Holding an extravagant ‘yagam’ to provide relief to the people of Telangana reeling under prolonged drought puts a big question mark on K. Chandrashekar Rao’s credentials as a leader aspiring for real solutions to real problems on the ground.
As Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao’s five-day Ayutha Chandi Yagam, borne out of a ‘personal’ expenditure of Rs 7 crore, came to an end on Sunday, it raised serious questions about the place of such an exercise in a country whose constitution says every citizen – including its leaders – has a fundamental duty to “develop a scientific temper.”
For such is the nature of mainstream political discourse that while the media highlighted the grand spectacle as an act of excess by a regional satrap, few debated the propriety of constitutional figures like governors, Supreme Court judges, Central ministers, the entire state cabinet, and a large number of state legislators, providing legitimacy to an unscientific, obscurantist ritual conducted for the ‘general welfare of the people’ in a state reeling under the threat of prolonged drought. The President of India too was all set to grace the event with his presence, but for fire breaking out as his helicopter was to land on the last day.
An exercise which was presented as the chief minister’s brahmastra to provide relief to the people of his state reeling under prolonged drought puts a big question mark on his credentials as a leader aspiring for real solutions to real problems on the ground. Added to which is the proclivity for politics based on a feudal mindset and Brahaminical notions that militate against every tenet of democratic politics as enshrined in the constitution – one which threatens to overturn the gains of decades of struggle for equal rights and entitlements on the part of disadvantaged sections.
But first things first: the chief minister’s explanation that he was personally paying for the entire spectacle seems a bit hard to believe considering that the state machinery was at his ‘personal’ beck and call to make arrangements for the procession of VIPs and publicise the event to the hilt through the media.
What made things worse was that this grand spectacle was being mounted against the backdrop of farmers’ suicides in the state. According to conservative estimates, close to 1,000 farmers have taken their lives in desperation during a bad kharif season – the strong El Nino effect in 2014, the strongest in 15 years, disrupted the south-west monsoon. The effects of a disrupted monsoon continued this year (and threaten to do so in 2016 as well). The state government was unable to provide uninterrupted electricity in the 2015 kharif season, leading to an atmosphere of uncertainty among the farming community.
That was not all. The loan-waiver scheme promised to farmers by the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) on the eve of the 2014 state assembly elections was ill-conceived in the way it spread out the subsidy over a period of four years. This meant that a large number of farmers were rendered ineligible for new loans and had to depend on private money lenders at exorbitant interest rates. A combination of monsoon deficit, ill-designed policy initiatives, and lack of preparedness to mitigate drought has brought the farming community under great distress. The net sown area in 2015 kharif has touched a 10 year low according to the government’s own admission. Given this grim situation is a Ayutha Chandi Yagam the most desirable policy response?
No relief for women workers
The farmers’ issue is not the only one that the chief minister faces. Close to 25,000 ASHA workers have been on strike for more than three months in Telangana. In the course of political agitations preceding the formation of the state, TRS had promised to recognise ASHA volunteers as salaried employees. All efforts by the agitating women workers – who as a rule come from the lower castes – to meet the minister for health, medical and family welfare were turned down. The chief minister, it is said, has issued a diktat that the demands of agitating or striking workers shall not be met; hence for any minister to even meet a delegation is a no-no. A similar attitude was displayed towards sanitation and municipal workers earlier this year when they demanded a pay hike.
To meet the demands of ASHA workers – involving a paltry remuneration of Rs 5000 a month, would cost the government exchequer about Rs 150 crore. Compare this to the Rs 600 crore spent on the Godavari Pushkaralu (a festival to celebrate the river Godavari), Rs 300 crore to renovate a temple at Srisailam, Rs 150 crore on a new secretariat for reasons of vastu-compliance, Rs 10 crore on Batukamma celebrations (a festival supposedly native to Telangana), and Rs 10 crore as Ramzan gifts and Rs 5 crore on Christmas gifts.
As all these actions show, a feudal mentality seems to be the basis ofChandrashekar Rao’s approach to state power and governance.
In the ruling dispensation’s imagination, Telangana ‘state’ is being ruled as a jagir or personal fiefdom. There is space only for undiluted populism and none for a democratic politics of entitlement– the government’s largesse is always a ‘gift’ and not a democratic right legitimately to be demanded by the people. This explains Chandrashekar Rao’s abhorrence for protesting groups, his use of timing to announce schemes, the cosy nexus of family and state power, his proclivity for superstition, and unashamed public admiration for priests and their organisations.
‘Pollution’ and ‘purification’
It should be noted here that in a press conference preceding the ongoing mega ritual, Chandrasekhar Rao had issued instructions to journalists covering the event not to touch the yagam participants as this would be ‘polluting’. If anyone were to come into physical contact with the participants, he explained, 1500 odd priests would have to take a ritual bath for ‘purification’. He was candid enough to admit that the chief of Shringeri Math was the man in charge, and that he was only an ordinary man in comparison to him. There has been a view among many intellectuals that the agitation for a separate Telangana was akin to a counter-revolution, displacing the gains made by lower castes over the last four decades. In Chandrashekar Rao’s instructions to the journalists, a typically Brahmanical notion of according a priest supreme ritual status – over and above that of a king – was played out in the most blatant manner by a democratically elected chief minister. This hierarchical ordering based on the idea of ritual purity, is antithetical to modern democratic politics.
The notion of a welfare state is understood somewhat differently in India than in the rest of the world – not just in the sense of delivering entitlements to people but also legitimising a process of leakages in public expenditure provide ‘welfare’ to local political actors. Innumerable contractors, sub-contractors, and lobbyists form a class-caste network through which political parties wield power, and Chandrashekar Rao is now on a mission to erect just such a network. Telangana politics is witnessing a large exodus from Telugu Desam and Congress into TRS at the mandal level; wooing legislators from other parties into defecting to the fold of the TRS has already come under the Election Commission’s scanner. Loyalty to TRS and Chandrashekar Rao’s family is being spoken about as a necessary condition for bagging plum contracts. The minor irrigation scheme named Mission Kakatiya demonstrates one such major source of leakage in public expenditure. Spreading out at the village level, this water tank rejuvenation scheme, which comes with impressive amounts of money and virtually no quality audit mechanism, is being seen as a cash rich vehicle for the distribution of spoils. This and several other contracts by the government are being used as a base for the consolidation of TRS and its brand of politics.
Vikram Chukka is a doctoral candidate at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi