Punching above its weight

Print edition : April 13, 2018

Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao inspecting the reverse lift from the Kaleshwaram project to Sriram Sagar project at Rampur village in Mallapur mandal of Jagtial district in December 2017. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao’s idea of a third front raises questions about his new-found national ambitions at a time when his own fledgling Telangana Rashtra Samithi government is facing people’s ire on several fronts.

“You are thinking in the routine political model. I am sorry. Our front will be a bigger front, because the agenda we are going to propose will be totally different from the present routine model. It will be a people’s agenda. It is not merely the Congress, BJP, KCR, Mamata. It is for the people of the country. You will see what will happen.”

When Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao said this on March 19 in Kolkata, many wondered if he was attempting to punch way above his weight. KCR, as he is known, is the head of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), which has 11 representatives in the Lok Sabha and three in the Rajya Sabha. Telangana’s total representation in the Lok Sabha is 17. Unified Andhra Pradesh had 42 MPs. This significantly reduced the clout of Telugu parties across the region, be it the TRS, the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh, which has 16 MPs, or the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP), which has nine.

Given the kind of prominence KCR and the TDP’s national president and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu received during the agitations for separate statehood between 2009 and 2014, the realisation that their influence might not be that strong does not appear to have sunk in just yet within the TRS or the TDP.

For Chandrababu Naidu, the shoddy treatment by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre despite the pivotal role he played in the formation of the first NDA government in 1998 as its convener came as a rude shock and a wake-up call. But for KCR, some say, the euphoria of leading a successful struggle to create Telangana and the prominence the TRS has received ever since has led him to also nurture national ambitions, or at least attempt it even if it might be a futile bid. But is it really that simple or is there more to it than meets the eye?

While several of KCR’s own party men question his wisdom of attempting to create a third front, craftily called the Federal Front, there is also the fact that there is a vacuum that has presented itself in the national political space with the shrinking of the Left’s parliamentary strength, which in the past was the rudder to this idea of a truly representative alternative to the single-party dominance alternating between the Congress and the BJP. This leaves the space wide open for several possible permutations and combinations, given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s falling popularity nationwide. KCR’s comment of a “bigger front” could then mean to include the disgruntled allies of the NDA, such as the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, as both these parties have indicated that they will fight the next State elections alone.

Significantly, Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee did not say at the March 19 press conference whether she was ready just yet to rule out an alliance with the Congress. It would be expedient for her to ally with the Congress, as it is now the principal opposition in the State. With the Left divided over a possible alliance with the Congress in 2019, she could checkmate the Left while also halting any possible ambitions of growth the Congress might be harbouring following its new-found space in West Bengal. She could do this, continuing to project the Bharatiya Janata Party as the main cause for the rise of right-wing activities in the State and usurping the Left’s ideological space.

Ambitious irrigation projects

As for the TRS, the Chief Minister’s performance has been questioned on several fronts. His ambitious irrigation projects have left hundreds of thousands fearing possible eviction from their homes and lands in the near future. The Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project coming upon the Pranahita, the Godavari’s largest tributary flowing through the Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra border envisages 18 new, mostly earthen, reservoirs, large and small, running from the north to the south of the State. Protests have been going on at several villages along the route of the irrigation system for nearly two years now.

Mission Bhageeratha, the Chief Minister’s pet project to supply drinking water to every home in Telangana, has been mired in corruption-related controversies, with political leaders pointing to a single company considered close to KCR’s family bagging all the contracts for the works. The northern tribal belt of the State, which is sparsely populated but rich in minerals, is unhappy with KCR’s approval for starting 11 new opencast mines there over the next five years by Singareni Collieries, which is jointly owned by the State and Central governments. Opencast mines are shallow pits in areas where coal is found at a depth of 500 metres. They would render agricultural and forest lands in their vicinity barren and poisoned for several generations. The banned Communist Part of India (Maoist) has been able to successfully mobilise several agricultural villages in Adilabad, Mancherial and Bhadradri-Kothagudem districts against this.

A senior bureaucrat in the State government, not wishing to be named, said KCR’s moves on the Federal Front could perhaps arise out of the facts that he did not see the possibility of an alliance with the BJP in the future given Narendra Modi’s waning popularity and that he could not ally with the Congress as it has emerged as the principal opposition in the State. The comment is significant as KCR is among the few Chief Ministers who have supported almost all the decisions taken by the Centre, be it demonetisation or the implementation of goods and services tax (GST), and even supported the BJP’s presidential candidate, Ramnath Kovind.

New outfit?

Several observers point to KCR’s own falling popularity rate in Telangana and his high-handed treatment of political opponents, such as the midnight arrest of M. Kodandaram on February 22, 2017, preventing him from reaching a planned protest venue. This action was repeated on March 10. Kodandaram, a retired political science professor of Osmania University, gave considerable intellectual heft to the separate statehood demand. In 2009, he was instrumental in forming the largely student-led Telangana Joint Action Committee, or T-JAC, which later broadened to become the umbrella organisation that accommodated parties from divergent ideological persuasions under it. Kodandaram refused to be part of the TRS-led government and has been part of several opposition-led movements since the creation of Telangana. He has decided to form his own political party. Political observers feel Kodandaram’s political outfit has the potential to emerge as a viable alternative to the TRS in the State, as it will not come with the baggage that other mainstream political parties have of having opposed the State’s creation.

While there could be several reasons for KCR’s Federal Front idea, its probability and who would lead it nationally or provide the pivot that the Left provided in the past are questions for which answers might crystallise after regional parties gauge the BJP’s performance in the upcoming Karnataka Assembly elections.