Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Keep leaders of eminence above partisan politics: Justice Sudershan Reddy

Justice B. Sudershan Reddy

  • YSR’s death anniversary was observed in a fitting manner
  • His ‘Atma’, KVP Ramachandra Rao, Raghuveera  come up with a book
  • Justice Sudershan Reddy’s speech at the event

At the very outset, let me state that it is indeed an honour to be called upon, to preside over this function that, in essence, seeks to place the contributions, of a beloved leader of the masses of the Telugu speaking lands, in new and renewed light. These days politics are no longer about reasoned and reasonable debate, but shrill baying – filled with all manner of invective – against political opponents. Nevertheless, I would like to believe that even bitter political opponents of Shri. Y.S. Rajashekar Reddy – the late Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh – would not baulk at characterizing him as a political giant, given his achievements in the political sphere.I think we need to set aside differences of opinion regarding political, economic and policy orientations, and even personal rivalries, and talk respectfully and objectively about a person whose life was cut short cruelly by a tragic accident.

            Having been a constitutional functionary, charged with, inter alia, the responsibility of ensuring that the decisions of the executive operate within the boundaries of the enactments that are made by the legislature, and that the law enacted by the legislature is permissible under the boundaries set by the Constitution of India, and on the more rarer occasions deciding whether the legislative and executive actions may be of the kind that violates the very basic structure – I recognize the dangerous trend of judges on constitutional courts being viewed as belonging to a tribe (judiciary)that is relentlessly against the agenda of the political sphere. This is further amplified by an increasingly and incorrigibly irresponsible media, that seeks to sensationalise every comment and decision, by the judiciary,as if these are turning points in some T20 cricket match, or worse still gladiatorial contests in some pagan era.

            It is true that there were a few instances where I was constitutionally compelled to strike down an executive decision and/or a legislative enactment spearheaded by YSR as the Chief Minister. On one occasion, as a judge of the High Court of AP, I was compelled, by a key precedent set by the Supreme Court of India,to strike down a politically important legislation, pushed through in the legislature, as a means to fulfill a poll promise made by YSR as he was popularly called. Notwithstanding that, there were many occasions when we met personally as two constitutional functionaries, and let me assure you that there was never even a hint of anything other than mutual respect for each other – both on account of the constitutional offices we were holding and also on account of the respect that we owed to each other as individuals engaged in functions dealing with constitutional goals. He always exuded a warmth that was natural, revealing himself to be both affable and instinctually a friendly person. Equally importantly, he also used to seek opinions on larger reference frames, and was quick to appreciate the nuances of linkages between constitutionalism and the polity. Maybe because he himself had struggled to long and hard to attain political power, he was secure about his position enough to patiently listen to other points of view.

            There are many different examples that one could give, about what YSR did as the Chief Minister of the united Andhra Pradesh that are worthy of being mentioned. The list I am sure, according to his aficionados would be long; and his detractors, short. I think we need to get past compulsions of present day political jousting, to take a more balanced view.So, I wish to talk about a few of his accomplishments, within an overall framework of political economy and constitutional values, so that we can start to evaluate them from the perspective of larger frames of social reference, rather than mere partisan politics. If nothing else, at least we owe YSR the respect of treating his significant achievements as being historically very relevant and hence being worthy of scholarly attention. Above all, we owe it to ourselves – as people who wish to see politics as a platform for reasoned and reasonable deliberations and discourse – as a countermeasure to the corrosive public discourse of today.

The period in which YSR struggled to lead the Congress Party back to power in AP, was marked by a few overriding themes. Inter alia, they included, though not limited to: (a) decline of Congress as a monolithic behemoth, at the national level; (b) the inability of Congress at the State level in being able to accommodate and/or articulate the aspirations of many newly emerging political, social and demographic groupings; and (c) starting with early 1990s, the emergence of an increasingly stridently articulated neo liberal frames of political economy, in which markets were to be the greatest arbiters of value, and consequences to human beings – vast swathes of them – of lesser or near little consequence in politico-economic calculus. The corollary to the latter was to think of Directive Principles of State Policy as not merely non-existent, but even morally a nuisance.

            As any keen observer of politics in the Telugu landswould attest to, the very nature of Congress party’s functioning, and indeed the constant internecine fighting, of political leaders at the state level are often the cause for extreme worry. The modes of control and arbitration, from the central level beginning with at least late 1960s, had nearly dwindled or at least had significantly eroded post 1991 when Rajiv Gandhi was cruelly assassinated. YSR’s remarkable contribution was to be able to, through sheer force of personality and capacity, hold both friend and opponent within the party to a common political line, substantially absorb and manage the internecine conflicts, and effectively mount a a cohesive political challenge. We must remember that, in the years immediately after the near decimation of the party in the hustings of 1994, not many expected the party to generate a significant number of leaders who could sustain it as a credible political platform in A.P. For Congress supporters, the future appeared to be bleak, though it must be said that Congress continued to have a strong support base in the masses. The emergence of YSR as a PCC President, and how he galvanized Congress party, not withstanding another disappointing defeat in 1999, I feel ought to be studied by serious students of politics who want to flesh out the many underexplored streams of political history.

            Of-course, nothing demonstrated YSRs capacities as much as his pada yatra, prior to the 2004 elections. The abiding images from that padayatra were of his feet swollen beyond recognition and afflicted by blisters. That, along with the issues he took up – especially of farmers distress reeling under a 3 year drought – contributed significantly to the emotional connect he established with the people. I feel that there was another equally important aspect here. For a long time prior to the emergence of YSR, Congress party was perceived as being filled with leaders, barring a handful known for their independence, who depended on the “ashirwad” of the high command to merely occupy political and executive positions. The perceived servility of state level Congress leaders was of course one of the main platforms on which another charismatic leader had established a regional party in the State. The emergence of YSR, both prior to and after the padayatra, signified a change from that broad perception about Congress party. By sheer force of his personality, his dogged physical determination, and his capacity to build bridges even with foes in Congress party, he demonstrated that there were at least some “congressmen” in the State of AP who did not have to depend upon servile genuflection in Delhi to hold a position at the State level. The slur cast upon congressmen from the state, in early 1980s, that they were nothing more than effete and servile political oppoprtunists of the “High Command”, had to be erased. And anyone who is reasonable would have to agree that YSR did erase this significantly.

            There is another important aspect of his padayatra in 2003-2004 that we need to recognize. With the advent of TV as the principal or dominant form of political communication and political messaging, political leaders began to exclusively depend upon grandstanding on TV friendly stage managed jumborees or TV shows based propaganda. This meant that the main work of the rank and file of the workers degenerated intofrequent visits of the leaders homes in the capital city. On top of that, with the emergence of a full blown neo-liberal agenda, politics was no longer seen as a means of assessing what the people required, especially in regards to their welfare, but in obeisance with the diktats of the market fundamentalists, as a means of engendering coalitions to underwrite a government that only maintains law and order, while economic policy making was to be left to the technocrats in coalition with the businessman. Such a political economy tends encourage a view the masses from perspective of political opportunism, rather than as central figures.  A “pada-yatra” by a leader of the political opposition, at its very foundation implies an inversion of the neo-liberal political economy and the mode of political discourse engaged in by political parties. It brings more firmly and visibly to the center stage of demonstrative politics, the importance of the citizen who literally and figuratively is out on the street and on the roads – in both urban and more importantly rural areas. YSR of course added his very powerful charm to that principal inversion and turned the padayatra of 2003/2004 into a very important battering ram of the alleged India Shining story. Make no mistake – the number of Parliament seats won by Congress in AP alone accounted for nearly, if my memory serves me right, 25% of its total strength in the Parliament. It would not be unreasonable to say that he was a vital contributor in keeping Congress as an important platform for formation of coalitions that were willing to articulate a more inclusive agenda.

            By the late 1990s, under the guidance of IMF, our own intellectuals and politicians tilting towards the right, had begun to view and describe the masses depending on agrarian sector with visible exasperation. The masses in the rural sector were no longer viewed as co-equal citizens, worthy of solicitous enquiry about their living conditions. Consequently, the entire populace dependent on agriculture was chiefly viewed as a drain on public exchequer by virtue of being recipients of allegedly unmerited public goods (in the form of subsidies). So, the stridently articulated policy response was: reduce the subsidies, which are drain on the exchequer (irrespective of the cost and hardships caused); and in order to ensure that such demands are kept to a minimum in the future, shift the populace to urban jobs (without having fully thought through what sorts of skills and education might be required to make this transition successfully).

            The stance that YSR took, in late 90s and early 2000,was significantly different to the  dominant neo-liberal discourse constructed by the right, which was in power at both central and state level at that point of time. And in articulating a demand to place the rural populace at the center of economic concerns, he pulled the discourse back towards the humanism encapsulated in the Directive Principles of State Policy.

            I think the recent characterizations about welfare programs for the masses as sops and at worse denigrated sneeringly as freebies, and mere populist vote bank building exercises needs to be decried. The first problem lies with the denigration of the recipients, and this unfortunately seems to be a part of our social genetics – informed by Babasaheb called as graded inequalities in the social and economic spheres – to look down upon the less fortunate. Scholarly debates can be conducted as to whether a particular welfare program is needed, or whether there ought to be a balance between expenditures, welfare expenditures versus building of infrastructure etc. However, every such argument, it must necessarily be acknowledged, would be based on acceptance of suffering of an unconscionably large numbers of people of massive deprivations in terms of material resources and various aspects of social capital. If we were to allow suffering on such massive scale to occur, without even acknowledgement of the cost they pay, when we allocate more resources for building of say, infrastructure or facilities that are more likely to be of much greater benefit to the richer segments, then we would strike a blow to the very root of hopes of building a society based on empathy and deep respect for inherent human dignity. It is precisely this that the Preamble states is the primordial function of this democratic republic – to build an order of fraternity based on respect for inherent dignity of every human being and groups of them. The Directive Principles of State Policy were intended as instruments of instructions to political actors that they always keep the moral urgency of welfare of the deprived upper most in their minds. This was intended to be both an affirmation of the responsibilities of the well to do to recognize the diminished human dignity of those who are leading deprived lives as an affront to their own shared humanity, and also nurture a hope amongst the deprived that there will always be a moral urgency in political decision making regarding their well-being. The latter can be seen as being of primordial importance in maintaining peace and building a strong social structure that would enable a non-violent transformation of social and economic relations.

            There are two programs that YSR introduced that I would like scholars to study more, in terms of impact – both in terms of social returns and also in terms of perceptions among the poor and the deprived. The first of-course is Arogyasri, which YSR held dear as he was trained medical professional. There can always be debates about whether scarce resources should have been pumped into public facilities as opposed to becoming largesse for corporate hospitals. However, the core idea was that even the poorest should be enabled by the State to receive the best of medical attention, in moments of great personal anxieties for families when a loved one suffers a grave illness. I think that for YSR, this was as much about conveying to the deprived that they were worthy of this great solicitousness, and in a fundamental way their lives and health were equally important to the State as that of the rich and the well heeled.

            The other program initiated by YSR that we need to speak about would be “fee reimbursement” for students studying in various degree courses. There are two aspects one need to consider in this regard. The first is that the entire world was hurtling towards a knowledge economy, and to not have access to higher education by the poor and the deprived would permanently lock them out of future pathways that would lead them to more self actualizing lives. Education, as a great educationist once remarked, is cultural action for freedom – a freedom from one of the worst forms of shackles, of ignorance that we had placed on vast social segments of our populace because of our horrendous social structures and values. The second aspect we also need to consider would be about the potential this has in transforming rural economies.

            Few people realise that when Aurangazeb died, India was arguably the country with least number of people dependent on agriculture as their primary source of income/livelihoods. I recall reading an interesting, and less often explored, historical nugget that at that point of time only 40% of our populace was dependant on agriculture as a livelihood. However, the military struggles between various political formations, changes introduced in notions of property rights regarding what is grown or not grown on agricultural lands, the consequent shift of vast lands towards growing commercial non-food crops to cater to the then global markets (which were volatile), and the traditional vagaries of monsoon every 11 years, caused a precipitous decline in food production and its storage. The consequences were a series of massive famines – which Amartya Sen states were more man-made rather than purely of natural causes. As food became scarce and expensive, and markets for artisanal goods diminished due to the onslaught of imported mill made goods, a massive shift occurred in terms of dependence on agriculture as primary livelihood.

            Indeed it had been recognized long ago, for instance by Nehruvian economists, that it was imperative to move a significant rural population away from agricultural fields to non-agrarian livelihoods. Some of the advocates of India Shining spoke as if such a shift could occur automatically, and that the poor would be happy with being able to do mere menial work in urban and semi urban projects. They forgot one thing: that even the poor and the deprived have aspirations, and having such aspirations is an essential aspect of human dignity. YSR, by promoting the fee reimbursement scheme, was thinking of enabling the poor and the deprived, particularly from the villages and socio-economically deprived background to continue to aspire and gain potential access to skills and tools to realise them. Many people also spoke at that time of a large number of young women electing to pursue higher education. As urban areas now expand, and we have begun to witness urbanization at an increasing pace, many of those same graduates, I would expect have been enabled, in some measure, in being able to grasp the kinds of opportunities that emerge in these new urban spaces.

            As with all welfare programs initiated by the State one could always criticize them for not achieving as much as what they were expected to. Implementational lapses, and not having other necessary social-cultural resources (such as well trained educators) and the like could have been reasons for the same. But, to turn around and claim that venturing such programs of social welfare, especially in building social capital and distributing it even amongst the poorer and deprived segments, were not needed would be an amoral critique. The poor may have deserved the programs to be far more successful; but the poor first and foremost required that the State exhibit a solicitousness on this front by the State. At least in this sense, we should certainly appreciate YSR for having a vision, and the political & moral fortitude in pushing for access to higher education by wider segments of the populace as mandated by our Directive Principles of State Policy.

            Let me also end this speech by making two pleas. Let us make an effort, to consciously, place leaders who have passed on outside the narrow confines of partisan politics. This is of utmost importance, for if we do not, then for future generations we would only leave reference frames of demonization of significant players in their own history. The second plea is something that I keep asking scholars to engage in. We need to promote the study of such periods and such leaders as subjects of critical social science research that enlightens. There is an acute need to move away from sensationalism parading as “analysis”. At least with those who have died, let us be more respectful.


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