False Friend

KCR awaits re-election despite betraying the spirit of the Telangana movement

K Chandrasekhar Rao has reason to be brash—surveys have predicted a comfortable TRS victory in Telangana. But the state he will likely continue to rule has less cause for optimism. Mahesh Kumar A/AP
31 October, 2018

Kalvakuntla Chandrasekhar Rao, the first chief minister of Telangana, dissolved the state assembly in early September, eight months before the end of its term, and announced polls in December. He pitched this as a reaction to Telangana’s “political fragility”—caused, he said, by the opposition’s attacks on his government—but even with his silver tongue he could not make the excuse sound convincing. Telangana’s next state election was due to coincide with the 2019 general election. Rao—better known by his initials, KCR—acted to avoid that situation, in which his rhetoric of state pride risked being drowned out by the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaigns for national power.

KCR’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi can also now focus all its resources on one battle at a time, rather than split its strength across two battles simultaneously. First the TRS must take on the Congress, its biggest rival in the state, which still draws some goodwill from the fact that it was a Congress-led national government that bifurcated Andhra Pradesh to create Telangana in 2014. Next it will challenge the Congress and the BJP in the Lok Sabha races, knowing that a healthy number of seats can earn it a say in who takes control at the centre.

In the first battle, “nobody is even close according to my surveys,” KCR said at a press conference to announce the early state election. When somebody asked if he was making a defensive move, he said, “I am KCR. Do I get scared?” The chief minister has reason to be brash—surveys have, in fact, predicted a comfortable TRS victory. But the state he will likely continue to rule has less cause for optimism.

A week after KCR dissolved the assembly, in a small Telangana town called Miryalaguda, Perumalla Pranay was hacked to death as he left a hospital with his wife, Amrutha Varshini. Varshini was pregnant, and the young couple had come to the hospital for a pre-natal check-up. Pranay, a Dalit Christian, and Varshini, of the Vysya caste, had married despite opposition from the bride’s father, an influential real-estate businessman named T Maruthi Rao. Pranay’s father-in-law had paid a man Rs 1 crore to murder him.

The murder was caught on CCTV, and Telangana and Andhra Pradesh debated it for days. Many condoned the father’s act, and blamed the daughter for her supposed transgression. More than five hundred Vysyas took out a rally in support of Maruthi Rao, and went to meet him in prison. KCR remained silent, and was accused of being casteist and anti-Dalit. His apparent indifference was especially shocking to those who had supported the movement for Telangana statehood that brought KCR to power—a movement once founded on the hope of transforming a separate Telangana into a model of social progress.

Around 90 percent of Telangana’s people belong to religious minorities, Other Backward Castes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. These groups were traditionally oppressed by castes such as the Reddys and Kammas, and the Telangana movement was supposed to break these castes’ hegemony over neellu, nidhulu, niyamakalu—water, resources and appointments—to give the subordinate masses their rightful share of democratic power.

KCR is a Velama, a dominant-caste Hindu, and his political rise caused no little apprehension. But the movement owed him a debt—he resurrected the possibility of statehood after an earlier, Maoist-backed separatist wave was violently curtailed by the government—and he did what was required to present the TRS as the movement’s party. Before the formation of Telangana, KCR made a promise that he would never keep: that he would make a Dalit the chief minister of Telangana. 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—supported the TRS in several elections, right up to the one in 2014 that made KCR the chief minister.

Once in power, KCR crushed all civil-society groups that could oppose him. “This is one of the worst governments purely from the civil-liberties perspective,” G Haragopal, a prominent intellectual, told me. “All forms of protests and resistance have been stifled.” Haragopal had “never been touched by the police” in decades of activism, but “it has happened under the TRS government, when a peaceful gathering for Save Education Yatra was disrupted and some of us were taken into custody.”

The gathering was a protest against KCR’s education policies. Though he had promised free education from “KG to PG”—from kindergarten to the post-graduate level—his government has brought education spending down. That budget item now accounts for just 8.2 percent of the state outlay—almost half of the proportion of their budgets that at least eighteen other states reserve for education. Higher education in Telangana has suffered most. The protest was held at Dharna Chowk in Hyderabad, where the Telangana movement was literally born and nurtured. KCR’s government has banned protests at the chowk, and allocated a place for them far outside the city.

KCR was notably quiet on Rohith Vemula’s suicide at the University of Hyderabad in 2016. Satyanarayana, a professor at Hyderabad’s English and Foreign Languages University, told me that while the brunt of the controversy that followed was directed at the BJP, the Telangana government was a “principle agent” in the episode. Appa Rao Podile, the vice chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, “was not touched despite the SC/ST atrocities case against him, and was successfully reinstated” after a brief absence. Instead of arresting Podile, the Telangana police arrested students and faculty members protesting the university’s mistreatment of Vemula. “The BJP’s stand that Rohith was not a Dalit was actually helped by KCR,” Satyanarayana continued. “His government was the key to all this.”

Another point of disappointment is the KCR government’s record on job creation. The Telangana movement played up the notion that outsiders were taking jobs away from locals, and many young people supported it in the hope that statehood would bring them employment. That has not happened. The government said in November 2014 that there are over a hundred thousand vacancies in government employment in the state, but it has yet to keep its promise to fill these. An associate of KCR, who asked to remain anonymous as he was not permitted to speak to the media, admitted to me that “the youth is unhappy.”

Meanwhile, power has exaggerated KCR’s vices. One of these is nepotism—his son and one of his nephews are ministers in the state cabinet, his daughter is a member of the Lok Sabha, and another nephew is in the Rajya Sabha. Another is religiosity. He spent over Rs 5 crore of taxpayers’ money on jewellery that he donated to the Venkateswara temple in Tirupati, to thank god for the creation of Telangana. His personal expert on vastu and astrology has been appointed as a government advisor. He spent Rs 7 crore—reportedly of his own and private sponsors’ money—to gather 1,500 priests for a five-day yagna for Telangana’s prosperity. A monk KCR reveres, Chinna Jeeyar, is present at every ceremony conducted by the government, and KCR made Jeeyar sit in the chief minister’s chair during the inauguration of his brand-new official residence.

The Telangana movement, and especially the Telangana Joint Action Committee, has been irrevocably changed by KCR’s governance. The TJAC was weakened as many of its leaders “were co-opted into the government apparatus,” K Nageshwar, a journalist and a former member of the state’s legislative council, told me. Now “the movement has become the government, they say.” Influential leaders who remained outside the government have had their freedom curtailed.

M Kodandaram, the convener of the TJAC and a leading ideologue of the Telangana movement, was arrested from his home in the middle of the night in February 2017 as he was preparing a rally to protest the government’s delay in filling job vacancies. When students from Osmania University, a hotbed of the movement, were barred from joining the rally, one of them, Sandeep Chamar, set himself on fire. It was a highly symbolic act, as self-immolations form a major part of the Telangana movement’s history. “Students are the ones who suffered a lot during the Telangana agitation and now the state has no time to think about us,” Chamar told the media. “Our lives haven’t even changed a bit, and now they are not even allowing us to show our dissent.”

Kodandaram and the TJAC prepared another march in March 2018, to commemorate the iconic Million March in 2011, at the peak of the Telangana movement. Hundreds of activists were detained, and Kodandaram was arrested again. In April, he launched his own party, the Telangana Jana Samithi.

“This is not the Telangana state for which hundreds of people sacrificed their lives and lakhs of people took to the streets,” Kodandaram said at the party’s inauguration. Power was “confined to a few people of a family,” he added, and “the same old contractors and big business houses which had controlled the government in the combined Andhra Pradesh regime” controlled the new government as well. The checklist of grievances included the stifling of demonstrations, farmers committing suicide because of low crop prices, broken promises on jobs and that “Dalits and other weaker sections are being crushed with iron hand when they question the ruling class.”

Perumalla Pranay’s murder made especially stark the renewed social conservatism sweeping India’s youngest state. According to the Inter-Caste Marriages Federation in Hyderabad, Telangana has seen 19 killings linked to inter-caste marriages since its formation. “There was always caste oppression in Telangana,” Satyanarayana said, but the Maoist movement, which has a long history in the area, meant that “no open massacres of Dalits happened” since “there was a fear of reprisal.” But under this government, KCR’s caste, the Velamas, “and other upper castes have become very strong. Forget about the promise of a Dalit CM and welfare schemes for them, the phenomenon of Dalit killings has become rampant. The landlords are so emboldened because KCR is mobilising upper-caste associations.”

The social scientist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd described a pattern of “re-feudalisation” under KCR after decades of Maoist and communist activism had eroded some of the state’s inherited feudalism. Shepherd, who also heads a coalition of social and political groups under the banner of the Telangana Mass and Social Organisations Forum, told me, “Any regional movement becomes a movement with regional sentiment, without any social transformational content and without any further democratic agenda for change. Feudal forces become dominant in this atmosphere … and KCR reflects that process.”

KCR’s main weapons for staving off wider discontent are a raft of populist welfare schemes. These are targeted at strategic electoral groups—beedi makers, weavers and toddy tappers, women and senior citizens—and designed to diversify the TRS’s appeal. But even here an element of feudalism creeps in. The Rythu Bandhu scheme, for instance, promises farmers a cash infusion of Rs 4,000 for every acre under cultivation, but is limited to land owners. Tenant farmers account for a third or more of all farmers in Telangana, but they receive no benefit.

“KCR is following the Singapore model in his mind,” his associate said. “He thinks if he gives what people want there won’t be any problem.” But the other aspect of this model, the harsh control of dissent, is “difficult to digest for us,” the associate added. “He is overdoing it. He thinks only elites and the extreme left want freedom of speech.”

Come December, the TRS’s electoral numbers will depend on how well the opposition manages to galvanise the pockets of discontents that exist across the state. But the chances of a broad anti-TRS mobilisation coalescing before the vote are limited. For one, the opposition is fragmented and weak. The Congress has no big leader in the state to take on KCR, and the TRS’s main historical rival, the Telugu Desam Party, has been deflated by the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, which it opposed. Forces such as the Telangana Jana Samithi and the Telangana Mass and Social Organisations Forum are still young, and will need time before they can make any notable impact. For another, the TRS is indiscriminately courting any available allies. The party claims that it is secular, but it has forged a strategic relationship with the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, a Muslim party with a stronghold in Hyderabad. Speculation of a post-general-election alliance with the Hindu-nationalist BJP in 2019 is rife. KCR has created a party that can run with the hare and hunt with the hound, and is guided by only one goal—power.

“Social movements bring about a qualitative change in the society,” G Haragopal told me. “But as far as Telangana is concerned, this thesis has been proved wrong.”