A Telugu Potboiler in Which Both Heroes are Set to Lose

Chandrababu Naidu (left) and KCR. Credit: YouTube Screengrab

Chandrababu Naidu (left) and KCR. Credit: YouTube Screengrab

A story told by political insiders from Hyderabad goes thus. K. Chandrasekhar Rao, then a minister in N. Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party government in the undivided state of Andhra Pradesh, was shocked upon being dropped from the cabinet after the 1999 elections in which Naidu won a second term. Seething with rage, KCR resolved to do two things – become chief minister himself, and get even by some day humiliating his former leader.

Despite forming a new party which reignited the dormant issue of statehood for Telangana into a successful agitation, leading his Telangana Rashtra Samiti to electoral victory, and becoming the first chief minister of India’s newest state – thus succeeding in his first resolve – KCR still nurses a sense of rage over his humiliation at Naidu’s hands 15 years back. On his part, Naidu, thrilled to be back in power (even if in a truncated state) and allied to the party in power at the Centre too, still agonises over the loss of Hyderabad to his former lieutenant.

Unable to get over their personal sense of hurt, both leaders are behaving in a way that is grossly disrespectful of their respective mandates. Instead of acting like the CMs they are, KCR has tended to behave like an opposition leader in Andhra and Naidu as one in Telangana.

Perhaps their petulance is the product of their inability to satisfy their respective publics. Last year saw Telangana bursting with an excess of hope while Andhra staggered in despondency, but the people of both states had high expectations of their leaders. KCR was expected to perform miracles in office because he had already performed a big one; and Naidu was seen as a man who would deliver because he had not only administrative experience but also the Centre as a political ally.

However, expectations on both sides soured within no time. KCR had a new state, a thriving capital city in the form of Hyderabad, revenues, a split opposition but little experience or vision, Naidu a new state without a capital, little money, and a national partner that would not oblige him in the way the National Democratic Alliance of yore under Atal Bihari Vajpayee used to. Soon, the two CMs began running governments that were preoccupied with each other instead of people’s expectations. Both Telangana and AP cut down on the farmer loan waiver promise. They took to inviting investments with a needless sense of rivalry. When KCR gave a salary hike to government employees, Naidu matched.

Politics of diversion

It seemed smart politics for a while. Naidu focused the attention of his people in Andhra on KCR, whose media theatrics kept his own real opposition, YSRC president YS Jaganmohan Reddy, off the headlines. KCR too kept Naidu as his primary focus, undermining the feeble efforts of the Congress in Telangana to emerge as a credible. In focusing on the loss of Telangana and Hyderabad as key reasons for the rump state’s misfortunes, Naidu sought to stoke Andhra sentiments. In turn, KCR has continued to fuel emotions in the T-state against the ‘Andhra capitalists’ who opposed separation.

Of course, neither leader could hope to fool everyone forever. In government, they have alienated key support segments. Naidu put farmers quickly back in agitation mode by first diluting the farm loan waiver scheme, and then forcing a “voluntary land pooling” – where fertile lands were acquired to build a new capital. KCR’s decisions to make contract employees permanent, and then announcing his intent to acquire Osmania University lands for weaker-section housing put students – pivots of the Telangana agitation – on a collision course with his government.

When in doubt, distract. The two leaders played to the script so perfectly that doubts eventually arose. Despite the fervor of debate and shrillness of attacks, they began to lose control of the game. Naidu was spending more time in Hyderabad, resolving to come back to power in Telangana in 2019, and conducted his party’s annual conclave – the Mahanadu – in the ‘shared’ capital instead of any Andhra city. KCR, keen to be seen in oppositional mode against Naidu, threatened to remove all TDP flags and posters in Hyderabad during the Mahanadu.

With the visit of Rahul Gandhi, the efforts of the Congress to mobilise itself in Telangana, and an increasingly popular response to Jaganmohan Reddy’s politics of protest in Andhra, both KCR and Naidu needed to up the ante a few notches. They used their completion of one year in office last week to great effect but then slipped into an embarrassing and potentially difficult situation from which they have no option but to exit.

Grand schemes, grander scheming

Enter Revant Reddy, a young TDP leader and legislator, who had positioned himself as a perpetual source of attention by unleashing criticism – bordering on outright attacks against KCR – when no one in the Telangana Congress was willing to speak forthrightly against him. Revant alleged that KCR and his family members – son, daughter and nephew – were engaged in corruption and frequently took to the media to speak of various land deals.

Given Reddy’s hostility, KCR must have kept a close watch on the Young Turk. A day before the elections to the Legislative Council, when both parties were going all out for a seat for which they did not have enough MLAs, the confrontation became direct. The TRS had pulled away MLAs from the TDP over the precedeing months. In response, the TDP was trying to get TRS legislators, and a nominated MLA, to vote for them.

What followed is now well known: Reddy was filmed by the Anti-Corruption Bureau trying to bribe that MLA; a subsequent leaked telephone tap pulled Naidu into the bribery scandal. “We will expose Naidu’s corruption and past,” the TRS screamed. “If we start making revelations, TRS won’t have a face to show,” threatened the TDP. “Even God can’t save you,” thundered KCR.  “If you arrest me with tapped phone conversations, your government will fall the same day,” responded Naidu.

Stalemate to resolution

Even as analysts wondered whether the TRS – which seemed to have an initial edge in the case – would push matters to their logical conclusion by seeking the Governor’s approval to arrest Naidu under the Prevention of Corruption Act, the Andhra CM hit back hard. He took the phone tapping issue to court, registered police complaints against KCR across Andhra, and sought to bring Prime Minister Narendra Modi into the picture.

The BJP must be enjoying the emerging political canvas in the two states. It has nothing at stake and, therefore, can only gain from the drama. It can force Naidu to roll back his demands for special status for AP, or arm-twist KCR to let go of Asaduddin Owaisi’s MIM as a partner and join the NDA, or likely both.

Slowly but surely, the TRS and TDP are now beginning to realise they have pushed matters a bit too far and that is in their interest to withdraw and recede quietly. Unless, of course, the courts decide to push the case elsewhere; or if the BJP-led Centre can land a killer punch or twist to the matter.

Most likely, the stalemate is heading towards a slow dissolving dance of denial and retraction, with the release of Revant Reddy the anticlimax of this poorly scripted political melodrama.

Has Naidu gained political stock in Andhra Pradesh for taking on KCR, or has he lost face after being seen caught in a case of bribery? Will KCR reduce his vitriol against the TDP? Has he succeeded in frightening all quarters of the opposition about how strongly he can crack the whip? Or has his penchant for secretly recording meetings and telephone calls paved the way for dissent within the TRS’s ranks?

More significantly, will both chief ministers leave behind the bitterness they feel towards each other and go back to their respective mandates? A year after separating, it is clear that people in both states have at least one thing in common: they want their leaders to start delivering on their promises.

Sriram Karri is author of the MAN Asian longlisted novel Autobiography of a Mad Nation.