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Hyderabad: K. Chandrasekhar Rao of the ruling Telangana Rastra Samithi (TRS) has acquired the image of a bahubali (strongman) by winning one election after the other ever since he became the chief minister of the country’s youngest southern state. So far, his winning mantra has been to focus on regional sentiments.
KCR, as he is popularly known, is from the small Velama caste in Telangana. He had successfully mobilised all caste groups, mainly the numerically strong OBCs and Dalits, under his leadership during the statehood movement. OBCs, who constitute more than 50% of the state’s four-crore population, have remained the backbone of his party’s support base since. He gained the OBCs’ trust with a slew of welfare schemes for each caste, as well as offering them a substantial share in power.
Yet, he now appears to be ill at ease. His time-tested social engineering, and his regional sentiment plank, are showing signs of fading away. The TRS founder noticed this during the general elections in 2019, with the rise of the BJP. The saffron party surprised everyone by securing four Lok Sabha seats with a 20% vote share, in a region where it has not done well in the past.
Buoyed by these electoral gains, the BJP top brass chose Bandi Sanjay, an OBC leader from Munnuru Kapus, as the state party president. In the subsequent by-election in Dubbak, in KCR’s native district, and the elections for the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) too, the BJP stunned the TRS cadres by making inroads into the their bastions.
KCR’s alienation from OBCs?
To KCR’s embarrassment, his firebrand daughter Kavitha Kalvakuntla suffered a humiliating defeat in her native Nizamabad constituency at the hands of her BJP rival, Aravind Dharmapuri, in the 2019 general elections. Dharamapur is a member of the Munnuru Kapus, a powerful OBC community. At his daughter’s behest, KCR had rubbed D. Srinivas, a veteran caste leader of the Munnuru Kapus, the wrong way. This had an adverse impact on the TRS’s electoral prospects in at least two Lok Sabha seats – Nizamabad and Karimnagar – in north Telangana.
The post-poll soul-searching by the TRS’s think-tank apparently revealed a drift in the party’s OBC vote bank in favour of the BJP, leading to the latter’s windfall. Encouraged by these gains, the BJP plans to challenge KCR’s leadership with its OBC-led social engineering. Later, Etela Rajendar, a vocal minister in the KCR cabinet and a strong leader belonging to the Mudiraj community, another powerful OBC group, was sacked from the ministry. The way Rajendar, who walked hand in hand with KCR during the statehood movement, was shown the door apparently angered the OBCs further.
Rajendar is now the BJP candidate in the by-election for Huzurabad, the seat which became vacant after his resignation. He has been critical of his former mentor for diluting the party’s core values and filling the party with a flood of turncoats from the Telugu Desam Party and the Congress, who once opposed the statehood movement. Hardcore loyalists who have been with the party right from the statehood movement are playing second fiddle to these defectors, Rajendar alleged.
Among the OBCs, the Yadava, Mudiraj, Munnuru Kapu and weaver communities are decisive in Telangana’s politics by virtue of their numerical strength.
The weathercock at work
The TDP, founded by movie mogul N.T. Rama Rao, had the OBCs’ backing in Telangana after NTR abolished the Patel-Patwari system. Under that system, marginalised people were often subjected to harassment. In addition, NTR also introduced reservations in local bodies, politically empowering OBCs at the grassroots level. KCR is a product of NTR’s party, and has meticulously robbed his one-time parent outfit of this solid vote bank.
The TRS, under KCR’s leadership, is setting the stage to face state elections in the next two years. It may be a daunting task for him to secure a third term without the backing of OBC groups. The Reddys, a resource-rich political class, are consolidating behind the Congress after A. Revanth Reddy became the party’s state president.
KCR, known as a weathercock who is fairly good at knowing which direction the political winds are blowing in, has now set his eyes on Dalit voters. He hopes that the Dalit Bandhu scheme will help him win those votes.
On August 5, the chief minister rolled out the Dalit Bandhu scheme in Vasalamarri village, part of Telangana’s Yadadri Bhuvanagiri district, with a promise to spend Rs 1 lakh crore over a period of four years and distribute Rs 10 lakh to each Dalit family. According to official data, there are 7,79,902 Dalit families with 13,58,000 acres of farm land across Telangana. They are all entitled the Dalit Bandhu scheme, as per the KCR’s promise.
The custodial death of a Dalit woman, Mariyamma, in the Addagudur police station in Yadadri Bhuvanagiri district and the resignations of two senior Dalit bureaucrats – R.S. Pravin Kumar, an IPS officer, and Akunuri Murali, an IAS officer – from the civil services, raised questions about discrimination meted out to Dalit officers in the TRS government.
KCR has been accused of only paying lip service to the Dalits during his rule, but not bringing them under any worthwhile welfare schemes. Murali alleged that at least 50 bureaucrats from the Dalit community have been subjected to discrimination in the KCR government and not given posts which they deserve. “When Dalits are due to get three cabinet posts in proportion to their population, KCR gave them only one ministry,” Murali told The Wire.
During the statehood movement, KCR had promised that Telangana’s first chief minister would be a Dalit. He also promised two bedroom houses for every Dalit family. Neither of these promises have been fulfilled. Revanth Reddy, as the new chieftain of the state Congress party, is picking holes in KCR’s ‘false’ promise of Dalit welfare. Braving strong resistance from local TRS workers, the PCC chief stayed a night in the chief minister’s adopted village of Vasalamarri where the Dalit Bandhu scheme was launched a few days ago. His plan was to highlight the plight of local Dalit families.
Earlier, Revanth also visited Mudichintalapalli, another one of KCR’s adopted villages, in Karimnagar district to present the plight of Dalits as a classic case of how KCR failed to fulfil his promise of housing for the community. Dalits in the village had reportedly removed their thatched houses in the hope of the housing they had been promised. Years later, those dreams are yet to be fulfilled.
Crimes against Dalits up in Telangana?
Suman Damera, a research scholar from the University of Hyderabad who studied “Changing dynamics of caste violence” for his PhD, expressed doubts over the prospects of KCR winning the hearts of Dalits with his scheme, given the trust deficit that now exists. After Telangana became a separate state, the KCR government only helped reinforce the caste-entrenched feudal relations in the hinterlands. Landlords, who in the 1980s abandoned their farm lands and migrated to urban areas fearing Naxal attacks with the help of Rythu Bandhu, another one of KCR’s flagship welfare schemes. This has widened the caste divide, Suman told The Wire.
Citing the NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) data, he alleged that the KCR government has miserably failed to check the growing atrocities on SCs and STs. While 1,466 cases of atrocities against Dalits were reported in 2017, the cases went up to 1,507 in 2018 and 1,690 in 2019, the data showed. The situation has become much worse after Telangana achieved statehood, Suman contended.