YS Sharmila takes the helm in Andhra, as Congress looks to turn the tide

The stage appears set for sibling rivalry, with the estranged sister of chief minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy terming the INC the country's "most secular" party

Y.S. Sharmila, former supremo of the YSR Telangana Party, is now president of the Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee after the parties' merger in January 2024 (photo: IANS)
Y.S. Sharmila, former supremo of the YSR Telangana Party, is now president of the Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee after the parties' merger in January 2024 (photo: IANS)

Ashlin Mathew

The Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) today, 16 January, appointed Y.S. Sharmila, the younger sister of Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, as the new president of the party's state unit.

Sharmila's appointment comes a day after incumbent chief Gidugu Rudra Raju stepped down from the leadership of the APCC.

Sharmila, who is the daughter of the late Congress veteran and former chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, had joined the Indian National Congress on 4 January and announced the merger of her YSR Telangana Party (YSRTP) with the Congress.

Her outgoing counterpart Rudra Raju, whose resignation was announced yesterday in the media, had been a key supporter of accepting Sharmila into the fold and instrumental in the merger of the two parties.

At the time, Sharmila had expressed readiness to accept any responsibility given to her by the grand old party—even if it took her away from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Now, accepting her new role, Sharmila said she would work towards strengthening the party in the state.

In a post on social media platform 'X', she thanked AICC president Mallikarjun Kharge, former presidents Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi and AICC general secretary KC Venugopal and promised to work faithfully towards building the party to its past position of power in Andhra Pradesh with total commitment and integrity.

She also sought the support of the outgoing APCC president Raju and “every other leader of the party in the state” to be able to build on the party. Raju has been known as one of Sharmila's staunchest supporters.

Where does Rudra Raju fit in now?

Raju had told the National Herald yesterday that he had stepped down keeping in mind the needs of the party and because he believed Sharmila would be the right person to take the party forward at this time.

“I believe Sharmila-ji will make a good leader," Raju said. "We require a visible leader in Andhra Pradesh and she is one who can instil confidence amongst party members.” At the time, Sharmila's appointment had not yet been confirmed and Raju had said the decision belonged to the Congress Working Committee, that his opinion was just that—his personal opinion.

In terms of the party's strategy going into Assembly elections and Lok Sabha polls simultaneously mid-2024, Raju added: "We have to strengthen the party at the grassroots level. That is the need of the hour." Almost echoing Sharmila's statement at the merger, he had said yesterday that he would accept any role the party gave him now.

In a statement today, the Congress announced that outgoing Raju would now be a special invitee to the Congress Working Committee. An MLC in undivided Andhra Pradesh, Raju was named Andhra Congress chief in November 2022. Before that, he had served as the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) secretary in charge of Odisha.

Known to be a former Y.S. Rajashekhar Reddy loyalist, Raju held key posts in undivided Andhra Pradesh when YSR was chief minister, playing a significant role in the 1999, 2004 and 2009 elections. Though he was a part of the campaign committee, as a Brahmin leader, Raju has generally kept a low profile—indeed, his appointment in 2022 came four decades after the last time the Congress chose a Brahmin leader and not one from a 'lesser' caste or other minority profile.

Poll strategies ahoy!

Sharmila's appointment to the leadership role brings back a Christian Reddy leader, just in time for the countdown to the simultaneous Assembly and Lok Sabha polls ahead. Andhra Pradesh has 25 Lok Sabha seats and 175 Assembly seats.

Sharmila had initially hoped to join the Telangana Congress unit and had announced the YSRTP's support for it ahead of the Telangana elections in November 2023. However, it seemed the Congress did not wish to rock the boat so close to the polls.

Now, expressing her happiness after joining the party, Sharmila called the Congress the “most secular” party in the country.

The admiration seems to be mutual. AICC secretary (Andhra Pradesh) Christopher Tilak believes the appointment of Sharmila Reddy is a message to the people to the state: “We have now a visible leader, and we can set the narrative. Migration to our party is expected."

"A few MLAs or ex-MLAs who are disgruntled with the (YSR Congress Party) and Jagan Mohan Reddy will join the Congress. They have the capability to fight elections and win too. This is the election where we will decide who will win as there is anti-incumbency,” said Tilak.

There are indeed several YSR loyalists in Andhra Pradesh who might be all the readier to embrace the INC with Sharmila at the helm in the state.

According to Tilak, there is a pro-INC sentiment in Andhra Pradesh now. “For any political party to be successful, there are four points — ideology and narratives being set, leadership, organisation and field work," Tilak said. "We now have a popular leader and our narrative will be on welfare measures for the state. Jagan has been short-sighted and has no long-term vision.”

The INC hopes to competitively contest at least 60 seats in the Assembly, and 10 seats out of 25 for the Lok Sabha elections, Tilak added.

Interestingly, with Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra in the news, several leaders in Telangana also make it a point to recall Sharmila’s padayatra of 3,800 km in 2021. (She had planned to cover 4,111 km, but had to stop as the police denied permission to walk further.)

That was not her first padayatra either. In 2013, when her brother Jagan Mohan Reddy was jailed in connection with a CBI case, she walked 3,000 km from her father’s grave in Idupulapaya in Kadapa district to Ichapuram in Srikakulam district—covering 2,250 villages and 116 Assembly constituencies. She had done it to sustain and revive the YSR Congress Party floated by her brother.

It's almost a family tradition—her father YSR had undertaken a nearly 1,500 km padayatra in 2003 too. “This sets her apart from many other leaders. She is so committed,” says Tilak.

And it is a commitment and popularity the Congress certainly needs. The grand old party failed to win a single Assembly or Lok Sabha seat in Andhra in 2014 and 2019—so, none since the formation of Telangana, having been punished by the Andhra voters' wrath for bifurcating the state.

Buoyed by its recent electoral successes in Karnataka and Telangana in 2023, though, the INC is now looking to resurrect itself in Andhra Pradesh. And while it would be unreasonable to expect a full turnaround to make dramatic electoral gains in 2024 (given a less than 2 per cent vote share in 2019, Sharmila's appointment is widely seen as a first step for the party to overcome its existential crisis in Andhra.

Reddy vs Reddy

For Sharmila, of course, it will also be a personal challenge in addition to a political one—she must revitalise the INC sufficiently for it to be battle-ready and take on her elder brother’s YSRCP. The INC is aware of this, however, and is actually counting on it.

For the Congress’ optimism over Sharmila's leadership is based on two factors: First, Sharmila can serve as a catalyst to resurrect the memory of Y.S.R., whose welfare policies still resonate with the masses—it should help consolidate the anti-incumbency wave against the Jagan Mohan Reddy government.

Second, by projecting Sharmila as the true inheritor of Y.S.R.’s political legacy the party can attract several old-time Congress supporters who had joined the YSRCP following Y.S.R.’s death. 

“Sharmila is the right candidate to revive the party’s lost glory and keep Y.S.R.’s legacy alive. Y.S.R. was a true mass leader and his legacy, marked by pro-poor policies, is still relevant in Andhra politics,” senior Congress leader N Tulasi Reddy said.

After their bitter fallout a few years ago, Jagan Mohan and Sharmila have so far refrained from criticising each other in public. But now, with the Congress baton in her hands, the gloves may be out soon, heralding a battle of siblings to claim the political legacy of their father—former Congress chief minister of an undivided Andhra Pradesh.

With inputs from Suresh Dharur

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