(This story was originally published on 10 November. It has been republished from The Quint's archives.)
What does Gajwel have that the rest of the state of Telangana doesn't? Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) is its elected member of the state Assembly – and this constituency neither makes light of this privilege nor makes any attempt to play it down.
More than a furlong before the municipality board announces the limits of this town, glistening roads – smooth as marble – welcome us to this VIP constituency. The arterial roads are four-laned; the median has tall shrubs whose branches are evenly trimmed and trunks colour-coordinated.
Bright boards herald the way to the maternity hospital and the town's police headquarters. English replaces Telugu on most sign boards and business establishments, and almost every private bank has a prominent branch office on the main streets.
Yet, what is squarely at odds is the rosy notion that Gajwel's residents are happy with their 'Pedda Koduku' or elder son – as KCR is referred to in the segment. The infrastructural development may have narrowed the economic gulf between Telangana's major cities and smaller towns, but it is not so much conspicuous prosperity that people are complaining about.
KCR's absence and inaccessibility are, perhaps, the sore thumbs that are sticking out in the town where everything else seems neat and orderly.
For 10 years or two terms, KCR has made Gajwel his home, and Telangana his fortress, staving off the toughest electorally muscular contests. After retaining Siddipet six times (the district that houses Gajwel), KCR defeated V Pratap Reddy by nearly 20,000 votes in 2014, and by more than 50,000 votes in 2018.
Except when he made his debut in 1983, KCR has never lost an election. The size of the political affiliation of the opponent never did matter.
No Farms and Jobs, but Plenty of Water
"Why should we vote for the same person every time?" asks Seku Sattayya, who comes from the Voddera sub-caste of the backward classes. He breaks boulders, converts them into gravel, and sells them for a living.
"Since the project has come up two years ago, I am unable to go to the hill anymore. Many of the boulders have capsized into the water," he says, lamenting the loss of livelihood. Sattaya has since been doing odd jobs at the gram panchayat office. A few others chime in to lament this loss of livelihood.
The reservoir in question is Mallanna Sagar, a 'Baahubali-scale' man-made reservoir with a capacity of 50 tmcft, costing Rs 7,400 crore to irrigate fields and providing drinking water to the Hyderabad metropolitan region. The construction of this massive reservoir has brought piped drinking water to every household, albeit for a heavy price.
About 14 villages were submerged, and farmers like Sunku Malliah, now over 70 years, had to give up their lands in exchange for a paltry sum. "The assigned lands given to us during Indira Gandhi's time have all been seized. What farm loan waiver will the CM provide after taking away our lands," Malliah asked.
KCR promised a readymade two-bedroom house for every farmer who gave up his land for the project in case they chose not to opt for a cash compensation of Rs 8 lakh per acre. Vottem Raju, who is overseeing the construction of his house, says there were nearly 2,000-3,000 acres of farmland per village. He and a few others have been given small plots of land for constructing their houses at a rehabilitation site in Gajwel.
"We are back to Dorapalana (rule of the feudal lords). We neither have our lands nor our jobs, but plenty of liquor," Raju said, not trying to mask his disapproval over the number of belt shops that have risen around Gajwel in the past five years.
A few kilometers away, in Komatibanda, a 50-something Jyothi also has a few grievances to share, albeit cautiously. Komatibanda is a village that is part of the Gajwel constituency, and Jyothi wryly narrates her tale as she barters small squares of chikki, a brittle sweet made of peanut and jaggery, to young children who spring up at her kirana store. The older customers get served a plastic glass of country liquor discretely as well along with the peanut chikki.
"I spent about Rs 5-6 lakh sending my daughter to Hyderabad for coaching to appear for the Group IV Telangana State Public Services Commission. After appearing for the exam, we heard that it will be conducted again next year. Now, I can't even marry my daughter off now after having spent so much money," says Jyothi, who is unwilling to even mention who she may vote for this time around.
KCR's BRS government promised a job for each household when he returned to power in 2018 and vowed to fill two lakh vacancies in the state government at different levels.
The Eatala Factor
It is this discontentment that KCR's bete noire and fellow general during the Telangana statehood movement is looking to cash on. "Every household has a member who is affected by KCR's unkept promises. I am also a victim (political)," Eatala thunders during his rallies.
Eatala's confidence stems from the backing he enjoys from the nearly one lakh-plus Mudiraj community that he belongs to. Mudirajs are part of the 18 categorised backward classes in Telangana and have for long adopted fishing as their main profession. Close to 65 percent of Gajwel's voters are from the backward classes and the former health minister in KCR's cabinet is looking to shore up these numbers against KCR.
Eatala Rajender, a four-time MLA, was KCR's finance minister and later the health minister, and a long-time activist of the Telangana statehood movement. In 2021, he was dismissed by KCR within days of the chief minister receiving an anonymous letter alleging that Eatala and his family-owned Jamuna Hatcheries allegedly indulged in land-grabbing activities.
Eatala felt unfairly targeted by the then Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) because he was dropped from the cabinet even before an inquiry committee was set up. Subsequently, Eatala joined the BJP and won a hard-fought by-election from Huzurabad the same year.
The soured relations between the two former colleagues had implications even during the BRS party's ticket distribution. Political observers attribute KCR's continued displeasure with Eatala as the reason for the CM not to grant a single BRS ticket to the Mudiraj community.
On the contrary, the BJP, which Eatala is now part of, has given more than 32 tickets thus far to the OBCs, and many of Eatala's supporters have ostensibly been asked to contest too.
If one were to do a SWOT analysis of Eatala Rajendar, his strong suits are his accessibility and his ability to enlarge his growing support base. "Eatala visits people's homes to pay a condolence visit or attend a party worker’s wedding. He knows how to keep his people happy," said Susarla Nagesh, a senior columnist who had covered elections for long.
While this could be one of the reasons why he is such an asset to the BJP, his affiliation to the saffron party could prove to be a great setback with the national party being at large to compete with the BRS and a resurgent Congress. "That he is being allowed to contest from both Huzurabad and Gajwel is his best opportunity to prove his mettle," Nagesh pointed out, adding that taking on his former boss could be the biggest deterrent a political opponent would not want.
Bhanuchandra Sivamalli, a self-employed man in his 30s, who has been witness to these political changes in the past five years, is an Eatala sympathiser. But he sums up the parallel story at Gajwel in a succinct way, "We may have a lot of affection for Eatala. But we will still vote for KCR."
KCR at Gajwel: Taking Guard as Its Guardian
It is Bhanuchandra's conclusion that makes one want to believe that heroes are difficult to forget and harder to replace. Being self-employed, he says there is little he gains from KCR's schemes. His biggest ask from his MLA is a game plan to climb up the economic ladder from a lower-middle family to one belonging to a middle-class income group.
The other gallery that KCR can safely pocket as his are the pensioners and the widows. The 'Aasra' pension scheme that grants senior citizens, widows, and weavers Rs 1,000 every month has been the reason why many women are cheering for KCR.
Down the road from Gajwel, in Toopran Jadaiah and his friend who are taking their afternoon stroll work as day labourers/ coolies plying material for construction. "Eatala has a good chance, but we think KCR will pull through," both the men state with a certainty that only locals can boast of.
These stories suggest how KCR is cementing support for himself in some of the most unnoticed sections of society that can have a significant impact on the day the votes are finally counted. Amraz Ramesh, who runs a business establishment, and Upendra, a veterinary doctor whom The Quint spoke to deliver their unofficial verdict: Whoever wins, will win with a very slim majority.
This, perhaps, sums up the upcoming contest in Gajwel.