Aspiration vs welfare: How caste politics is playing out in Telangana
OBC classification in Telangana caused a splintering of political power, with backward communities vying against each other for more reservation benefits.
Clumps of darkness obscure the faint stream of yellow light illuminating the concrete path, framed by open drains on either side, that leads to the last house in the lane. It’s past 8pm when B Sangappa emerges from the whitewashed two-storey structure, his carefully trimmed handlebar moustache, gold-rimmed glasses and starched, two-pleat Telugu dhoti a familiar, comforting sight to his local community. His stride is now tempered with age, his trembling fingers struggle to hold aloft the edges of his dhoti. But the 86-year-old Telangana movement veteran’s memory is clear. “Us backwards gave everything to see this state get created. Does anyone remember?”
The first signs of chill hang in the November air; Sangappa coughs – it’s not usual for him to be out so late at 86. But today is important. He has to go to a village on the outskirts of Zaheerabad town in Telangana’s Sangareddy district to help his community members decide their stance for the assembly elections just days away. A group of young men heave him up into the kind of refashioned open jeeps that simultaneously straddle community pride and masculine virility in small-town India – adorned with decorative exhaust chutes and motifs of swords, skulls, moustaches, and a small bevy of headlights that more than make up for the dark highway ahead.
The meeting is noisy, drowning the lilt of old Telugu hits starring yesteryear cine heartthrob and former chief minister NT Rama Rao wafting from households nearby. The men are confused – their local assembly constituency is held by the ruling Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) but they’ve heard the Congress is rising across the state and don’t want to miss the bus. In this village of farmers and fishermen, the former have received their payments under the Rythu Bandhu scheme but the latter rue the lack of adequate support. Yet, the overwhelming feeling is one of resentment, that somehow they’ve been short-changed. Hanumanthu talks about how the two factories that drive the local economy now don’t hire as many local boys as they used to. B Shankar grumbles about how even Dalits are getting ahead of them. And Vamsi Krishna angrily recalls how he once got 95% in an examination, but couldn’t secure a seat. “In the end, the problem for all of us is the same.That we are far more in number but our position in politics, in colleges and in government offices is weak. And there is no way we can improve without strengthening ourselves in elections,” said Sangappa.
The veteran, as well as all 40-odd participants in the meeting that night, are Mudiraj, a socially dominant community spread evenly across Telangana that is struggling with the same challenges of mobility as their counterparts in the country’s heartland. Yet, the unique dynamics of social justice politics in peninsular India make their problems different as the southern state hurtles towards its closest elections ever.
Mudiraj, or Mudirajus, are a traditional fishing community that also owns small land holdings across the countryside, and are among the largest backward communities in the state. Satya Nelli, an assistant professor at Osmania University, estimates their strength to be anywhere between 11% and 14% of the state, but in a region where Greater Hyderabad accounts for 40% of the state’s GDP, their rural roots are a significant handicap.
The result is evident in villages such as Chinna Hyderabad – named because of a Nizam-era structure in the vicinity that resembles the famed Charminar -- where young men trapped in low-paying factory jobs or daily labour bubble with resentment as other communities pull ahead. “Tell me, what is the point of keeping my son in school if he has to join me in the construction site? But if he drops out, he will never get a better job than I,” said Ramesh Mudiraj, a local resident, summing up his dilemma. How people like Ramesh make up their mind on November 30 – Mudiraj is considered a swing community given its fragmented voting patterns and evenly spread population – might make the difference between power and not as the elections go down the wire.
In north India, the churn around the Mandal Commission report is considered the inflection point for backward politics. But in the south, its trajectory is more nuanced – influenced by local factors such as Periyar’s self-respect movement in Tamil Nadu or the mobilisation by Naxals and communists in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. “OBC politics here, which began in the 1970s, is beyond the spectrum of Mandal,” said Vageeshan Harathi, an assistant professor at NALSAR University in Hyderabad.
One consequence of this complex history is sub-categorisation of backward classes quota – a conversation that is still in nascent stages in the heartland. In Telangana, for example, the OBC quota is classified into five groups – A, B, C, D and E – with 7%, 10%, 1%, 7% and 4% respectively. In theory, this means more targeted delivery of quota benefits. But this has also caused a splintering of political power, with backward communities vying against each other for more reservation benefits. Mudiraj activists, for example, have campaigned for close to two decades to move themselves from D to A, which has no other dominant community in the bracket and would automatically mean more elbow room for young men and women from the community.
Nowhere is this demand expressed more acutely than in the undulating arid lands of Mahabubnagar, where a combination of thirsty red soil and historically poor irrigation facilities vexes cultivators. On a Saturday afternoon, K Narmada is rushing between chores when she spots some friends on the side of the road and slows down. A towering statue of Jagjivan Ram looms in the background, its golden paint glistening under the searing sun. Narmada is irate. The ponds in the area have been drying up, robbing her family of their traditional income. “Look at our city. There are no private jobs. And even if we catch fish, someone else does the business and makes the profit. What’s the point of our numbers?” she asked. “If something has to change, it has to be done through quotas. Our boys will at least stop dropping out of schools.”
It is against this backdrop that the Opposition’s pledge to conduct a caste census is playing out. The five-state assembly polls that began earlier this month are the first electoral test for the gambit to use physical headcounts of castes to try and pry away chunks of the OBC vote. But in southern India, where the BJP’s dominance is less of a deciding factor for ordinary people to make up their minds, another issue has taken its place – aspiration.
Welfare vs upliftment
Sitting in his cavernous flat in Hyderabad’s Vidyanagar, Choppari Shankar Mudiraj has seen many governments come and go. The president of the Mudiraj Mahasabha recalls that the first lawmaker from the community was elected in 1952 from the Congress, and representation reached a high of five ministers under NT Rama Rao. “But BRS closed the door on us, and our demands to move to BC A. This is why we can move for anyone but not the CM,” he said.
In the cotton fields that ring Zaheerabad, the mood is decidedly less hostile. Mudiraj farmers acknowledge that welfare hand-outs have been regular. “At least we got something. After 10 years, we too would be thinking of change. But would another government keep the schemes?” asked Prakash Mudiraj.
But in a relatively rich state – Telangana’s GSDP per capita is the fourth-highest in India – welfare might not be enough. “There are only three professors among 270 in Osmania from our community. I remain the only person from our region to complete a masters degree. How long can we be satisfied with doles while others get ahead?” asked Nelli.
For their most commonly heard demand – expansion of quotas – the caste census might be an answer. “But even the Congress is not campaigning strongly on it. Other than urban hubs, very few people in the villages have heard of it, or understood it,” said Balakisti Vijay, a resident of Zaheerabad.
In a close elections, where the BRS, BJP and Congress are all vying for the backward community vote, small swings in the numerically significant Mudiraj vote can make the difference. Community activists such as Sangappa are aware of the opportunity to make a collective demand. “More quotas can make the future for our children,” he says. The meeting is now over, and he’s taking halting steps towards the car. “But we are not united. We are not one community.”
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