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Challengers for 2024

K. Chandrashekar Rao: One-man show

Print edition : Jun 16, 2022 T+T-

K. Chandrashekar Rao: One-man show

As K. Chandrashekar Rao harps on the BJP’s discrimination against Telangana and breaks bread with the opposition, his sights seem set on the prime ministership even though he does not state this openly.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Hyderabad on May 26, Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao, popularly known as KCR, refused to share the stage with him and left the city. This was the second time this had happened in four months. The Chief Minister was trying to convey to the people of the State that the Modi-led BJP government at the Centre had discriminated against Telangana and that he would not take anyone who disrespected Telangana lightly.

‘Discrimination’ is something that most opposition-ruled States have accused the Modi government of. But KCR is trying to piece together a strategy for the upcoming Assembly election—slated to be held by December 2023—by suggesting that it is in the best interests of the people of Telangana to vote for a ‘local’ party rather than a national party such as the BJP, which, though in power at the Centre, had refused to help in the development of the State.

If KCR wins this battle of perception, he would have pulled the impossible with strategies from the political strategist Prashant Kishor’s now-familiar playbook, which paints an overbearing Modi as the villain. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), KCR’s party, has been in power for two terms, and there is a natural anti-incumbency sentiment against the party.

It is also a fact that KCR is seen as promoting his children and extended family. KCR’s son, K.T. Rama Rao, is considered the most powerful Minister in the Cabinet; his daughter Kalvakuntala Kavitha wields considerable power; and KCR’s nephew, T. Harish Rao, is a Minister. Joginapally Santosh Kumar, another nephew and confidant, is a Rajya Sabha member.

No challenge from Telugu parties

One of KCR’s advantages is that neither of the other two Telugu political parties—the Telugu Desam party (TDP) or the YSR Congress—poses a challenge in Telangana. The YSR Congress, despite all the legal hurdles faced by its founder Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, is strangely confined to that State. Jagan’s sister, Y.S. Sharmila, who moved to Telangana and launched the YSR Telangana Party, has been a non-starter. Prashant Kishor, who helped her initially, has found a lucrative contract with the ruling TRS.

The TDP office in the heart of Hyderabad wears a deserted look. In fact, Chandrababu Naidu’s party is a shadow of its former self: after five years in power, it managed to win only 23 seats in the 175-member House in Andhra Pradesh in 2019. In Telangana, it contested only 14 Assembly seats in the 2018 Assembly election and won just two.

Apart from this, most of the current crop of leaders are seen as of Rayalaseema royalty. KCR escapes this image because of his efforts in establishing an independent Telangana State, which is congruent with the Nizam’s territories, and hence distinct from the rest of Andhra Pradesh.

The challengers

KCR’s challengers are hence the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) will take away a chunk of the Muslim votes. Even in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Congress got a clear 10 percentage points lead over the BJP, but fell short on seats. The TRS’ tally fell from 11 in 2014 to 9 in 2019, and the beneficiaries were the BJP (with 4 seats) and the Congress (3 seats). Muslim strategic voting ensures that AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi retains his Hyderabad seat.

Given the state of play, the BJP believes it has a chance of winning a significant number of the Assembly seats in 2023, increasing its tally from three in the current House. It won four seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, but more importantly, following a high-powered, communally charged campaign led by Prime Minister Modi and anchored by Union Home Minister Amit Shah, the BJP won 47 seats in the Hyderabad Municipal Council election, while the ruling TRS managed only 56. The TRS runs the corporation with the help of the AIMIM (44 corporators).

Modi’s actions did not end there. On June 7 evening, he hosted his party’s corporators at his official residence in Delhi. The message was not difficult to miss: there are 24 Assembly constituencies in and around Hyderabad, extending to Rangareddy and Medchal-Malkajgiri districts, and the BJP’s new-found soldiers will be the pivots for the next Assembly elections.

Sensing that the BJP is within reaching distance of winning Telangana, the party has decided to convene its national executive committee meeting in Hyderabad from July 2. But the BJP’s problem is that it is very much an urban, Hyderabad- centred party, with little presence in the impoverished northern parts of Telangana.

Bandi Sanjay Kumar, the combative president of the State unit of the party who hails from north Telangana, has been communally polarising the State with his rhetoric. While that may be effective in parts of Hyderabad, the illogical slogan Hindu Khatre Mein Hain (Hindus are in danger) is unlikely to find resonance outside the twin cities.

Bandi, hence, is talking development in the northern districts and picking holes in the government’s development stories, mostly relating to the farming community. On June 9, for instance, he accused the TRS government of failing to release Rs.7,500 crore due to farmers under the ‘Rythu Bandhu’ scheme.

Congress’ strategy

The Congress is no longer the reluctant political party it used to be. Its State president Revanth Reddy knows the polity unlike anyone else in the State. He began his career with the ABVP, shifted to the TRS, contested local elections as an independent,and switched to the TDP, before joining the Congress five years ago. He lost the 2018 Assembly election, but got noticed when he won the Malkajgiri Lok Sabha seat in 2019.

“He is a DK plus,” said a Congress leader when asked if he was anything like the Karnataka State Congress chief D.K. Shivakumar. Revanth is unabashed in his campaign about who fulfilled the dream of Telangana; the general feeling in the party is that the Congress has not been able to capitalise on the fact that the Congress, ruling at the Centre then, took the final decision to go ahead with the creation of the State in 2014. Revanth and the team put in place by the Congress high command, including Manickam Tagore, MP, believe that the party should undertake a massive campaign to show people that it was the Congress that made the dream of Telangana possible.

In effect, the Telangana Congress now has a leader who is not a compromise/consensus candidate and who challenges the status quo in power. D.K. Shivakumar in Karnataka and Revanth in Telangana are two leaders the Congress leadership believes are necessary to keep the party in the fight against the BJP in the next election.

This is what KCR has to deal with: an ebullient BJP supported in its electoral bid by the unmistakable timing of detention/arrest/summons issued to opposition leaders by Central agencies, a resurgent Congress looking to correct its past mistakes, the deal-making and shape-shifting AIMIM, as well as anti-incumbency and charges of nepotism and corruption.

But KCR has always had something up his sleeve. He called for early elections in 2018, after sensing that going to the polls in 2019 would be playing into the hands of the BJP. He was right. The BJP won an unprecedented four of the 17 seats in Telangana in the 2019 parliamentary election. But that snap poll decision was a one-time ploy that cannot be repeated because the BJP has got wise to it.

KCR is working on two broad strategies now: one is to harp on the theme of the BJP’s discrimination against Telangana, and the other is his attempt at opposition unity at the national level. KCR has travelled to Punjab with the AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal and distributed aid to farmers and others; he has met several leaders of the opposition—the latest being Janata Dal (Secular) leader Deve Gowda on May 26—and is giving the impression that he is in contention for prime ministership, though he has not articulated this thought.

In fact, KCR’s goal is to win the 2023 Assembly election handsomely, and everything else is a distraction. The KCR of today is difficult to gain access to and wields the same power over the TRS as Jayalalithaa had over the AIADMK. If he senses that the BJP will latch on to ‘dynasty politics’, he will not hesitate to keep his entire extended family in cold storage.