 2006, which launched the Sakshi newspaper in 2008 and Sakshi Television in 2009.
A shrewd businessman, he is up-to-date with what is happening in his companies. When he was unimpressed by a campaign planned by the Hyderabad office of Ogilvy & Mather for the launch of Sakshi newspaper, he flew to Mumbai with Rani Reddy, who was then the Hyderabad head of the advertising company and is now a director in Sakshi TV. She recalls that he met &M head Piyush Pandey and finalised the campaign. He was also personally involved with recruiting reporters for his newspaper.
“At boardroom meetings, people think they are well-prepared but Jagan ends up asking questions no one is ready for,” says J.J. Reddy.
In the last decade, while Jagan’s business interests grew, his political reach expanded as well. He remained in Bangalore when his father became chief minister in 2004, but clearly itched to do more. “My father throws a few crumbs at me once in three months; all he does for me is to come home early when I am in Hyderabad and have dinner with me,” he told a friend (not J.J. Reddy) in 2005.
But Jagan soon became a centre of power in Bangalore. The problem was that people seeking favours still approached YSR’s closest companion from his college days, K.V.P. Ramachandra Rao (KVP), who was chief advisor to the state government on public affairs and based in Hyderabad.
So Jagan started visiting Hyderabad more often to play an active role in both politics and alleged deal making, for which he is now facing charges (see below). By 2007, he had got into the big league of Andhra Pradesh businessmen.
|HEIR RISING: Jagan Reddy; and (below) his wife, Bharathi (left) and sister, Sharmila
His biggest move was getting into the media business. A Hyderabad-based entrepreneur recalls a few pro-Congress industrialists approaching YSR with the idea of starting a newspaper sympathetic to the Congress. “Jagan already has plans for this,” YSR is reported to have told them.
“Sakshi newspaper and television have played a huge part in building up Jagan’s image and prepare a groundswell in his favour,” says Parakala Prabhakar, political analyst and managing director of RightFolio, a Hyderabad-based brand consulting firm.
By 2009, Jagan’s influence had grown significantly. That was also when he first won the Kadapa Lok Sabha seat on a Congress ticket. “He had remained in the background earlier, though everyone knew what he was up to,” says a BJP politician from Andhra Pradesh. “But from 2009, he became more in your face.”
Soon party old timers had begun to complain about his arrogance. Somayajulu denies this. “Even people close to YSR hardly saw Jagan,” he says. The allegation, however, doesn’t surprise his former teachers, one of whom recalls that he always had an air of superiority coupled with aggressiveness. In Class IX, he once charged towards his geography teacher for swearing at him, but stopped short of hitting him. His father forced him to apologise and he was suspended from school for a week.
Years later, when Jagan was fighting the Congress High Command, he didn’t hesitate to break off ties with KVP, when the latter advised him not to rush the party. Though the families are on talking terms, KVP — whom Jagan used to call mama (uncle) — was not invited to the December 2011 house-warming ceremony of Jagan’s sprawling home in Hyderabad’s Lotus Pond area. The house — spread over 500 square metres with underground parking space for 25 cars — was designed by Jagan. The Reddys also have their own church right next to the house.
A devout Protestant, Jagan never leaves home without saying his prayers. The religious turn came after he was severely injured in an accident in 1992 when he rammed his Maruti 800 into a roundabout.
YSR died just when Jagan was getting into the groove of parliamentary politics. The question now being asked is whether Jagan can take the YSR Congress further. Yes, he can, says Somayajulu. Jagan, he points out, is focused and disciplined.
Indeed, his friends and family members say he is an early riser and a fitness freak who hits the gym every morning. He downs four cups of lemon tea before that, but that is his only indulgence. He is not a fussy eater, though he loves non-vegetarian food and enjoys sprouts for breakfast.
But running a party surely requires more than discipline. In one year, the party has not managed to set its agenda. The letters YSR in his party — while saluting his father — stand for youth (Yuvajana), workers (Sramika) and farmers (Rythu). But right now, the party seems focused only on the treatment meted out to the YSR family.
But as one of his supporters pointed out, TDP founder N.T. Rama Rao didn’t have a party structure either — yet was a popular chief minister. Jagan seems to be following in NTR’s footsteps. “He is trying to do what NTR did in the early Eighties,” says the APCC office bearer. “NTR’s poll plank was ‘Andhra should get what Andhra wants’. Jagan is saying that Sonia shouldn’t decide leaders for Andhra, let Andhra decide.”
But it’s also true that Jagan’s victory in the recent elections is not entirely a sign of his political strength. Prabhakar points out that with no charismatic Congress leader capable of filling YSR’s shoes, there’s a political vacuum in the state — which the TDP, the main Opposition party, has not managed to fill either. What’s more, instead of attacking each other, the Congress and the TDP trained their guns on Jagan.
“The man on the street started asking why these two big parties are going after one individual when corruption is rampant everywhere,” says Prabhakar. “Arresting him two weeks before the by-election was a huge mistake,” adds the senior Congress leader.
What’s also helped the YSR Congress is the support of the majority of the Reddy community and Christians in the coastal areas. “Caste and religious polarisation have helped him in these elections,” says TDP legislator Revanth Reddy. “But once the sympathy wave subsides and facts about corruption are revealed, people will realise he is not the best person to lead the state.”
Meanwhile, the Reddy family has been rallying around Jagan. His mother, Vijayalakshmi, and sister, Sharmila, took to the streets to protest Jagan’s arrest — while the family media house beamed poignant visuals. Madhulika, who lived in the US, returned to India to help him. Vivekananda Reddy, who’d stayed with the Congress when Jagan left the party, joined the YSR Congress when it became evident that his nephew’s arrest was imminent. Support also comes from his brother-in-law Anil Kumar who converted to Christianity after marrying Sharmila and now heads the Anil World Evangelism (AWE) Ministries. His sermons are regularly shown on Sakshi TV.
And for Jagan, the battle’s just begun. A political acquaintance recalls a conversation with him a few years after YSR became chief minister. “If my father is chief minister, what should I be,” Jagan asked. “Prime Minister?” the acquaintance responded sarcastically. “Yes,” Jagan replied in earnest.
In the dock
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed four chargesheets against Jagan Reddy. The thrust of the charges is that he conspired along with his late father, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR), to mobilise funds for his company, Jagati Publications (which is also named in the chargesheets) through quid pro quo allotments of land in industrial parks and other ventures developed by the Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation. The land, the CBI has alleged, was allotted at highly concessional rates and by circumventing established rules. A first information report filed by the CBI said that the sweetheart deals covered land in special economic zones, contracts for irrigation projects, special relaxation and permissions for real estate ventures and mines.
Jagan and V. Vijay Sai Reddy, financial advisor to Jagati Publications (who has also been arrested), have also been charged with getting the firm valued at a very high figure and misrepresenting the performance of the company to lure investors. Jagan is also accused of floating a large number of companies to launder what CBI alleges is bribe money. The money was routed through these companies into Jagati Publications, the CBI has alleged.
The CBI investigation was ordered by the Andhra Pradesh High Court on a public interest litigation filed by P. Shanker Rao, a former minister.
K.T.S. Tulsi, Jagan’s lawyer, holds that quid pro quo is a vague allegation. The
investments in Jagan’s companies, he notes, took place long after the allotment of land. “Never in the history of criminal law have investments or buying share capital in small measure been treated as illegal gratification.” The cases, he stresses, are all politically motivated.
It’s over to the courts now.
All that Jagan has achieved so far
Became an MP
Went on a yatra
Walked out of the Congress
Set up his party
The flip side
No party structure
No strong programmes