Osmania University is an iconic Hyderabad institution, the hub of the movement for Telangana and a site where generations of students from across the region developed a worldview and learnt professional skills.One evening last weekend, young students were sitting in small groups in the main grounds. With elections due in the state on December 7, politics dominated the conversation. Shiva Kalyan, Vamsee Krishna and Kranti are pursuing Master of Education degrees and hope to get teaching jobs when they graduate. All three are from Jagtiyal district. When asked about the prospects of different forces, Kalyan says, “We all actively participated in the struggle for Telangana. We supported the Telangana Rashtra Samithi [TRS] and K Chandrashekhar Rao [colloquially referred to as KCR]. But no more. It has been five years and he has not delivered on his promises. Where are the jobs?” His friends concur. They have decided to back the Maha Kootami (grand alliance) of the Congress, Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Communist Party of India and Telangana Jana Samiti. Kranti says, “We don’t want the TDP to interfere in our politics. But the Congress is a national party. So we will back the Congress.”Indian elections often revolve around leadership. Narendra Modi’s gambit of turning 2014 into an almost presidential race worked. In the current batch of state elections, it is Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s popularity or Raman Singh’s image which gives the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the hope of retaining power in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh even after 15 years; in Rajasthan, it is CM Vasundhara Raje’s perceived unpopularity that is the party’s biggest challenge.In Telangana, too, the single most important variable is KCR — his images dominate Hyderabad’s streets, his hoardings are on the highways, every political conversation begins with a voter’s assessment of ‘KCR rule’ and it is his model of governance that provokes sharp debates. His supporters focus on welfare. His critics focus on nepotism, inaccessibility and alleged corruption. Which of the two narratives will prevail will determine the December 11 outcome. The welfare pitchThe support for KCR goes back to his role in creating Telangana — ‘Jai Telangana’ slogans dominate his rallies. He was rewarded for that wit hthe 2014 electoral victory. The support continues because of the nuts and bolts of his expansive politics of welfare.Madupati Mahesh is from Begumpet, a part of the wider Hyderabad region. He says he will vote for KCR and has derived specific benefits. “I have three acres of land. Every year, I get ?4,000 per acre per season — so I get ?24,000. My mother is old and my father has died. So she gets an allowance of ?1,000 per month. And we get 24 hours of electricity. I don’t have a sister. Otherwise we would have got R1 lakh as a part of his Kalyan Laxmi scheme for her wedding. Which government has given so much?” It is such schemes that the TRS showcases as achievements. Kalyan Laxmi or Shaadi Mubarak (for Muslim families) entails state support for weddings; Rytha Bandhu provides direct monetary assistance to farmers; there also exist a range of pensions and allowances for single women, the elderly, and the differently abled. Added to this list is the promise — only partly fulfilled till now — of 2BHK flats to families below the poverty line, and clean water to each household. KCR has combined a range of political and governance strategies with an eye on farmers, the poor, and women. He has relied on direct cash transfers and assistance, and thus targeted individual beneficiaries in the same manner as the central government has sought to do with its schemes on rural housing or toilet construction or gas cylinders and removing intermediaries to cut leakages. He has, through promises of housing, also offered the prospect of tangible asset creation for the needy. But the promise of welfare services also has its pitfalls. Expectations rise. It has its own dynamic of inequity, and failure is visible. So on housing, voters point out that the projects are mostly incomplete or have not started. On financial assistance to farmers, the smaller farmers and the landless are resentful that the bigger farmers corner a huge share of the resources. It also drains state resources and leads to fiscal indiscipline, as the rising debt of the state reveals.The Pragathi Bhavan problemIf TRS’s strength comes from a unanimously chosen leader and how welfare schemes are so starkly linked with him, its weakness also stems from leadership. Sreelekha, a student from Khammam district pursuing a Master of Commerce degree at Osmania, calls KCR a “cheat”. “The state was created for everyone. But only he and his family have benefited. He has not fulfilled his promises,” she says. This is the campaign theme of both Modi and Rahul Gandhi – they have repeatedly pointed to the centralisation of all authority with KCR and his family. Mohammad Ghouse, a small shopkeeper in Mahbubnagar’s Jadcherla constituency says: “It is all controlled by him and his family from Pragathi Bhavan. Even local MLAs do not know what is happening.” KCR operates out of his residence, Pragathi Bhavan, and not the secretariat. This perception — of KCR being autocratic and nepotistic — manifests in different ways. At a local mobile shop in Mahbubnagar, Ilyas Ahmad takes out his phone and shows a video he received on WhatsApp of KCR lashing out at a group of Muslim men. They had, at a rally, asked him about his failure to provide 12% reservations to Muslims. Ahmad says, “Look at his arrogance. Is this the way to talk to people? We would have voted for him but not now.” Narsingh Yadav, a local TRS leader in Hyderabad, rubbishes these charges while waiting for KCR at a massive party rally in the city. “The CM has worked and benefits are clearly visible to the people. He does not need to be everywhere — his work has to be visible.”Responding to charges that job creation hasn’t happened or many schemes lie unimplemented, Yadav said, “But it has only been four a half years. Congress and TDP have ruled for decades. We need more time.”A senior Hyderabad journalist, who did not wish to be named, points to the increasing similarities between KCR and Jayalalithaa’s rule. They both were in complete control of their parties. The campaign revolved only around them. They relied on welfare to reach the poor. They were rather inaccessible when in power, operating from a private residence, turning only to close confidantes. Jayalalithaa confronted corruption allegations and KCR battles a perception of tremendous wealth accumulation while he has been in power. “There grows a disconnect between the CM and MLAs, between the CM and the people, and between the MLAs and the people,” the journalist said. The TRS has repeated its candidates in this election. They suffer from local anti-incumbency. And they now have a strong challenger, in terms of the arithmetic of vote share, in the form of candidates representing the alliance. Thus, TRS has a tough battle and many expect it to lose a considerable number of seats. But to offset this local challenge, they have a trump card in KCR.The vote in Telangana is a referendum on the KCR model of governance. Will his past record in the struggle for Telangana, his vast party apparatus and resources, and his wide-ranging welfare schemes be enough? Or will the perceived distance from the electorate, the centralisation of power in his family, the erosion of local leadership and the promises that lie unfulfilled cost him support? That is the big question for voters on December 7.