Caste, Region and ‘Hindu Rashtra’: The Many Shades of the By-Election in ‘Bangaru’ Telangana

When the winner of the Dubbak by-poll is announced on November 10, the people of Telangana will know once and for all the political direction in which the state is headed.

The by-poll in Dubbak assembly constituency, Telangana, seems set to show the political mood of the state even before the elections to the legislative council and the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) take place. Never before has a by-poll seen such importance and also such a close fight.

Dubbak, located approximately 100 kms from the state capital, Hyderabad, is adjacent to the major political blocs of Medak, Siddipet, Gajwel and Sircilla. The importance of these blocs and their adjoining constituencies in Uttara Telangana is that they are predominantly represented by the Velama caste (landlords), which actually comprises less than 2% of Telangana’s entire population. Including chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao (KCR), his son and his nephew, the total number of Velama MLAs in the current assembly stands at 10.

Thus the election in Dubbak is likely to expose the strengths and weaknesses of the incumbent government and has become an issue of prestige for three parties: the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). For the ruling TRS, in fact, winning this election, the result of which will be declared on November 10, is a question of survival.

New political developments

The current political situation in Telangana is the outcome of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, which showed the gradual rise of the BJP and the shifting local configurations of castes.

The TRS and the BJP had fought the 2019 Lok Sabha elections pitting the TRS’s narrative of adhyatmik (spiritual) Hindutva against the BJP’s political Hindutva. TRS’s message also was: What Modi is to India, KCR is to Telangana – and can also become to India.

Also read: Telangana: Ahead of By-Election, BJP Workers Assault Police, Flee with Cash During Raids

But the BJP won four seats out of the state’s 17 Lok Sabha seats and the TRS ended up with only nine seats.

The Dubbak bypoll saw the BJP and TRS use the same narratives. Using social engineering to expand its prospects in Telangana and ferociously targeting the alliance of TRS and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), the BJP has already strategised itself before the GHMC and legislative council elections.

Countering TINA with BITA

Both the BJP and the TRS use the TINA (There Is No Alternative) narrative; the TRS because it is in power and the BJP by pointing out the lack of an opposition in both the Centre and the state. However, the BJP twists TINA to BITA – BJP Is The Alternative – which seems to work well as a strategy.

The BITA narrative helps the BJP focus on caste configurations in a much better manner than it had managed for the Lok Sabha elections. For example, in Andhra Pradesh, the Reddy-Kamma caste rivalry is addressed and satisfied with the presence of both castes in the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party. But in Telangana, the Velama-Reddy rivalry still remains an open field, especially for the Reddys.

Though the Velamas support the TRS, the Reddys could switch between all the three major parties in the state. To level the caste competition, the BJP has fielded a candidate from the Velama caste to stand against the Reddy candidates of the TRS and INC. This gives it the power to counter KCR’s son, nephew and Telangana’s dynastic politics by dividing opinions in the Velama bloc against the strong popular appeal of the chief minister’s nephew.

Exclusion and mobilisation of the marginalised

The political culture in Telangana shows the denial of representation to marginalised sections despite the size of backward classes’ population.

For example, the population of Dubbak is predominantly from the backward castes (BC). Recently, BC leaders said that if political parties did not field candidates from BC castes, they would contest the elections independently.

However, this demand was conveniently ignored while the BJP’s public meetings with Dalits and Golla Kurumas in the constituency became more and more visible.

These meetings were addressed by prominent scheduled caste leaders and three BC Munnuru Kapu leaders, including state BJP president M.P. Bandi Sanjay, M.P.D. Aravind and K. Laxman, the last of whom recently became the national president for the BJP’s OBC (other backward class) Morcha.

In the Dalit Morcha public meetings, the BJP’s scheduled caste leaders accused KCR of being anti-Dalit. In the meetings with Golla Kurumas (named Gorla Kaparla Sabha in the posters), the emphasis was on their caste occupation. Bandi Sanjay asked the ‘Golla Kuruma Yadavs’ to vote for the BJP alone and defeat KCR’s ‘dictator and razakar rule’.

In its latest move, the BJP has tried to gain the trust of backward castes through the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC). T. Achary, a member of the NCBC, issued a show cause notice to the Telangana Police on the forceful arrest of Bandi Sanjay and also asked the Election Commission of India to protect and safeguard the rights of backward class voters who are threatened by the TRS, as well as keep an eye on the safety of members of the BJP.

By putting K. Laxman in charge of the National OBC Morcha, the BJP aims to mobilise OBCs across the south of India. The fact that Laxman is south Indian gives the BJP’s promises legitimacy and via Laxman, the BJP is set to focus especially on the Munnuru Kapus in Telangana and the Kapus of Andhra Pradesh.

Also read: Explained: What Is at Stake in the Upcoming Rajya Sabha Elections, Assembly By-Polls?

The entry of the Kapus into the political process some years ago disturbed the Reddy-Kamma power bloc. Now, through an alliance with the Jana Sena’s Pawan Kalyan (a Kapu) and by appointing a Kapu as Andhra Pradesh’s BJP state president, the BJP is, in many ways, trying to break the dominant caste arithmetic by first gathering together the small fish.

This will benefit the party even more after the release of the OBC sub-categorisation report and any further policies that the Narendra Modi government at the Centre may adopt to safeguard lower OBCs.

By concentrating on a few castes via social engineering and by using the grand narrative of Hinduness against the cultural enemies (read Muslims) of the country, the BJP is keeping its base open in Telangana.

Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb meets the Hindu rashtra

The caste-region matrix when combined with a Hindu monolithic identity produces a unique entrenchment of Hindutva. Given the fact that the Mandal Movement did not make a huge impact in south India, the BJP is currently reinvigorating that ‘past’ moment to enable the OBCs to come within the ambit of Hindutva and thus not enter other social movements that may challenge Brahminical Hindutva.

Most political parties in Telangana eulogise communal harmony by invoking the state’s Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb or composite culture. But this is problematic for the BJP because it allows scope for appeasement policies. In any case, the tehzeeb is not enough to unite Hindus and the lower castes.

In endorsing the significance of the tehzeeb, neither the TRS nor the Congress has managed to take down the BJP’s hardline stand and this failure gives space to BJP leaders like M.P. Aravind, known for his communal remarks, to threaten religious minorities, as Aravind recently did by reminding C.P. Joel Davis of his Christian identity and warning him: “This is a Hindu rasthram (nation), remember that.”

Both Aravind and Sanjay are popularly known as Munnuru Kapu ‘Hindu’ Tigers. There is no Vajpayee-Advani liberal-extreme binary in Telangana. All the BJP leaders in the state display a similar masculine Hindutva aggressive body language.

Telangana’s prospects

Whatever the outcome of the by-poll at Dubbak, the advantage will remain with the BJP. It has systematically percolated its BITA narrative through the backward classes.

One thing this election might prove is the anti-incumbency factor in the region, which could impact the GHMC elections thanks to the situation in Hyderabad after the recent floods.

The demand for the creation of a social-democratic Telangana initially resulted in a geographical Telangana. Now the same region, with its matrix of caste, Hindutva and nation, is encountering the idea of a Hindu nation. If the idea settles, there is a great possibility that any prospects for bettering the lives of the traditionally oppressed will diminish.

The social-democratic forces in the state must understand the perils that are revealed in Dubbak and challenge the bigoted notion of social democracy.

Pallikonda Manikanta is an MPhil student at the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad.