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Assembly Elections: Telangana

Riding on welfare

Print edition : Jan 04, 2019 T+T-
K. Chandrashekhar Rao waves to the crowds at the Telengana Rashtra Samithi Bhavan in Hyderabad on December 12.

K. Chandrashekhar Rao waves to the crowds at the Telengana Rashtra Samithi Bhavan in Hyderabad on December 12.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi flanked by Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu (right) and TPCC President N. Uttam Kumar Reddy at a joint media conference in Hyderabad on December 5. Also seen are Telangana Jana Samiti chief Prof. M. Kodandaram (second from left) and CPI general secretary S. Sudhakar Reddy.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi flanked by Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu (right) and TPCC President N. Uttam Kumar Reddy at a joint media conference in Hyderabad on December 5. Also seen are Telangana Jana Samiti chief Prof. M. Kodandaram (second from left) and CPI general secretary S. Sudhakar Reddy.

Telangana Rashtra Samithi sweeps the elections with a slew of welfare measures and a clever strategy designed by its leader K. Chandrasekhar Rao.

The Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s (TRS) strategy of advancing the Assembly elections has paid off, and K. Chandrasekhar Rao has got a second consecutive stint as the Chief Minister of India’s newest State. The ruling party bagged an impressive tally of 88 seats in the 119-member Assembly, leaving the Congress-led “mahakutami” (People’s Front) a distant second with 21 seats. The TRS juggernaut dashed the Congress party’s hopes of a revival of its fortunes in a State it was responsible for creating five years ago.

Telangana voters emphatically rejected the Congress’ opportunistic alliance with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), a regional party founded by N.T. Rama Rao in 1982 with the primary aim of dislodging the grand old party from power in Andhra Pradesh. TDP president N. Chandrababu Naidu had largely stuck to this line and lost no opportunity to attack the Congress for bifurcating Andhra Pradesh.

In the absence of a popular leader and an alternative agenda to Chandrasekhar Rao’s bouquet of welfare schemes, the mahakutami’s expectations of trumping the TRS leader were misplaced. The TDP polled barely 3.5 per cent of the votes and lost heavily even in Hyderabad while the remaining two partners, Prof. M. Kodandaram’s Telangana Jana Samithi and the Communist Party of India, remained non-starters.

Chandrasekhar Rao turned the tables on the mahakutami by stoking fears that Chandrababu Naidu was hurting the self-respect of the people by once again trying to dominate Telangana. The success of this strategy has raised questions now whether the Congress should have dumped the TDP and contested alone. A deeper analysis may prove this to be true, but the question is rather facile since the two parties had buried the hatchet after Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Chandrababu Naidu shook hands at H.D. Kumaraswamy’s oath-taking function in Bengaluru in May 2018.

Cost of welfare

Chandrasekhar Rao built the party edifice with the Telangana sentiment as the foundation and welfare schemes as the superstructure. His campaign theme was that the previous regimes had exploited the people of Telangana and pauperised them. As he offered sops to all sections of people—girls, pregnant women, widows, the aged, the infirm, weavers, toddy tappers and Muslims—the voters found no reason to usher in the Congress.

The Rythu Bandhu scheme of giving an input subsidy of Rs.8,000 each to 58 lakh farmers fetched him votes. It did so partly by glossing over the agrarian distress in the State, which is marked by a high rate of suicide by farmers and the government’s failure to provide relief to tenant farmers who worked on land not registered in their names.

Chandrasekhar Rao and his party remained in denial mode over two other failures—the inability to provide the promised jobs to youths and the implementation of the TRS’ flagship programme of giving double bedroom houses, each costing Rs.7.5 lakh, to the poor.

Such failures paled before the effective and targeted delivery of other welfare schemes. The Telangana government deserves its due for hitting the bull’s eye on this score. Old-age pensions, for instance, are directly deposited in the bank accounts of beneficiaries who can draw money using an ATM card instead of paying bribes to brokers. Under the KCR Kits Scheme, pregnant women are given Rs.12,000 in cash besides 16 items for the mother and the newborn.

Chandrasekhar Rao’s generosity has, however, turned Telangana from a revenue-surplus State to a revenue-deficit one. Also, its public debt stands at Rs.1.80 lakh crore—more than the annual budget of Rs.1.74 lakh crore—owing to the draining of the exchequer by mega irrigation and drinking water projects. Some of these are allegedly being executed by contractors from Andhra Pradesh. In the race to build mega projects and announce welfare schemes, a larger theme of the government’s functioning was missed—lack of democracy. Chandrasekhar Rao reduced the opposition to a cipher by encouraging 28 MLAs to join the TRS; closed Dharna Chowk, the venue of demonstrations; banned political meetings in the city and expelled unruly MLAs. All this was done in the name of projecting Hyderabad as a peaceful city in contrast to the communal riots that bedevilled the capital under the Congress’ watch.

After Chandrasekhar Rao gave them a head start by releasing a list of 105 nominees, TRS candidates were up and running while non-Congress partners of the mahakutami were running around like headless chickens as seat-sharing had not been finalised. Chandrababu Naidu suddenly announced the candidature of Suhasini, granddaughter of N.T. Rama Rao and a complete novice to electoral politics, from Kukatpally constituency, to garner the votes of Andhra settlers. She lost by 41,000 votes.

Well-laid-out plans

Chandrasekhar Rao is a clever election strategist and a past master at knitting together a party organisation. Above all, he has acquired charisma as the leader responsible for turning Telangana from a dream into a reality. Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were no match for his crowd-pulling abilities. His speeches are laced with sarcasm and jibes at opponents.

It is little wonder that the entire top brass of the Congress, including Congress Legislature Party leader K. Jana Reddy, the party’s working president A. Revanth Reddy, D.K. Aruna, Ponnala Laxmaiah, J. Geetha Reddy, Komatireddy Venkata Reddy and Mallu Ravi, were routed. Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee president N. Uttam Kumar Reddy and campaign committee chairman M. Bhatti Vikramarka were among the fe w who retained their seats.

The defeated leaders had tremendous resources and experience and were veterans of many electoral battles. Their defeat was the result of a well-planned and skilfully executed operation by Chandrasekhar Rao who entrusted his lieutenants with the task of touring the leaders’ constituencies and choking them of resources. As many as 20 Assembly seats were short-listed for “special attention”.

He left the TDP shell-shocked by winning the votes of Andhra settlers in Serilingampally, ground zero of Hyderabad’s high-tech zone developed by Chandrababu Naidu, and Kukatpally, Jubilee Hills and Qutbullapur constituencies. The Chief Minister’s son, K.T. Rama Rao, held multiple meetings with caste groups from Andhra and convinced them to plump for the TRS.

Chandrasekhar Rao’s boast of winning 100-plus seats initially appeared incredible but he was working to a plan. He identified weak party candidates and asked TRS MPs and Politburo members to handhold them. “If we did not reach the century mark, it was due to the negligence of TRS candidates in 17-18 seats,” he said.

Chandrasekhar Rao won by a massive margin from Gajwel constituency and his son from Sircilla by a bigger majority. His nephew, T. Harish Rao, set a record when he retained Siddipet by a majority of 1.18 lakh votes. Four Ministers and the Speaker, S. Madhusudanachary, were, however, defeated. The TRS wave helped the party increase its vote share to 46.9 per cent from 34.9 per cent in 2014, while the Congress saw a marginal rise in its share to 28.4 per cent.

BJP left gasping

The magnitude of the TRS’ victory left the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gasping with just one seat, down from five, in spite of several road shows by party president Amit Shah, two public meetings by the Prime Minister and campaigning by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Its vote share did not rise beyond the previous 7 per cent and all its office-bearers, including State president K. Lakshman, lost. Only T. Raja Singh Lodha, known to be a rabble-rouser and a self-proclaimed gau rakshak, retained his seat, Gosha Mahal.

The saffron party failed to dispel the widespread perception that the TRS was its B team after it abstained from voting in the no-confidence motion against the Modi government and its ambivalent stand on the triple talaq Bill. As a vote for the BJP was perceived as an endorsement of Chandrasekhar Rao, people preferred to vote for the TRS.

With a lesser share of 2.7 per cent of the votes, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen retained all its seven seats in Hyderabad. These elections have seen MIM president Asaduddin Owaisi and Chandrasekhar Rao getting closer. After a three-hour-long meeting to discuss their joint national agenda, Chandrasekhar Rao gave him a flattering certificate: “He is an intellectual… he is not a fundamentalist.”

What next for KCR?

The mahakutami’s debacle has diluted its relevance and weakened the Congress and also cast doubts on the TDP’s ability to win the elections to the Andhra Pradesh Assembly and the Lok Sabha in 2019. It is difficult to envisage a positive response from Andhra voters to its alliance with the Congress.

The Federal Front mooted by Chandrasekhar Rao as a non-BJP, non-Congress formation has also lost its resonance because Mamata Banerjee (Trinamool Congress), M.K. Stalin (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and H.D. Deve Gowda (Janata Dal-Secular) are now sailing with the Congress to take on the BJP.

Yet, he is determined to play a major role in national politics while remaining as Chief Minister as his party has secured the highest number of votes in 15 out of the 17 Lok Sabha seats. He now wants to create a national party or consortium of regional parties “to undertake surgery of the political system and clear the mess created by the Congress and the BJP”.

Chandrasekhar Rao is highly charged about accomplishing his ambitious economic and aggressive political agenda. But to achieve his goals, he must display more political consistency and fulfil his numerous promises to the people of Telangana first.