The Telangana government was one of the first state governments to respond to the crisis of COVID-19. It began with the Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao (KCR), just as many other global leaders like Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, denying the presence of any major health crisis in the state.
KCR later announced he would announce Telangana a COVID-free state by April 7 and sealed the state’s borders preventing migrants from returning home.
Telangana has a high rate of migrants working in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Within a month it was clear that Telangana was high on the rates of infection and most of it was concentrated in the capital city of Hyderabad, following a similar trend in Delhi and Mumbai. This was followed by the health minister announcing that there is only so much a government can do in fighting the disease and that it was finally the responsibility of individual citizens to take precaution.
With this the government of Telangana shifted gears and went on, though without any official announcement, to aim for herd immunity with low testing rates. It hoped that the majority of those infected would develop antibodies. However, a recent study on Spain, one of the worst affected in Europe, has shown that not more than 5% of the affected population developed the antibodies and there is a high propensity of collateral damage with herd immunity.
Why did the Telangana government fail to contain the pandemic, unlike other states, like Kerala, in the south?
Telangana is a young and resource-rich state with a surplus budget. Its formation was marked by a promise of social welfare and social justice. But under the leadership of KCR and his party, it shifted away to a corporate growth-centric discourse and did not make investments in health or education. He rampantly promoted corporate educational institutions and closed down government schools in favour of model schools in each district run by the government, which accommodated much smaller numbers.
Yet, KCR maintained his popularity through a series of populist sops and he did reasonably well in addressing the water crisis in many districts. The power supply improved too. However, health and education are not electorally popular issues, which is part of the reason why they do not get the attention they deserve.
The crisis of employment and growing aspirations among the lower-end castes were addressed through sops, Rythu Bandu schemes for the farmers, direct cash transfers, and pension for the old. While these did bring relief, they do not prepare a state for long-term crisis, either in the economy or the present kind of unforeseen health related pandemic.
KCR’s attitude to governance smacks of the age-old feudal order where he would offer charity and welfare, but cannot tolerate difference of opinion and dissent. KCR was quick on his feet to unleash repression in a state that was born out of a mass collective action and street mobilisation.
In fact, Telangana is favourably referred to as Udyamala Gadda (or bastion of mass movements). He clamped down, one way or the other, to control voices that differed; not surprisingly there are no alternative ways of addressing the current crisis.
The CM has demonstrated unprecedented contempt for intellectuals, public activists and institutions of higher learning. Most state universities in Telangana are starved for funds and were without appointments of Vice Chancellors for a very long time.
Perhaps he thinks that universities could be managed this way. He cut funds to Osmania University, which was the hotbed of students’ mobilisation for a separate state, when students dissented against some of his policies and demanded more employment.
He prohibited mass protests, street demonstrations and arrested public intellectuals who had played pivotal role in realising the dream of a separate state. Without a vibrant political and social atmosphere, with most information channels cut down, KCR in his echo chamber could barely realise the sheer proportion of the crisis that Telangana was staring at.
Of late, he has hardly made a public appearance and there is no official statement as yet on how to face the current situation.
Finally, part of the blame also has to lie with the Centre.
State governments are unable to deal with the crisis as they are forced into a denial mode as any acknowledgement of the depth of the health crisis is cynically politically exploited by the Centre. Even as it harps on ‘co-operative federalism’, the BJP believes in vicious politicisation.
One could see it in the case of Bihar and Bengal, which are due for Assembly elections; the optics of a state government not accepting funds from the centre were created without actually offering the required funds. Similarly, the migrant crisis was allowed to brew in a way where the migrants would end-up blaming the state governments and the local BJP would mobilise the anger without offering alternative plans of mitigating the crisis.
Partly, therefore, the weak response of KCR government was its fear that BJP is gaining ground in the state and acknowledging the health crisis could offer the BJP’s state unit some extra points. This however cannot be a legitimate bargain of trading political power with the growing number of cases where Telangana and the city of Hyderabad may well end up topping the list.
Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU. Secular Sectarianism (SAGE, 2019), a volume he edited, was published recently.