Till a few months ago, hoardings of a mobile network's 4G connectivity dotted the Hyderabad Metro Rail pillars. The joke doing the rounds was that Telangana's political network too was 4G – Chief Minister KCR garu, son KTR garu, daughter Kavitha garu and nephew Harish Rao garu. ‘Garu’ is a honorific in Telugu.
Early this year, K Chandrasekhar Rao went one step ahead to convert his family network to ‘5G’, sending relative Santhosh Kumar to the Rajya Sabha. Santhosh will be KCR's point-person in New Delhi to network to fuel the CM's national ambitions.
Four years after becoming India's youngest state, Telangana, politically speaking, is synonymous with the family. Like it is with most regional parties ruling states in India, the power flows from the CM's palatial residence in Hyderabad.
The cabinet is adorned with several senior leaders who were part of the struggle for Telangana as well as opportunistic turncoats, but the real clout is wielded by the KCR clan.
An Arduous Battle for Statehood and a Single Source of Power
The family loyalists argue that a young state like Telangana needed a single power source to navigate through a messy divorce with an upset Andhra. They will tell you how the government with a fragile majority in 2014 could have been destabilised and therefore needed centralised control. Conspiracy theories abound about how big money was being moved in within the first year of Telangana's formation to overthrow the KCR government. Which is why despite questionable ethics of the move, and in open defiance of the anti-defection law, KCR wooed legislators from other parties to join his Telangana Rashtra Samiti to shore up its numbers.
But then, the counter-argument is that whether replacing rule by those from Andhra like the Telugu Desam or a party like the Congress that took orders from New Delhi, family rule is what the people of Telangana bargained for when they waged the battle for statehood. In fact, critics of the centralised manner in which Telangana is administered claim that the core character of governance has not changed as the government is still seen as pushing the interests of the corporates and the contractor lobby in particular. These are the people who are seen as having access to the corridors of power, at the cost of the men and women who fought for statehood.
It is true that KCR in his post-movement avatar is not accessible to most. Over a period of time, the perception has gained ground that his decisions are based on personal likes and dislikes or advice from people who tell him only what he wants to hear.
2019, then, will be a battle between this image of KCR as an autocrat of sorts and his model of governance, which is a welfare agenda he has pursued aggressively, doling out something for virtually every caste and community group in the state. More recently, recognising that agrarian distress could sink his dream of a second successive term in office, he has gone all out to woo the farmers.
His dole of Rs 8,000 per acre to every farmer, announced this month, is an attempt to put money in the pocket of the farmer. Next on the agenda is an insurance policy for them. The two measures along, with 24-hour power supply to the farm sector, KCR will hope, will reduce the anger against him in rural Telangana. In the last four years, Telangana has had the dubious distinction of figuring in the top three states in terms of farmer suicides.
KCR has also ensured he remains the sole champion of Telangana identity, equating any attack on him as an assault on Telangana. Much like any criticism of Narendra Modi is interpreted by the BJP as an attack on the idea of India.
Riding High on the Telangana Identity
The Telangana card is a potent weapon that KCR would look to reuse once again next year. No one knows better than KCR that the central theme running through the movement was how Telangana region, consisting of 10 districts with the exception of Hyderabad, received stepmotherly treatment from the Andhra-dominated political class. The emphasis was on Telangana identity, pride, dialect and culture and how different it was from Andhra, even though the language spoken was the same – Telugu.
KCR, a wonderful orator who uses the Telangana idiom to great effect, rode on this sentiment of victimhood. Combining emotion with realpolitik, he succeeded in pushing both the Congress and the Telugu Desam, two parties that had till then controlled the politics of Andhra Pradesh, into a corner. Sonia Gandhi bit the bullet, expecting electoral returns at least in Telangana. 2014 proved how wrong she was. It was a lose-lose situation for the Congress in the two Telugu states. The party has been in a coma in Andhra for the last four years and its health is only marginally better in Telangana.
Smug in his confidence that his work and the Telangana sentiment will see him through, for the past three months now, KCR is looking national. His narrative is to form a non-Congress, non-BJP front that could also propel him to the CM's chair, something only one Telangana bidda before him has achieved – the late PV Narasimha Rao.
But his move is viewed with deep suspicion. It seems more a move to isolate the Congress so that he can best a resurgent state unit in Telangana. But more importantly, it seems to be a gambit that will only benefit the BJP, raising suspicion if KCR is playing on a pitch prepared by Modi.
At a personal level, it also looks aimed at settling the succession issue within the family, that always has the possibility of a KTR vs Harish Rao battle, given how deeply entrenched both are in the party. But KCR needs to bear in mind that his canvas is restricted to just 17 Lok Sabha seats of Telangana. A far cry from the Andhra Pradesh of old that with 42 seats, pretty much decided who will rule India both in 2004 and 2009.
(The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached @Iamtssudhir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)