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Political Pitch

Will Congress pull out its Telangana-astra ?

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THORN IN THE FLESH: Congress leaders believe Jagan is playing a smart, calculated game

With Jagan in jail, his party is under the command of mom Vijayamma. But the new kid on the block is his younger sister Sharmila. Never seen before in Jagan's political yatras, the lady is now stealing the limelight with her powerful oratory at road shows which are doubling up as by-election campaigning. Political pundits are now predicting that if she continues for long, Jagan would need to watch out - she could well end up stealing his thunder. But that apart, Jagan's arrest has only led to the swelling of mass support for his party.

More importantly, Congress MLAs are now willing to quit their posts and join Jagan. Three MLAs announced their resignation on Wednesday and Thursday. More exits are in the offing. Earlier, while Jagan was shuttling every day to and from the CBI office for questioning, a Congress MP and MLA had kept him company.

By-elections to the 18 assembly seats are slated for June 12 and Congress party bosses know that they stand to lose the most and that Jagan's men will romp home. But they are not worried because they had known this for long - the knowledge will act as a shock absorber. In fact, Jagan's arrest is aimed at preventing him from doing further damage to the Congress in the 2014 elections. A jailed Jagan, the party hopes, will not be able to consolidate his position. But Sharmila's arrival in the arena was an unexpected development.

Though Jagan's arrest is a political move, he has actually been asking for it. As the cliche goes, people living in glass houses do not throw stones at others. With a huge media and business empire cobbled up through questionable means - and this is clear to all and sundry - the government did not really have to sweat to collect evidence of his wrongdoings. The real question is, why did the government agencies wait so long to nab him?

Says a Congress leader who does not want to be named: "This is not Indiraji's era when Congress CMs existed at her will. With the party weakening nationally, provincial leaders can exercise autonomy without the fear of being reined in. " The man who realised this fact and made good use of it was Jagan's father, Y S Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR). He would win elections convincingly and 'supply' a large number of MPs to the Congress to enable it to form the Union government. In return, he would get a free hand in running the state. With huge resources being sent to the party's election fund at regular intervals, the free hand meant virtual independence for YSR. He fashioned the state Congress in such a manner that members were loyal to him and not any other leader or even the party. The buzz was that by 2014, YSR would have formed his own Congress.

In September 2009 when YSR died suddenly, Jagan laid stake to the chief ministership arguing that if Rajiv Gandhi could succeed Indira Gandhi after her assassination, he too should be allowed to take his father's place after his unnatural death. Only then did Congress bosses realise that the state party had gone out of their hands.

The crisis did not escalate because the ageing Rosaiah, who took over as CM, reportedly told Jagan privately that he was old and wouldn't be around for long and that he (Jagan) could take charge after him. Jagan was incensed when Rosaiah was removed a year later in November 2010 and replaced with a much younger Kiran Kumar Reddy. He soon left the party to form his own YSR Congress but encouraged most of his followers to remain in the Congress and sabotage it from within. That is happening now and many ministers in Kiran's government are Jagan's 'men'.

"Jagan is playing a smart, calculated game. He is asking his men in the Congress to periodically resign, " says a Congress leader who does not want to be named. This is slowly reducing the Congress' majority in the assembly. Right now, in a house of 294, the Congress has 164 MLAs - this is after three resignations on Wednesday and Thursday. The numbers would have been lower had not the Congress got Chiranjeevi to merge his Prajarajyam party with it.

"By 2014 when it is time for the next election, Jagan wants the Congress to be absolutely denuded, " the leader adds. The Congress high command was unable to fathom Jagan's strategy for long but once it did, it decided to clip his wings. In this battle the Congress has an unexpected ally - Chandrababu Naidu of TDP - who also wants to see the end of Jagan.

The next few months will show if the Congress strategy of reining in Jagan (and now Sharmila with him) is working. If it does not, the Congress is going to use its ultimate weapon: the creation of Telangana. Jagan has no support base in Telangana and his arrest has not led to any protest in that part of the state. Creating Telangana would help the Congress strengthen its base in this region, especially if it can get the Telangana Rashtra Samiti to merge with the party. This is not an unlikely prospect. Jagan can then take the rest of the state - the Seemandhra region. Since the people of Seemandhra anyway don't want the state to be divided, in the ongoing by-election campaign, Congress leaders are sparing no effort to tell voters that "a vote for Jagan would mean a vote for Telangana".

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