K Chandrashekar Rao, the first chief minister of India’s newest state of Telangana, must be a happy man. A hard fought battle of many decades culminated not just in a separate state for the Telugu-speaking region, but also a sweeping personal victory to the seat of power for the man better known as KCR.
It is now two years since the KCR-led Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) took the reins of government, following acrimonious agitations and periodic violence during the struggle for a separate state. The first two years of the very first stint in office is not the optimal timeframe to judge a new state, a new government or a new chief minister, but KCR must and will be judged – the long shadow of history falls upon him.
Telangana will celebrate its second anniversary on June 2. Families of martyrs of the Telangana movement will be given letters for government jobs. The government will hoist the longest national flag in the country – 300 feet of cloth, 10 feet more than its Jharkhand version. A memorial stupam (pillar) and a smriti vanam (memorial park) laid over 12 acres of prime land on the banks of Hussain Sagar Lake are also on the cards.
Besides, the government has ordered the release of Rs 30 lakh to each of the state’s 10 districts for formation-day celebrations at all village gram panchayats, zilla parishad and district-level government offices.
In the hallowed halls of power in Telangana’s official buildings in Hyderabad, two names echo for everyone – KCR’s and his son KT Rama Rao’s (KTR). They are the epicentre of all power and decision-making in Telangana. In all state political forums, father and son are hailed as the creators of ‘Bangaru Telangana’ (golden Telangana) and the ‘Chanakya and Savyasachi’ of the new state.
According to adoring party workers and followers, they are the only leaders who can bring the state out of the floundering mess it finds itself in.
A maverick CM
KCR’s legendary battles with his Andhra Pradesh counterpart, Chandrababu Naidu, over power-sharing and river water-sharing have debilitated him in more ways than one. Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP), being an NDA ally, has had the advantage of obtaining the Central government’s ear. When the more friendly Congress sank in 2014 at the Centre, KCR initiated conciliatory gestures towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi but failed to make much headway.
“We had no confidence in TRS and KCR as he had come over to us in 2004, but retraced his path to the Congress for the sake of power sharing,” said Bandaru Dattatreya, Union Minister and Telangana BJP leader, at a party meeting in April.
Without the Centre’s support, KCR has been left to pre-empt political rivals in the state. For example, as the Congress strove to project a Dalit-friendly image in Telangana, the government took the bold decision to rename the social welfare department as the scheduled castes development department.
Alongside his political fights there are the chief minister’s own personal quirks and his affinity for the divine. A firm believer in Vaastu philosophy, KCR has vowed to offer a gold crown to the Tirumala deity, as well as appeasing the Kanaka Durga deity at Vijayawada.
He has offered a ‘chadar’ to the Ajmer Dargah and given offerings at temples in Yadadri and Bhadrachalam, amongst others.
In December 2015, he performed a mega puja at his residence at a rumoured cost of Rs 7 crore, which drew a lot of expected flak despite it being paid from his own personal funds.
“What is wrong in accepting that I believe in stars, religions and also astrology, and ensuring that people of the state also benefit by such practices?” retorted a defiant KCR to media queries at the time of the puja.
“I performed ‘ayutha chandiyagam’ (puja) for the benefit of all and even invited the President, Prime Minister and also Chandrababu Naidu.”
As chief minister, KCR has appointed his personal Vaastu consultant Suddala Sudhakar Teja as official advisor to the Telangana government for a remuneration of Rs 75,000 per month.
Teja, a popular consultant to industrial groups and the wealthy in Hyderabad, is supposed to ensure that all government buildings are constructed in a ‘dosha-free’ (without spiritual faults) manner. He is now consulted on ‘architectural issues’ and structural designs of all public buildings, including irrigation projects.
His is also the brain behind the redesigning of KCR’s camp office at Begumpet (the CM’s official residence). The earlier building there was built at a cost of Rs 7 crore by former chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy. The older structure has been partially demolished and a new complex, with separate sections for the new CM’s personal residence, office and guest house, is now being constructed.
The new construction is supposed to ward off all the evil Vaastu influences at Begumpet; it is believed that YSR and his son YS Jaganmohan Reddy’s ill luck – YSR died in a helicopter crash, while his son is being pursued by the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate in various cases – needs warding off.
KCR is not as media savvy like Naidu, who took a dozen journalists to Singapore and Malaysia to publicise his designs for the new Andhra capital of Amaravati. Naidu knows the media game well. He appointed the editor of a television channel as the editor of Andhra Pradesh, the state government publication, and another as CEO of Sri Venkateswara Bhakthi Channel (SVBC), the television channel of the Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam. Many journalists have been given jobs in various government departments in Delhi and Hyderabad.
KCR has also made placatory moves to win journalists over. A scheme for a health insurance fund for journalists and a new building for the press club have been doled out. More importantly, on coming to power KCR bought over television channel T News and the Telugu newspaper Namaste Telangana.
“Why am I being questioned when the media tolerated Congress chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy for floating his own television channel and Telugu newspaper (Sakshi Group)?” asked KCR at a March press meet during the civic body elections in Hyderabad.
“Has not the Eenadu Group fully supported the TDP during elections?” was his defense.
KCR’s government has systematically kept the rest of the media at a distance under the conviction that mainstream media is in the pockets of Naidu, and therefore anti-Telangana. Two news channels TV9 and ABN Andhra Jyoty, in fact, were banned for almost nine months by cable operators in Telangana when they reportedly aired negative reportage on KCR and his men.
KCR, it seems, does not trust easily, especially since assuming power. His own nephew and irrigation minister T Harish Rao has been distanced, despite earlier being projected as the number two in the party. Harish Rao’s demotion came after the political entry of KCR’s son. KTR is now deemed the de facto chief minister and is present at all high-level meetings.
KTR is an US-educated, media-savvy, middle-aged politician, and seen as a worthy successor and subsequent CM. Upon winning the Hyderabad civic polls, KCR gave the municipal administration and urban development portfolio to his son.
The rhetoric of ‘invaders’
The theme of ‘invaders’ – natives of the fertile Andhra region who ‘ruled’ over the poorer, parched areas of Telangana – is one that has recurred over the past six decades of the Telangana movement. KCR has chosen not only to retain this divisive theme but to perpetuate it to consolidate his political position in the last two years. His party has insisted on putting blame on Andhra ‘invaders’ along with the rhetoric of ‘us vs them’.
The government is keen to remind people about the original causes for the struggle for a separate Telangana – lest people forget who won them their state. For instance, while redesigning ongoing and new irrigation projects soon after taking charge, irrigation minister Harish Rao blamed past rulers for creating projects aimed at benefitting only Seemandhra, and not Telangana farmers.
“How is it that the river Godavari and Krishna, which flow a longer course in Telangana, but (end up providing) our farmers only 15 percent of their benefit while Andhra farmers get 85 percent?” he asked at a meeting of the Krishna river water management board in May.
The rhetoric is understandable. Most veterans of the struggle for a separate Telangana state still nurse misgivings about injustice to the new state during bifurcation. Professor Madabhushanam Sridhar Acharyulu, information commissioner in the Central Information Commission in New Delhi, says that in 1956, mischief was done by Andhra in dropping the Telangana title from the name of the state – Andhra-Telangana – as agreed upon earlier and renaming it simply as Andhra Pradesh.
Even in the AP Reorganisation Act of 2014, he says, though Hyderabad was made the joint capital for 10 years, no timeframe has been set for division of the Andhra Pradesh high court. He sees a conspiracy in this.
“Such mischief in the Acts have hurt the feelings of Telangana people and made them suspicious of the designs of the residents of Andhra, who always look down upon the people of Telangana as ‘buffoons and muffs’,” wrote Acharyulu recently in the state government magazine Telangana.
KCR continues to use to his advantage the memories of the perceived injustices done to Telangana by the natives of Andhra.
Political hawks predict that as KCR and his party take this xenophobic rhetoric forward, the coming years will see an intensification of water wars, not only between Telangana and Andhra Pradesh but also with Maharashtra and Karnataka.
This was evident during the last budget session of the assembly in April, when KCR made a four-hour-long presentation with the help of Google Maps, on how the waters of the Godavari and Krishna rivers were not put to more use in Telangana since “past rulers” did not care to promote feasible irrigation projects.
He contrasted this with how Karnataka and Maharashtra were utilising Krishna and Godavari waters by illegally building more ayacuts, small aqueducts, check dams and other minor irrigation projects, which require no clearance by the Central Water Commission.
“We all know how Andhra Pradesh has been harvesting three crops a year in the Krishna and Godavari delta when Telangana’s farmer has to depend on costly power-driven irrigation pumps,” claimed irrigation minister Harish Rao at a recent meeting of the Krishna river water management board.
KCR is unafraid to use terms like “third class” and “illegal” to describe Andhra Pradesh’s government staff, asking them to leave the new state. This is a continuation of his frontal attack on Andhra natives, which he launched in August 2013 as soon as bifurcation was announced.
“Andhra employees working here should move back to their respective places,” he told non-gazetted officers at a meeting then. Sources who attended a review meeting by KCR in January 2016 quoted him as saying, “Telangana people will work in our government. Andhra people can work for the government there.”
He was repeating his frequent accusation of Telangana locals being denied jobs and promotions in the government of the erstwhile united Andhra.
KCR wants the residents of Andhra out of Hyderabad. Along with government officials, local businesses like tea shops, liquor joints, petty grocery shops, bus operators and taxi services that were patronised by these Andhra residents are also likely to gradually migrate as patrons fall away.
KCR and his team, however, deny that civilians are on the run. “At the most, some noted Andhra business families and their entourages may go,” he said at a press meet in April. “I don’t think the majority of Andhras want to go back as they have been given recognition as Hyderabadis. But nobody can stop anyone if they want to go.”
Welfare plus business
KCR knows well that xenophobia alone will not be enough for him to retain his tight grip on power. Thus he has combined a strategy of fear with promises of free doles. Public welfare has been on the top of his political agenda, with Rs 35,000 crore being spent annually on such schemes in the last two years.
“Nidhulu, nillu and niyamalu” (river water, resources and jobs) was KCR’s poll promise to voters. He is willing to splurge in order to keep his core vote bank – the farmers – happy. What results these welfare schemes will yield, and whether they will be implemented properly on the ground, will have to be determined only in another few years.
A little-known fact is that KCR was the mastermind of the pro-agriculture and anti-IT (information technology) lobby that derailed the erstwhile Naidu regime in early 2004, leading to the TDP’s rout and political exile for a decade in united Andhra. Back then, KCR had cleverly ignited Congress party campaigners against the IT lobby.
However, as chief minister KCR wants IT initiatives to flourish in his new state, and even better the records of previous Congress and TDP regimes.
Since the formation of Telangana, KCR and the TRS leadership claim they have been fighting what they call a psychological warfare against the Congress’ fear mongering and the TDP’s allegedly hired consultants. Fears and rumours have abounded about the flight of capital and the IT industry’s decline in the new state – that Telangana was set to become a land of lawlessness, that Maoists would gain control and that business and industry, particularly in the IT sector, would migrate to Chennai or Bangalore.
However, the reverse has happened with the apparent inflow of about 500 companies, including the likes of Google, Amazon and Apple, into the state. As per state government data, software exports have increased by 16 percent to Rs 68,000 crore in 2014-15. The state registered a growth of 11.7 percent versus the national average of 8.6 percent, and in the current fiscal year, as per the governor’s address to the assembly in March, growth is expected to increase to 14.9 percent. Hyderabad also remains at number two position after Bengaluru in terms of software exports, as per industry body NASSCOM.
The healthcare and education sectors have benefited from this IT push, according to industry experts. KCR, the former scourge of the IT industry, has managed to use it as a development plank to weed out middlemen and contractors in a bid against corruption and cleaner governance.
In fact, the Telangana government has gone a step further than its Andhra counterpart, introducing more electronic initiatives in administration, policing, internal security, delivery of subsidies and welfare initiatives to citizens and farmers, and in ensuring the safety of women and children. Telangana and Hyderabad are now being propped up as start-up hubs with their innovative IT policy – a far cry from the image of the street fighter that its chief minister KCR has deliberately cultivated.
As the new state enters its third year, the verdict from KCR’s core constituency is one of cautious optimism.
“We are not sure,” said Janga Reddy, a farmers’ leader in Warangal, when asked about the TRS government’s performance so far. “KCR has given us more sops than Chandrababu Naidu or YSR. We all feel that KCR is struggling to give us more, but is not able to do so due to some constraints. We can wait for some more time. After all, we waited six decades for Telangana and two years is just a small period.”
KCR’s political strategy appears to have worked well so far. Whether he will be able to, or want to, serve the interests of all the people of Telangana will be known in the next three years.
(By arrangement with GRIST Media)