The Wedge

How KCR became the face of the Telangana movement

Kalvakuntla Chandrasekhar Rao successfully led the political movement for the creation of Telangana. Mohammed Yousuf / The Hindu Archives
01 April, 2014


ON 20 FEBRUARY, as the day grew colder and darkness fell, around forty people huddled around two television sets at 23 Tughlaq Road, the central Delhi residence of Kalvakuntla Chandrasekhar Rao—better known as KCR—a member of parliament and the founder-president of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi party. Most people wore woollens they had bought cheaply in local markets to beat the persistent chill. At 8.05 pm, the deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha appeared on the Telugu news channels they were watching. He announced the passage of the Telangana bill, which paves the way for the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh into two parts: Seemandhra to the south and, to the north, Telangana—a landlocked region bordered by Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Karnataka—and now India’s twenty-ninth state.

A cheer went up, and people ran out into the garden to smear each other with pink gulaal—theTRS party colour. Within a few minutes, the thick smoke of fireworks had engulfed the premises, and charred paper floated everywhere. The euphoric crowd—party workers, activists and other supporters—swelled to a hundred. They lifted TRS leaders on their shoulders and chanted, “Galli mein bolo, Dilli mein bolo, Jai Telangana, Jai Telangana.” Say it in the street, say it in Delhi—hail Telangana.

In the commotion, reporters interviewed any TRS leaders they could find. One desperate Telugu journalist thrust a mike at KCR’s ten-year-old grandson, who was happily throwing gulaal. “KCR is the Telangana tiger. Everything has happened because of him,” the boy said, exuding a confidence very like his grandfather’s. “Since I have been this small”—he gestured with his hand—“I knew Telangana would come.”

In twenty minutes, KCR, in a teal blue Nehru suit, arrived from parliament in a white Innova with his lucky number, 6666, on its license plate. He flashed two thumbs up, and people went wild, shouting and pushing to get closer to him as he went into the house. He came out again in half an hour, carrying the text of a speech written by his close associate, the poet and singer Desapati Srinivas. The crowd fell silent, except for one supporter who mistimed his shout of “Telangana Gandhi, KCR ki jai”—Hail KCR, the Gandhi of Telangana—and was rebuked by KCR himself.

With senior TRS leaders by his side, and his grandson nearby, KCR began to read out a list of acknowledgments. He thanked the politicians who had supported the bill; his unofficial panel of expert advisors; the people of his constituency, Mahabubnagar; and the TRS leaders who had, over the years, resigned in solidarity from positions in the Andhra Pradesh assembly and council, and the parliament, whenever he had asked them to do so. He also acknowledged his debt to the late Kothapalli Jayashankar, an economics professor and the revered ideologue of Telangana, who had guided him ever since he took up the movement almost fifteen years ago.

First and foremost, however, he thanked the Congress president, whose party had steamrolled the fierce opposition and pushed the Telangana bill through both houses of parliament. “Shrimati Sonia Gandhi is responsible for the victory,” KCR told the crowd. “Without her intervention and strong commitment towards the issue … it wouldn’t have been possible. I thank her from the bottom of my heart on behalf of the four crore people of Telangana.”

In Hyderabad’s Gun Park, supporters celebrated the announcement of the formation of the state of Telangana after years of agitation. K Ramesh Babu / The Hindu Archives

Now that statehood had been granted, the question on everyone’s mind was whether KCR would, in return, keep a 2012 promise to merge the TRS with the Congress. But he was in no hurry to answer. “Now we have achieved the state, ahead is reconstruction,” he announced grandly. “There are lots of things to do. I will give out the details in the future.”

Two weeks later—an eternity in electoral politics—KCR addressed the media at Telangana Bhavan, the TRS party office in Hyderabad. He simply ruled out the prospect of a merger with the Congress and, in a complete turnaround from his posture of gratitude in Delhi, he lashed out at the party for ignoring TRS demands at the time of bifurcation. “If the Congress is in a position to form the government tomorrow we might support them,” he said. “If anybody wants to discuss alliances, I have appointed a committee. They will take a call.”

He added, “We will support whichever formation comes to power at the centre so that maximum benefit can be extracted.”

A journalist asked whether the Congress or the TRS would get the credit for forming Telangana. “Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and other Indians fought with the British and got independence,” KCR shot back. “Did people go and garland Queen Elizabeth?” The journalists laughed.

KCR told the press that the TRS would contest enough seats “to be able to form our own government” in the new state. “All the surveys,” he reminded them, were giving the TRS fourteen Lok Sabha seats as well. “What Telangana needs today is political self-determination,” he said. “The people of Telangana asked me, ‘How can you merge the party now?’ Telangana shall have its own voice.”

Someone asked KCR what his own role in the government of the new state would be. He was quick to answer: “Of course, I will play the lead role—definitely. I was the vanguard of the movement. I will be the vanguard of reconstruction of Telangana. Why not?”

THE IDEA OF A SEPARATE TELANGANA STATE has emerged and receded from India’s political landscape many times since independence, like a subterranean stream subject to tectonic shifts of power and influence. Following the constitution of the States Reorganisation Commission, Andhra Pradesh was the first state to be created on a linguistic basis, in 1956. Its formation required an uneasy compromise between the elites of three regions—landlocked but riverine Telangana, arid Rayalaseema, and the Coastal Andhra region—and had its sceptics from the start. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called the merger imperialist. When it went through, he assured people that it was a marriage with a “provision for divorce.”

Over time, Andhra Pradesh’s two dominant caste groups each came to control a political party. The Kammas, with roots in the four districts of the Andhra delta, took over the Telugu Desam Party, formed in 1982. The Reddys, largely located in Rayalaseema and parts of Telangana, dominated the state’s Congress party, and generally looked out for interests that were common to the two regions. But 90 percent of Telangana’s population consists of backward castes, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other minorities; when Andhra Pradesh was formed, safeguards had been put in place to protect this relatively disadvantaged population—but they were never enforced.

On this uneven foundation, future inequities piled up, deepening the divide between the region and its neighbours. In terms of economic and social advancement, Telangana remained relatively stagnant over the years: KCR sometimes lists the employment options in Telangana as “Bombai, Dubai, Boggu bai”—Bombay, Dubai, or the coalmine.

The idea of a Telangana separate from other Telugu-speaking regions had existed since almost the very beginning of Andhra Pradesh, gathering in political and cultural force over time. In Telangana-Andhra: Castes, Regions and Politics in Andhra Pradesh, activist Inukonda Thirumali wrote: “Telangana developed into a movement … for a separate state as a solution to the political crisis and for the democratic space of the subordinate classes.” Suppressed by the dominance of the Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra regions—known collectively as Seemandhra—this movement had periods of apparent dormancy, but was kept alive and nourished by the writings of Telangana’s left-wing intellectuals, the poetry of its singers, and by the blood of its supporters as it erupted, from time to time, into violent protest.

A politician or party would take up the cause now and again, but never in a sustained way until the 1990s, when the rise of regional parties and coalition governments created new intersections between popular movements and politics throughout India, including in Telangana. KCR, a four-time state assembly member who worked his way up from grassroots organiser to a cabinet minister, recognised the potential in building a political platform on the desire for a separate Telangana. In the separatist movement, he saw an opportunity to skew the balance of power in Andhra Pradesh away from the status quo of the Congress and the ruling Telugu Desam Party, of which he was a member, and to draw together diverse groups who would help to achieve his goal. The Telangana movement has always drawn its supporters from traditionally disadvantaged social groups and castes, who were later left behind in the race for development after India’s economic liberalisation. From these groups, KCR might have seen a way to build himself a base of voters.

In KCR, the movement gained a shrewd politician and a skilful orator. He has equal command over the nuances of the Telangana dialect and the scholarly theories of the experts he surrounds himself with. The economist Jayashankar, in particular, helped him frame a forceful argument for the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, backed with facts and figures about resource-sharing and job protection. But it was KCR who boiled that down to a simple, alliterative demand: neellu, nidhulu, niyamakalu—water, resources, and appointments.

In Telugu films, villains and comedians often speak the Telangana dialect. KCR shares the rough poetry of this guild. His language, which can be downright abusive, has been called unparliamentary, and his behaviour, uncouth. Transgression became a part of his signature style—perhaps a calculated strategy to garner media coverage in a state where the television news channels are almost entirely dominated by Seemandhra interests.

KCR drummed up media hype before his fast for Telangana in 2009; after the fast ended, he decided to launch his own channel. BCCL

The media revelled in KCR’s quirks. “I don’t think any leader’s personal habits have been dissected as much as KCR’s,” his son, K Taraka Rama Rao, who is also an MLA, told me. Commentators and opponents criticise KCR’s habit of waking up late, and add fuel to the perception that he is a chronic alcoholic. In 2013, he categorically stated that he had quit drinking in an interview on the Telugu show Open Heart. To an extent, KCR appears not to mind the criticism, but of late, he has learned the value of occasionally correcting himself when chastened by an exacting media.

As the Telangana movement’s political face, KCR—who is a velama, an upper caste—has faced criticism for his lack of engagement with the complexities of caste in the region. When some of KCR’s critics asked Jayashankar, himself from a backward caste, why he supported a velama dora (velama lord), he said “Show me the alternative.” Perhaps to counter such criticism, KCR has often stressed his desire to install a Dalit chief minister in Telangana (sometimes backed up by his stated dream of having a Muslim deputy chief minister).

The precondition for that promise—the creation of Telangana—has now been fulfilled. But it seems unlikely  that KCR could resist trying to become the new state’s first chief minister himself. “After thirty years, we found a leader,” Jayashankar said, in a book of interviews compiled after his death. “Is he perfect? May be not. Perfection exists only in the dictionary.”


I MET KASOJI VENKATA CHARI on a January evening, in a café overlooking the busy LB Nagar crossing in Hyderabad. It was there, four years ago, that Venkata Chari’s son Srikant had doused himself in gasoline, struck a match and run, burning and screaming “Jai Telangana,” right up to the Ambedkar statue at the crossroad, where he collapsed at its bronze-painted feet. He died in a hospital three days later. At the same time, in another hospital across town, KCR was carrying on a fast unto death for Telangana.

Chari, a carpenter, told me that his son had been a physiotherapy student and a member of the TRS student wing; his mobile phone wallpaper was a photo of KCR. After his death, the family had dedicated themselves to the movement, and tried to spread the word that suicide “is not a solution.” Popular belief in Telangana holds that 1,000 people have sacrificed their lives for the cause. One group, the Telangana Development Forum, has a booklet that lists over 900 such individuals.

“My son used to say that the Telangana formation would be the real dawn,” Chari said. Then he looked at me and asked, “One Potti Sriramulu died and the government granted Andhra state. But there is no response even after so many youth have died here. Why?”

The Telugu activist Potti Sriramulu died in 1952, while fasting to urge the central government to create a separate state of all the Telugu-speaking regions—namely Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra—of the Madras Presidency. Following Sriramulu’s death and the mass protests that surged in its wake, the Jawaharlal Nehru government acquiesced, and the Andhra state came into being. But its new political parties soon began to demand a merger—citing a common language—with the nine Telugu-speaking districts of Hyderabad state, whose river resources and rich capital city, Hyderabad, they coveted.

Andhra Pradesh was formed in 1956, out of two regions with markedly different histories and challenges. Telangana, which had been part of the princely state of Hyderabad, and had been administered by the Nizam, was still mired in a feudal economy. Andhra, formerly administered by the British, had modern infrastructure such as dams and new irrigation technologies, and high literacy levels.

A Gentleman’s Agreement signed by both sides was meant to safeguard Telangana’s economy and the region’s share in government representation; but from the very beginning, rich peasants from Andhra invested and settled in the irrigated areas of Telangana, introducing cash crops and inflating the price of land. In Hyderabad, people grew angry that ghair-mulkis, or non-locals, began to be hired for jobs reserved for mulkis, or locals.

The first big protest against the violation of these safeguards was a student movement that began in 1968. It became an agitation for a separate state, continuing for several months and peaking in the summer of 1969, despite a state crackdown and the loss of about 370 lives. That summer, the breakaway Congressman Marri Chenna Reddy became the leader of the Telangana Praja Samithi—the first party founded to lead the agitation. Its candidates contested the fifth Lok Sabha elections in 1971 and won ten out of fourteen seats in Telangana. But Reddy soon merged his party with the Congress. Many disillusioned young agitators from his once-loyal base joined another movement, the Naxalite rebellion, which was taking root in the state around the same time.

For almost three decades after Marri Chenna Reddy’s attempt, the Telangana movement went into remission. In the meantime, in addition to the acquisition of Telangana’s rural land by wealthy Seemandhra farmers—ongoing since the days of the Nizam—the migration of ghair-mulkis to Hyderabad increased dramatically during the IT and real estate booms of the 1990s. The Andhra region had an abundance of engineering and science colleges, whose students flocked to the emerging technology industry in the city, nicknamed “Cyberabad.” It was a population whose aims and ambitions contrasted sharply with those of the humanities and social science students from Osmania and Kakatiya universities, who had led the Telangana protests. Big business in the city, from real estate to cinema, was dominated by, and geared to further support, the entrepreneurs and politicians of the Andhra belt.

In 1996, Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda gave the idea of Telangana a new lease of life by mentioning the possible creation of a new state, Uttarakhand, in his Independence Day speech. A meeting was organised on 1 November that year in Warangal, and addressed by ideologues like Jayashankar. “A small hall was booked, but five thousand people attended it to our surprise,” Jayashankar recalled in a published interview. The next day, Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, of the TDP, warned protestors that he would quash any efforts to revive the movement. But according to Jayashankar, “His warning not only alerted people but also only further provoked them. Then there were a series of meetings.”

Academics and activists, including some who had been involved in the 1969 agitations, began to organise seminars and publish books on the subject of Telangana. As calls for new states arose in different parts of the country, the vision of a separate Telangana flickered back to life. The revived interest in the movement came from various quarters, including Maoist and Maoist-affiliated groups, who indicated their support for a separate Telangana in 1996. Nandini Sidha Reddy, a poet from KCR’s hometown and his friend, told me that “all the initial meetings were hugely successful, though there was no political support.”

In July 1998, the Maoist-backed Telangana Jana Sabha invited Yasin Malik, the separatist leader of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front, to its inaugural meeting. This caused controversy amongst moderate supporters. “A lot of us who were sceptical stayed away,” Sidha Reddy said. “They were committed, but their aggressive participation didn’t allow the movement to pick up with wider people’s participation. The political atmosphere those days was that of fear.” In April 1997, Gaddar, a hugely popular Naxalite poet and a balladeer of Telangana, survived an assassination attempt by unknown assailants; a bullet remains lodged in his body. In May 1999, two other singer-activists, Maroju Veeranna and Belli Lalitha, were murdered; one shot and the other gruesomely hacked into pieces and thrown into multiple wells. The perpetrators of these crimes were never found. When I spoke to the senior TRS leader V Prakash, he voiced the common belief that the “Chandrababu government killed them, because they were spreading the awareness on Telangana.” Naidu’s suppression of the burgeoning protests was somewhat successful. By the end of 1999, most of the more radical organisations had been crushed, and Naidu’s TDP had been voted back into power with a sound majority. The TDP MLA from the town of Siddipet, K Chandrasekhar Rao, won his fourth consecutive assembly election.

BORN IN 1954, KCR was the tenth child of Kalavakuntla Raghava Rao, a construction contractor from Chintamadaka village, about three hours north of Hyderabad in northern Telangana’s Medak district. KCR earned a BA from the Government Degree College in Siddipet, Medak’s biggest town. His fellow students, including Sidha Reddy, remember him as someone who was passionate about literature and politics, participated regularly in college debates and was crazy about films, even to the extent of wanting to write scripts. KCR contested his college’s presidential election in 1974, his final year, but came last. His friends told me he was averse to radical politics. KCR went to Delhi in 1975 to join Sanjay Gandhi’s Youth Congress, in the year of the state-imposed Emergency. He returned to Siddipet in 1980, after Gandhi’s death, and ran for another election that he lost, for the post of chairman of a primary agriculture cooperative society. A turning point came in 1982, when KCR joined the new TDP, launched by the Telugu film icon and three-time chief minister of Andhra Pradesh NT Rama Rao, known as NTR.

KCR lost his first MLA election in 1983, from Siddipet, but won the same seat in the next assembly election, in 1985. He has never lost an election since. During his first four terms as an MLA, between 1985 and 2001, he cultivated a close relationship with his constituency and earned a reputation for getting things done. In Siddipet, I met K Anjaiah, a journalist for the Telugu paper Andhra Jyothy who knew KCR during his early days as an MLA and remains close to him. “He was accessible,” he told me, “He remembers everybody by their names. For people who were used to the Congress culture of invisible MLAs, this was a refreshing change.”

KCR’s most significant accomplishment of those days, Anjaiah recalled, was in 1989, when the central government put forth a scheme to provide safe water to villages affected by flourosis, a disease caused by high levels of flouride in the water. “There were a couple of [flourosis affected] villages in our constituency,” Anjaiah said. Slightly sheepishly, he explained that KCR inflated the number in order to extend the benefits of the scheme to other villages with water shortages. “That brought him unflinching loyalty,” he said.

Chandrababu Naidu, who took over as chief minister in 1996, made KCR his transport minister. In that role, KCR’s work continued in the same vein. His dream, Anjaiah told me, was to build a thirty-five-acre model village in his constituency, but it never materialised for lack of support. But another project that Anjaiah described demonstrated KCR’s skills of persuasion. The government wanted to build a four-kilometre road through some farmland just southwest of Siddipet. In just three months, KCR convinced a hundred people to donate their land for free, and to help build the road under the state’s Janmabhoomi scheme, which involved volunteers in the implementation of welfare schemes. “He convinced them the price of their land would go up if there was a road nearby,” Anjaiah said. “After it was built, there were demands for three more such roads.” KCR’s graphic recall of the topography of his constituency helped, Anjaiah said. This knowledge would eventually extend to the entire region. A Sridhar, a Telangana activist and close associate of KCR, told me, “When KCR goes to a village for a meeting, he always enquires about their village pond or refers to their hill or their temple. He has an intimate memory of Telangana’s geography.”

But relations with the TDP would derail following the 1999 election. During Naidu’s second term as chief minister, he appointed KCR deputy speaker in the Vidhan Sabha. This came as a huge affront; KCR had expected to be included in the state cabinet. He had been a loyal friend, and had supported Naidu through his takeover of the TDP from NTR. A desire for vengeance drove KCR to quit the TDP, and Telangana became his chosen weapon for retribution.

“People may say [KCR’s defection from TDP] was about not getting a ministry,” KCR’s daughter K Kavitha, who runs a Telangana cultural organisation, told me. “But the truth is, he was shocked that Naidu, whom he trusted so much, didn’t include him in his cabinet. It was the betrayal. After that, all he wanted was vengeance. He wanted to crush Naidu.”

The first signs of rebellion appeared in May 2000. Naidu had just introduced a steep hike in power tariffs—in line with an economic project devised by the World Bank—during a period of drought in the state. The chief minister’s Congress and Left opponents accused him of dictatorial decision-making. KCR, too, trained his guns on his chief. He fired his first salvo at Naidu in an open letter, in which he argued that the hike would hit Telangana farmers hardest as they had no irrigation infrastructure and relied on motors to pump ground water.

Quietly, KCR started laying the foundation for a new party, with the sole aim of separate statehood for Telangana. As part of his research, he had long conversations with Gade Innaiah, a former Naxal insurgent who was involved in the Telangana movement and was looking for a politician to support the cause. The discussions between the two men went on for months, Innaiah told me in a phone interview. He said he had imposed a ban on KCR’s drinking alcohol as a condition for his help.

“He discusses everything threadbare and takes out all the information you have,” Innaiah said. “We spent thousands of hours discussing various aspects of the movement. Not a day went by without us watching both the sun and the moon rise together. He was very frustrated, and he realised that this cause would help him.” Their friendship would sour when Innaiah quit the TRS within a year of its formation, alleging that the party’s top leadership engaged in purely unilateral decision-making. He took some ninety party members with him.

Then, in October 2000, KCR met Jayashankar, the man who would support and guide him until the latter's death in 2011. Born in 1934, Jayashankar had seen Telangana through its various phases and had a broad perspective on the movement. “More than ideology, the ideal is important and the aim,” he said in a published interview. “That is why the RSS says ‘we want Telangana’ and so does the Radical Students Union. Both should come together for the movement.” KCR, who often says “I will even kiss a caterpillar for Telangana,” incorporated the lesson into his quest for statehood. He welcomed both the ultra left and the ultra right into his camp, and eventually brought a motley coalition together under the umbrella of the Telangana Joint Action Committee.


WHEN HE GAVE UP A CAREER in the TDP and started the TRS, KCR was forty-seven 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,” Innaiah 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, titled simha 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 Naidu 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.”

An estimated twelve to fifteen lakh Telangana supporters attended a maha garjana (huge roar) rally on 16 December 2010. M Murali / The Hindu Archives

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 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 (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 eighty-seven zilla parishad territorial constituencies, ninety-two 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 BJP MP and RSS member who quit his party to found the separatist Telangana Sadhana Samithi, merged his party with TRS within the year. As Jayashankar 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.

In the Siddipet by-election, KCR was re-elected to the Vidhan Sabha, and became the first TRS MLA. He returned to the state assembly in September 2001, and began to use it as a platform to attack Naidu. “I will hire a helicopter with my own money,” he said. “Let’s take journalists and fly over Telangana. If you can show them the fields being irrigated in lakhs of acres as you claim, I will jump from there. But if you can’t show it, will you jump?” The house erupted in laughter. Earlier, a state assembly speaker had banned the use of the word “Telangana,” encouraging MLAs to replace it with “backward area.” But with KCR’s win, all the rules had changed.

IN NOVEMBER 2003, Naidu dissolved the state assembly after his convoy was blown up by Naxals. He pushed for early elections, possibly looking for sympathy votes, but the polls were scheduled to be held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections in April 2004. The Congress party, desperate for a comeback, listed peace talks with Naxals in its manifesto to garner their support. But the issue of Telangana had become even more divisive, and here, through a mix of grandstanding in public and micro-management behind the scenes, KCR ensured that the repercussions of the Telangana movement were felt nationally.

KCR often used resignation—for example, from the Lok Sabha in March 2008—to take a moral stance and harness election energy. PRAKASH SINGH / AFP / Getty Images

As early as August 2000, forty-one 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.

The Andhra Pradesh Congress leader YS Rajasekhara Reddy was lukewarm to the idea, but the party high command pushed him to deal with KCR. The alliance negotiations were conducted, for the Congress’s part, by senior leader Pranab Mukherjee, and All-India Congress Committee in-charge for Andhra Pradesh, Ghulam Nabi Azad. For the TRS, KCR bargained hard, demanding that the Congress commit to a position on Telangana. The Congress, fearing a rebellion from the leaders of Andhra and Rayalaseema, only promised a Second Reorganisation Commission to look into the issue. It was enough for KCR, who readily accepted the support.

The tenuous Congress–TRS partnership in the state was joined by the Left parties. KCR managed to bargain for six out of seventeen Lok Sabha seats and forty-two out of 107 Assembly seats. (He is a superstitious man: six was his lucky number and four plus two totalled to six). The partnership turned out to be very successful indeed (if ultimately ill-fated). In its first big election outing, TRS won twenty-six assembly seats, and a remarkable five out of the six Lok Sabha seats it contested in Telangana, equalling the TDP’s tally (the latter fought in thirty-three seats). KCR and Aelay Narendra became union ministers in the United Progressive Alliance. KCR was given the shipping ministry, but he gave it up in two days, reportedly because the DMK, another UPA ally, wanted it. He eventually became union labour minister. Six TRS legislators found place in the state cabinet, headed by YSR. The Congress–TRS–Left alliance had handed the TDP its worst defeat ever.

As this jockeying for power in Delhi got underway, KCR came under intense pressure from his supporters, some of whom criticised him for keeping Telangana on the backburner. As union minister, KCR had a delicate balance to maintain. He once took a delegation of backward caste Telangana MLAs to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about a petition related to reservations, but told the media outside that the meeting was a discussion about Telangana. Singh’s media advisor at the time, Sanjaya Baru, later told a television channel that Telangana was not discussed at all. (Baru, who hails from Hyderabad, has always openly opposed the bifurcation.) KCR did push for an inclusion in the UPA’s Common Minimum Programme, which stated that the government would consider “the demand for the formation of a Telangana State at an appropriate time after due consultations and consensus,” without committing to a timeframe. The Indian president, APJ Abdul Kalam, addressed the issue in an address to parliament, giving the TRS further reason for hope.

However the Andhra Pradesh Congress’s much-vaunted peace talks with the Naxals were about to shatter these expectations. In October 2004, top Maoist leaders came out of hiding for the first time, to meet with the YSR government. When the talks ultimately failed, it was TRS members, caught between allies, who became collateral damage in the ensuing violence. Among the casualties were two grassroots leaders, one of them a former Naxal, murdered for ignoring a warning to quit the TRS.

The killings terrified the rank and file. On 1 July 2005, the state police killed Riyaz Khan, a senior Maoist member, in a fake encounter. KCR had no choice but to ask all his party’s ministers and legislators to resign, or risk completely losing credibility with the Maoists, historically crucial supporters of the Telangana cause. The TRS leaders obliged, resigning three days later and bringing the uneasy twelve-month alliance with the Congress to an end in July 2005. The exception, however, was KCR, who explained that he would not quit because he was needed to campaign for statehood at the centre. “We have confidence in the leadership of Sonia Gandhi and in the UPA to deliver a separate Telangana,” he said.

However, in little over a year, KCR would be forced to resign to rescue his party at its lowest ebb. To blunt the criticism that the TRS had slackened its efforts, the party began to resort to desperate damage control. It organised a public meeting on 18 July 2005 in Warangal, inviting the veteran Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar to show off KCR’s growing influence at the centre. On A Narendra’s advice, TRS briefly tried to launch an RSS-style organisation called the Telangana Jagarana Sena, an outfit with lathi-wielding cadres, but the initiative caught considerable flak, particularly from leftist Telangana ideologues. Around the same time, the party fared disastrously in the municipal elections, without allies in the Congress because of the bad blood.

The TRS remained a one man party—and that man sat in New Delhi, away from the crisis. A Times of India editorial on 27 September 2005 observed that “No organisational elections were held and in fact no party organisation was set up to follow up on the success of 2004. There were no party cadre and worse still, no attempts to build one.” By May 2006, ten TRS MLAs defected to the Congress party.

In 2006, the TRS did ally with the Congress for local body elections, but only sank further—the TDP had made a comeback in the region despite its opposition to the statehood. To KCR, the choice between home and Delhi grew stark. In August, he and Narendra resigned as cabinet ministers to rescue the party, and went on a fast at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar even before his resignation was accepted. (It lasted two days before Sharad Pawar cajoled him to break the fast.) A series of accusations flew between him and the state Congress following this and, on 23 September 2006, KCR resigned as an MP.

With a by-election now necessary in KCR’s Lok Sabha constituency of Karimnagar, he did everything he could to frame the contest as a referendum on Telangana. “Let us go to the people on a single point agenda: whether the people want separate Telangana or not,” KCR said. The Congress came out with guns blazing, as Chief Minister YSR and several other ministers campaigned for their candidate. KCR said it was a matter of life and death for Telangana. It certainly was for the Telangana Rashtra Samithi.

In this by-election, KCR won by a margin of more than two lakh votes and bagged more votes than all the other candidates combined. For the first time, activists of all hues, including those not necessarily in favour of the TRS, had come together for a cause. Resignation had proved to be a risky but ultimately useful strategy, allowing KCR to take the moral high ground. It made him the face of the Telangana movement. The high drama of the by-election did not guarantee political or electoral security, however. In spite of what had happened, no effort to build an internal structure followed. Resigning in the name of Telangana and fighting elections, it became clear, was a way for the TRS’s leaders to give momentum to the party. After just over a year, when the centre did not address Telangana in the budget session, KCR asked his sixteen remaining MLAs (ten had since joined the Congress) and four MPs (Narendra had been sacked after being linked to a passport scam), to resign. In the ensuing 2008 by-elections, TRS scraped through, winning seven assembly seats and two Lok Sabha seats. KCR’s margin of victory nosedived to 15,000 votes, and he even tried to resign from the party.

When the 2009 Lok Sabha elections rolled around, the TRS looked short on allies. Naidu who was desperate to overthrow YSR, had joined with the Left parties, the CPI(M) and the CPI, who insisted on inviting the TRS. KCR ended up joining what became known as the Mahakootami, the Grand Alliance, against the Congress, in spite of tremendous mistrust between the TRS and TDP, and furious opposition from the TRS’s supporters. The TRS won only ten out of the forty-five assembly seats it officially contested, and two out of the nine Lok Sabha seats.

YSR, who came back with a thumping majority, taunted KCR, saying that Telangana was not the exclusive “jagir (land grant)” of the TRS: “The Telangana people have made it clear that they are with the Congress,” he crowed. “We are ready to take you on any day in the region.” Naidu turned around and blamed the TRS for his loss. Desapati Srinivas told me he thought the loss came about because KCR had “ignored the connect between the TRS and its strength, the Telangana movement. He thought it was solely the party’s decision, and looked at it from an electoral point of view.” Once again, a political miscalculation had left the movement for Telangana rudderless.


IN SEPTEMBER 2009, YSR 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 twenty-eight 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 twelve 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 twenty-eight 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 this year, 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.”

AT TWILIGHT, the earth trembled in Gaddiganipalli, one of four Dalit villages near the state-owned Singareni Collieries, in Warangal district, two hundred kilometres northeast of Hyderabad. I could smell exploded gelatine in the air from an opencast coal mine nearby. “We wake up at night, the utensils clatter onto the ground, when they conduct blasts,” Pokkuri Rajaiah said. The Dalit activist had been showing me the massive, rectangular mining craters, up to five kilometres in length, and edged by mango trees in full bloom, reminders of a more fertile past. Rajaiah said the mining company bought land surrounding the village, but not in the village, bypassing the need to provide relief and rehabilitation packages to residents.

I had gone to Gaddiganipalli in late January, travelling through the region that would soon become Telangana state. Everywhere I went, posters, banners and graffiti were anxious to claim premature credit for the bill: “Sonia promised Telangana. Sonia granted Telangana.” According to the rhetoric of the movement, bifurcation will solve all the region’s problems, and the movement’s leaders have been discussing the “reconstruction” of the state for some time. “We’ve been on Planet Telangana for the last three years,” AK Goel, a retired Andhra cadre bureaucrat from Haryana and an advisor to KCR, told me. “We used to talk like it has already come.” He listed out some of the plans they’ve been discussing: “Compulsory and free education from kindergarten to post-graduation. Malnutrition and illiteracy will be attacked together. Every Dalit farmer will be given three acres of land. Telangana has the best agroclimate conditions to produce seeds—we will make use of that. There will be ten power stations of ten thousand megawatts capacity.”

“The whole geography of Telangana will be magnetised by one initiative or the other and connected to rest of the country,” Goel added. “As a child I saw Haryana in a wretched state, but in forty years it has become number one. Telangana today is what Haryana was forty years ago.”

The creation of the new state has set off a cutthroat competition for the future that Goel imagined. In his press conference at Telangana Bhavan in Hyderabad, where he ruled out a merger with the Congress, KCR justified his decision by attacking the Congress’s record on Telangana’s development: “The state came too late, many young people died, and the problems still remain unaddressed.” Now, he’s upped the ante by making aggressive assertions about how he’ll manage Telangana’s resources; at a recent press conference, he announced, “Let me make one thing clear in my capacity as president of a political party that is going to come to power in Telangana. Our government will not release water downstream to the irrigation projects illegally constructed in Seemandhra.”

Because of their political stakes in Seemandhra, no other parties can make such claims. Perhaps partly as a result, the dividends of the Telangana movement seem to be flowing almost exclusively to KCR. While other parties in Andhra Pradesh reel, the TRS continues to grow. YS Jaganmohan Reddy, who looked set to become chief minister a couple of years ago, has since slid in popularity; the Telangana issue stole his thunder. Andhra has become a Congress graveyard, and the TDP looks decimated in Telangana. Leaders from both the Congress and the TDP are joining the TRS, which is stronger than it has been since its inception, in 2001. KCR is looking to give tickets to the senior TJAC leaders and some student leaders who rose to popularity in the past five years, as well as to his son and daughter.

At the same time, KCR has been cautious not to project euphoria over the creation of Telangana. Instead, he’s replaced the promise of statehood with that of reconstruction, even as he continues to use the same colourful language to talk about the latter as he did the former. “If you feed donkeys all the grass and try to milk the cows, you won’t get milk.” In other words, Telangana still needs TRS to be the party in power in order to accomplish reconstruction.

Gaddiganipalli’s houses have cracked walls, and many of them are abandoned, falling further to pieces with each blast. Parties like the TRS have briefly taken up the cause of these villages, and then forgotten about it. The area’s Congress MLA, Gandra Venkataramana Reddy, was the chief whip in the assembly, but nothing changed. “It is because we are Dalits,” said Seggam Sidhu, another villager. “We don’t have any hope in Telangana. Once it comes, the government will say, ‘Now there has to be development, let’s exploit our natural resources.’ That’s what will happen.” Sidhu continued, “If these were upper-caste villages, the issue would’ve reached the assembly and also parliament.” I asked him whom he would vote for. “As somebody who has lost land and livelihood, all parties are the same to me,” he said.

At his March press conference, KCR reflected, “Once upon a time it was a movement-oriented party. But Telangana has been achieved, so TRS is a pucca political party now, don’t forget. We will behave like a political party and talk like one.”

Corrections: Medak district is in northern Telangana, and not in the south as the story earlier stated. 2) Telangana is bordered by Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Karnataka and the Seemandhra region of Andhra Pradesh. The Caravan regrets the errors.