How KCR first cemented his hold over the Telangana movement, and then the state

Kalvakuntla Chandrasekhar Rao successfully led the political movement for the creation of Telangana. MOHAMMED YOUSUF / THE HINDU ARCHIVES
10 April, 2019

Telangana, India’s youngest state, goes to the polls as part of the first phase of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, on 11 April. This will be the first time the state votes in a general election—it had formally been granted separate statehood before the 2014 election, but its official separation from Andhra Pradesh had to wait until just after that election ended. For the five intervening years, it has been ruled by the Telangana Rashtra Samithi—which rose to prominence on the back of calls for separate statehood—and under the chief ministership of the TRS’s leader, Kalvakuntla Chandrasekhar Rao, better known as KCR.

This excerpt from Praveen Donthi’s detailed profile of KCR for The Caravan on the cusp of the 2014 election, looks at the TRS’s founding and gradual success, and the growing currency of the Telangana movement alongside it. It also examines how KCR, having established himself firmly as the head of the party, went on to become the main face of the movement despite the rise of the Telangana Joint Action Committee, a massive coalition of three political parties and over two dozen other organisations that formed the vanguard of the movement, and M Kodandaram, the convener of the TJAC and a leading ideologue of the Telangana movement.

KCR won, and cemented his hold over, first, the movement and then, the new state. But many of those who supported him then have since grown disillusioned with what they consider a betrayal of the spirit that fuelled the long struggle for statehood. Last October, as Telangana prepared for a state election that delivered a rampant victory for the TRS and a second term as chief minister for KCR, Donthi reported on the state again. He found that KCR, where earlier he had promised social change, now stifled dissent and civil-society activism, and felt no need to intervene amid a spate of caste violence.

With the TRS widely tipped to continue its dominance over Telangana in the 2019 election, the contrast between its past and present is especially relevant.

When he gave up a career in the Telugu Desam Party and started the TRS, KCR was 47 years old. The TDP was the second-largest party in the National Democratic Alliance at the centre; the TRS was founded to fight for a regional goal that seemed almost unachievable at the time. But by November 2000, the creation of Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh had given the Telangana movement a certain urgency. By the end of the year, KCR had a party name, a flag and a strategy in place, but decided to wait for the dates of the local body elections to be announced before launching the party. The Supreme Court announced local elections and the inauguration of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi went off without a hitch on 27 April 2001.

“KCR was reluctant to resign,” Gade Innaiah, a former Naxal insurgent who was involved in the Telangana movement, told me. “But we didn’t relent, and forced him to resign the posts of deputy speaker and MLA before he announced the new party.” Just before the launch of the TRS, KCR called up his son and daughter, who were in the United States. “I think this is my calling and I am going after it,” he told his son, KTR, who told me, “I was among the 99 percent of sceptics.” KCR’s conversation with his daughter was more emotional. “‘I don’t know what the future is going to be. Your marriage is my only responsibility; hopefully I will be able to fulfil it in a decent manner. Otherwise, please understand,’ he said,” Kavitha recalled.

Unlike his political opponents, who were backed by the landed Reddy and Kamma entrepreneurs of Seemandhra, KCR had no big business backing; financing the party was a big challenge. Prakash, a founding member of TRS, told me that KCR sold some of his land on the outskirts of Hyderabad. He bought a house befitting a party chief in the city’s upmarket Banjara Hills area, and used the rest of the money to campaign.

The Samithi’s first public meeting, titledsimha garjana—lion’s roar—was held on 17 May 2001, in Karimnagar in northern Telangana, where the separatist sentiment is strong. Against the backdrop of the failure of the Maoist-backed attempt at reviving Telangana two years ago, KCR announced that the TRS would lead the movement for a separate state “without shedding a drop of blood.” KCR’s speech at the meeting would become a template of sorts. He flogged the government for failing Telangana’s farmers, weavers and adivasis. He brought up one of his favourite examples of discrimination between the two regions: how the TDP had used its influence at the centre to prevent the closure of a steel plant at Visakhapatnam, but wouldn’t extend the same effort for the Fertilizer Corporation plant in Ramagundam, in the Karimnagar district. To counter the popular belief that politicians take up Telangana as a last-ditch effort to boost dwindling careers, he told the crowd: “If any one of us strays from the path of achieving a separate Telangana, stone us to death.” KCR challenged Chandrababu Naidu, of the TDP, to stand against him in the Siddipet by-election, necessitated by his own resignation. He promised to take the fight all the way to the capital. “Politics is the only way to achieve Telangana,” he said. “We will create a political compulsion for Delhi to form Telangana.”

First, however, TRS had to contest the local body elections, which usually go in favour of the ruling party. In the beginning, no one knew what to make of a politician who assumed the mantle of a separatist leader just because he had been sidelined by his party. KCR did not always seem to know what was expected of him as a leader, either. “He is not a mechanical person,” Desapati Srinivas, KCR’s close associate, told me. “He is emotional and does what he likes. If he likes a person, he will sit with the lowest worker of the party and the biggest MLAs will have to wait. He abhors the formality of doing certain things a politician is expected to do. He wouldn’t, for instance, do the mandatory flag-hoisting on Independence Day. Even the smallest of things ended up hurting his image.”

During the campaign, KCR played to his strength—his ability to connect with people on the ground—to overcome doubts that he was a charlatan. He decided to travel all over Telangana in a helicopter. “Mao always said that we should start with a bang to attract people’s attention,” Innaiah said, “and then get them to talk about it, and win their confidence. So we borrowed the money for a helicopter.” The gimmick captured the public imagination; it also allowed KCR to cover a lot of ground—almost eighty mandals, or tehsils. “If he has hundred rupees, he makes it look like a thousand,” Kavitha told me.

In June, just two months after its inception, armed with little more than KCR’s wits and a ragtag group of intellectuals and activists, the TRS won the civic polls, gaining 87 zilla parishad territorial constituencies, 92 mandal parishad Territorial Constituencies, and the two zilla parishads of Karimnagar and Nizamabad, bagging 19.27 percent of votes polled. Most of the wins came in the northern districts of Telangana—Nizamabad, Karimnagar, Warangal and Medak—where People’s War, a prominent Naxal outfit, was and continues to be considerably influential. Simmering with anger over the repression they had faced under Naidu, the Naxals were interested in strategically supporting and using the TRS to hit back at the chief minister. Some members from its lower rungs joined the TRS for asylum.

Srinivas described how TRS’s success gave the Telangana movement greater legitimacy in the political mainstream. “With the coming of TRS, there was social freedom to talk about Telangana openly. Earlier it was a crime. So we thought we should support and strengthen TRS,” he said. The initial success drew even more support for TRS from various quarters. Aelay Narendra, a Bharatiya Janata Party MP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member, who quit his party to found the separatist Telangana Sadhana Samithi, merged his party with TRS within the year. As Jayashankar, an economics professor and the revered ideologue of Telangana, had said, the Telangana movement attracted support from a wide political spectrum. With the civic poll victories, the TRS could now be seen as the representative of Telangana.

As early as August 2000, 41 Congress legislators from Telangana had appealed to the high command to support statehood. The Congress working committee, in turn, sent a resolution to Home Minister LK Advani, asking him to constitute a second State Reorganisation Committee. He rejected the request, as Naidu was a crucial ally to the NDA. The state BJP unit, which had resolved in favour of bifurcation in 1998, was also snubbed. But by 2003, KCR succeeded in making Telangana a thorn in the flesh of every party in Andhra Pradesh. The TDP-BJP alliance which led the NDA seemed unshakeable, and it was the Congress leaders from Telangana who pushed hard for their party to tie up with the TRS for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in 2004.

In September 2009, YSR, the chief minister of the state,died in a helicopter crash over the Nallamala hills, throwing Andhra Pradesh into political turmoil.

His death cast the Andhra Pradesh Congress into disarray—YSR’s son, Jaganmohan Reddy, left the party in a pique, upon being denied his father’s chief ministerial post. In a stunning reversal of fortune, one of the TRS’s biggest obstacles was gone. Sensing the significance of the moment, and still smarting from the disgrace of the Lok Sabha election results, KCR understood that he could no longer afford to be seen as half-hearted on the issue of statehood.

That October, a Supreme Court ruling provided KCR with the ammunition for the first round in a more aggressive fight for Telangana. The judgement ruled that people from outside Telangana—the ghair-mulkis, or settlers—were allowed to take government jobs in Hyderabad for the first time. KCR demanded a constitutional amendment to scrap the ruling. His supporters were sceptical about the stand—it was a bold move in light of the party’s state—but KCR saw that the issue would have popular appeal. On 16 November, he announced that he would be starting a fast unto death for Telangana, in Siddipet. “Be prepared for either my funeral procession or a victory rally,” he said.

In the days leading up to 29 November, the scheduled day of the fast, there was much laying of groundwork. Relay hunger strikes were scheduled in solidarity, to maximise the impact of the fast. KCR had previously been reluctant to involve students, but now, for the first time, he asked for the support of all unemployed youth; the students of Osmania University responded by forming a joint action committee. More uncharacteristically for the TRS, KCR also called for a “jail bharo”—fill the jails—movement. The party spread the slogan “KCR chachudo, Telangana vachudo” (KCR dies or Telangana comes) far and wide, and KCR went on every television channel that would have him in order to hype the fast.

On the designated day, he was arrested on his way to the venue and shifted to a jail in Khammam, on the border of Telangana, where the TRS had no presence. KCR resolved to begin his fast in the jail, causing an outpouring of public support. When Srikant Chari set himself on fire in LB Nagar, the protests escalated. On the Osmania campus, striking students clashed with paramilitary forces and were brutally beaten. The entire proceedings were broadcast live, triggering a wave of sympathy for the movement.

On 20 November, news channels broadcast visuals of KCR drinking juice and breaking his fast in jail. KTR told me that his father was alone under police supervision and had been manipulated. The hunger-striking students of Osmania were infuriated. They took out a symbolic funeral procession, shouting: “Why don’t you drink our blood?” As the movement threatened to slip out of the TRS’s hands, KCR immediately announced that he was continuing his fast.

As the movement started to bring together disparate groups in its support, TRS’s control over the protest it had sparked grew nominal. KCR was brought to NIMS hospital in Hyderabad. Jayashankar stayed with him; his family was in the next room. “There was a severe financial crunch,” Kavitha told me. “On the one hand, the movement was picking up, and on the other, various leaders kept coming to demand money. They would say, ‘We expressed our support outside, hoping you would fund our protests.’ A lot of them kept thinking it was still politics. One leader sat for twenty-four hours and left only after I gave him Rs 10 lakh.”

In the Lok Sabha, the opposition leader LK Advani demanded government intervention. With regular televised updates about KCR’s deteriorating health fanning the flames, at the centre, the pressure began to mount. Meanwhile, the Osmania joint action committee was calling for a takeover of the state assembly on 10 December. In a midnight statement on the eve of this planned coup, eleven days after KCR began his fast, home minister P Chidamabaram announced that “the process for formation of a separation of Telangana state would be initiated.” KCR’s fast had achieved its ultimate goal; he had become a hero.

Discharged from the hospital on 11 December, KCR called in a group of journalists on the very next day, to tell them that he wanted to launch a news channel. “He sat with us day and night and did 95 percent of the work,” K Narayana Reddy, the channel’s CEO, told me. “He even wrote the promos.” In three months, and with the “impossibly low budget of about Rs 15 crore,” T News was broadcasting from the third floor of Telangana Bhavan. S Suresh Babu, its executive editor, called it “a watchdog,” guarding against the “wrong propaganda” of the twenty-odd Andhra channels and “counterattacking them” when necessary.

“The Telangana dialect was used on TV for the first time and millions felt like they found a voice at last,” he said. “Though we are limited to ten districts, we broke even in four months.”

On 23 December 2009, facing the mass resignation of politicians from Seemandhra, the central government backtracked on its promise to review the formation of Telangana. At an uncertain political moment, with a movement on his hands whose moves would prove difficult to control, KCR proposed the constitution of an umbrella organisation, under the leadership of M Kodandaram, a political scientist and experienced civil liberties activist. This would be the Telangana Joint Action Committee, whose purpose, the author Thirumali told me, was to “bring all Telangana activists under the various joint action committees, particularly student activists, back under the control of political leadership.” As YSR had pointed out, the TRS did not have a monopoly on Telangana—but through the TJAC, KCR could consolidate all the various Telangana interest groups, pre-emptively forming a coalition to support his political decisions if he needed to. It was a shrewd move from a politician who had witnessed both the power and the volatility of a popular uprising. He chose an opportune time—the protesting Osmania students, who had a joint action committee of their own, had gone off on a padayatra to Kakatiya University in Warangal when he made the announcement.

The TJAC would come to comprise 28 organisations and three participant political parties (the TRS, the BJP and the CPI ML-New Democracy). Today, it is organised at various levels of leadership, with a chain of command connected right down to villages. “This decentralisation has strengthened the movement,” said A Sridhar, the chairman of the TJAC’s Greater Hyderabad chapter.

Over time, the popular and political movements for Telangana statehood became more and more symbiotic in their relationship. In February 2010, soon after KCR’s fast, the TJAC asked all Telangana-supporting MLAs to resign. The 12 who did were all re-elected, with staggering majorities. (This included one BJP candidate who won, despite the considerable presence of Muslim voters in his district, because TJAC asked these voters to abstain from voting.) The opposition candidates were decimated. Despite the TDP’s strong cadre and an important backward caste vote-bank in Telangana, the party’s candidates lost their deposits in every seat; so did four Congress candidates. Neither Naidu nor the Congress chief minister Konijeti Rosaiah campaigned for their candidates. Embarrassingly, D Srinivas Rao, the Congress state president, also lost.

“Since it is a non-party forum fighting for Telangana, everybody felt they were part of it. Voters wouldn’t respond to a party, but they would to TJAC,” Kodandaram told me. Sridhar agreed. “When we criticise the TDP or the Congress, they don’t know how to counter us. We are like a bulletproof shield for TRS,” he said.

For the first three months of its existence, TJAC played second fiddle to the TRS, before beginning to emerge out of its shadow—something that caused growing friction between the two outfits. The TJAC started to announce its own programmes, usually public meetings or protest marches, such as the “Telangana Million March” it planned to hold in March 2011. In February, a non-cooperation movement had been abruptly aborted after 28 days. The TJAC wanted to organise another protest, but KCR opposed the idea. “He thought we may have to postpone the march, but the preparations were at an advanced stage,” Kodandaram said. “It was not a happy decision to call off the non-cooperation movement, and we thought the agitation must continue in other forms. People would’ve questioned our conviction otherwise.” Pittala Ravinder, state coordinator of TJAC, told me that KCR encouraged Swamy Goud, another TJAC leader, in a bid to replace Kodandaram, “but we told [TRS] that Kodandaram is the undisputed leader of TJAC. Their apprehension was that TJAC might turn into a political party after the formation of Telangana.”

That KCR could, and had begun to, consider the possibility of what might happen after the formation of Telangana was a testament to how far he had brought the movement, and a credit to the TJAC’s success in keeping up the pressure. Ever since the TRS had come into being, KCR had depended on contesting and winning elections to keep infusing life into the movement, and convincing voters of his sincerity regarding Telangana. (The TRS’s leaders have resigned and contested by-elections so many times in the last ten years that it may well be argued that the party has accumulated several times the standard amount of electoral experience in this period.) But once it had the TJAC’s support, the TRS’s election results were consistently better. Ravinder told me that “at one point, Kodandaram was regularly on the front pages, and KCR used to be inside, so he felt insecure. He wanted to be the only face of the movement.”

In January 2014, as the Telangana bill was being heatedly debated in the state assembly of Andhra Pradesh, I accompanied Kodandaram on an awareness campaign to Vikarabad, seventy kilometres from Hyderabad. Even before we hit the road in the morning, he had addressed two press conferences. He interacted with traders, politicians, teachers, just about anybody and everybody—and people readily recognised and welcomed him with respect wherever we went. It was well past midnight when we got back to the city, but he had little time for sleep; a series of public meetings awaited him the next day. Telangana seemed closer than ever before, but people were afraid to hope. All day they had anxiously been asking him about what he thought would happen, what the government might do this time.

“They can’t turn back the wheel of time,” Kodandaram told them, “and the time for Telangana has come.”

This is an extract from The Caravan’s April 2014 cover story, “The Wedge.” It has been edited and condensed.