TELANGANA Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao caught the opposition off guard when he called on Governor E.S.L. Narasimhan on September 6 seeking dissolution of the 119-member Assembly to pave the way for elections six months in advance.
Assembly elections were due simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections in April-May 2019. But, the canny politician that he is, Chandrashekar Rao wanted to capitalise on the weaknesses of the opposition. The Congress is in disarray, with many leaders jockeying for the Chief Minister’s position in the event of the party defeating Chandrashekar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) to form the government. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) has been reduced to a non-entity in the State, and Chandrashekar Rao also succeeded in sidelining M. Kodandaram, his one-time fellow traveller during the separate statehood struggle, by preventing his Telangana Jana Samithi (TJS) from holding rallies in Hyderabad. Apart from the surprise factor, Chandrashekar Rao’s calculation is that it would be expedient to hold elections along with the Assemblies of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram.
The possible victory of the Congress in any or all of the first three States, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power, would lend that party thrust in Telangana in 2019. Also, in the event of simultaneous elections in 2019, the campaign spotlight would focus on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi. In the Assembly elections in December, it would be KCR versus lesser-known Congress leaders.
A few months earlier, Chandrasekhar Rao, popularly called KCR, had mooted an anti-BJP, anti-Congress federal front. He dashed to Kolkata to meet Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee and went to Bengaluru to call on Janata Dal (Secular) leader H.D. Deve Gowda to garner support for the front. However, he dropped the idea with equal speed after meeting Modi three times in two months.
In his four-decade-old career, Chandrashekar Rao has displayed extraordinary shrewdness in safeguarding his own and his party’s interests over upholding political values. The TRS was part of a Telugu Desam alliance and the Congress government at different points in time and will now be fighting them both in the Assembly elections on December 7.
Chandrashekar Rao is confident that the innumerable sops he showered on every community will endear him to voters. These include the Kalyana Lakshmi and Shaadi Mubarak schemes that offer financial assistance of over Rs.1 lakh to unmarried girls belonging to weaker sections. The party expects the launch of the Kaleshwaram lift irrigation scheme for irrigating 18 lakh acres of land, at a cost of Rs.80,000 crore, and Mission Bhagiratha for providing drinking water to every household in the State, at a cost of Rs.43,791 crore, to pay electoral dividends.
Also, Chandrashekar Rao is confident of rebuffing criticism over his government’s profligate ways, which turned Telangana from a surplus to a deficit State, and cooling farmers’ anger over forcible acquisition of land for the Kaleshwaram project. His government announced an input subsidy of Rs.8,000 an acre to 58 lakh farmers under the Rythu Bandhu scheme, which, however, ignored tenant farmers. It also got the President of India to approve the zonal system to ensure 95 per cent of jobs to local people. After all, “Neeru, Nidhulu, Niyamakalu” (water, resources and jobs) was the campaign plank on which TRS catapulted to power in the wake of a bitterly contested bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh.
Promises and criticism
The Chief Minister is unfazed by widespread criticism over unkept promises, particularly building two-bedroom houses for the poor. The promise of providing a government job to one member of every household too did not become a reality, causing unrest among the youth, who fought to make Telangana a reality. “Bangaru Telangana” (golden Telangana) remains a mirage for them. A supremely confident KCR announced 105 candidates in one go and declared that his party would bag 100 out of the 119 seats, implying that his political ally, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), would retain its seven seats in the Old City of Hyderabad, leaving only a dozen to the opposition.
Before long, KCR was in for a mild surprise that suddenly punctured his confidence. His bete noire, TDP president N. Chandrababu Naidu, tried to beat him at his own game of cynical politics. Having quit the National Democratic Alliance government over its refusal to accord special category status to Andhra Pradesh, he joined hands with the Congress.
This was the height of irony because the TDP was founded on the plank of anti-Congressism and Telugu self-pride. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi despised TDP founder N.T. Rama Rao so much that she overturned his government in 1984, a year after it had won a two-thirds majority. Naidu justified this unholy alliance on the plea that the Congress had promised to give Andhra Pradesh special category status if it came to power at the Centre.
Thus came into being the grand alliance, or “mahakutami”, of opposition parties, with the TJS and the Communist Party of India (CPI) as the other two partners. As the big brother in this alliance, the Congress will contest 93 seats, leaving 14 for the TDP, eight for the TJS and three for the CPI, in an imperfect arrangement that has left its allies fuming over the constituencies allotted to them. The TJS shortly broke ranks by announcing that it would contest 12 seats.
The Congress leadership is under fire from within for ignoring the claims of Muslims and Kammas and for dropping leaders such as former Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee (TPCC) president Ponnala Lakshmaiah to accommodate Kodandaram in Jangaon constituency. In a sure sign of nervousness, the TRS is stoking the anger among Congress rebels.
By choosing candidates on the basis of winnability, the TRS leadership caused heartburning among party members who accused it of giving priority to defectors from the TDP and the Congress. K. Shankaramma, the mother of K. Srikantha Chary, a young man who immolated himself during the Telangana struggle, threatened to commit suicide after being denied the party ticket from Huzurnagar to fight N. Uttam Kumar Reddy, the Chief Minister aspirant and TPCC president. During campaigning, several TRS candidates were confronted by people for non-fulfilment of election promises.
KCR rode to victory in 2014 on a pro-Telangana sentiment, having convinced people that it was he and not the Congress that deserved credit for the creation of the new State. This time around, the mandate will be squarely on his image and his government’s performance. Undoubtedly, he is far more popular with the masses than Uttam Kumar Reddy, an ex-Indian Air Force pilot who enjoys a clean image. But he will also have to contend with the negative perception of establishing family rule and accusations of corruption in irrigation projects.
His son and heir-apparent K.T. Rama Rao and his nephew T. Harish Rao are Ministers in his Cabinet. His daughter K. Kavitha is a Lok Sabha member, while another nephew, Joginapally Santosh Rao, was elected to the Rajya Sabha in March 2018. KCR is contesting the elections from Gajwel, his son from Sircilla, and Harish Rao from Siddipet.
KCR runs the government from his well-appointed home, Pragathi Bhavan, where he summons Ministers and top bureaucrats for all official meetings. His imperious style of functioning has turned off sections of people who feel that “Bangaru Telangana” is just a myth and “Neeru, Nidhulu and Niyamakalu” a mere election slogan.
Students of Osmania University, the hotbed of the Telangana agitation, have virtually declared KCR persona non grata on the campus for his inability to provide them with jobs. They forced him to drop his speech at the university’s centenary celebrations launched by former President Pranab Mukherjee last year.
However, the grand alliance cannot win just by the coming together of four parties or with their common minimum programme; transfer of votes from one party to another is essential. This is not an easy task as the Congress and the TDP are like oil and water. How far the voters will back this opportunistic alliance remains to be seen, as Chandrababu Naidu has been blaming the Congress for bifurcating the State in an unscientific and unjust manner. The alliance is apparently banking on the support of a large number of Andhra voters in about 25 constituencies in Khammam, Hyderabad, Rangareddy and Nizamabad districts.
On paper, the grand alliance appears stronger than the TRS. The combined vote share of the Congress (25.2 per cent) and the TDP (14.7 per cent) in 2014 was higher than the TRS’ 34.9 per cent in 2014. The circumstances have altered completely since then. The TRS has won almost every byelection and engineered defections to increase its strength in the Assembly from 63 to 90-plus MLAs. The alliance partners have to retain their earlier share of votes and also ensure a huge swing away from the TRS by capitalising on the anti-incumbency factor.
The moot question is whether people are unhappy enough to deny KCR a second term as Chief Minister.