In 2001, when K Chandrashekar Rao brought a stop to his 18-year-long stint with Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and founded Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the most popular leader by his side was Kothapalli Jayashankar – a political activist who was widely known as Professor Jayashankar even in the villages of Telangana. The duo went on to make TRS a formidable force in local body and state elections in the later years by riding the Telangana regional sentiment.
Now, as the Chief Minister of Telangana, Rao is no longer a lone ranger in the pink state, which was carved out from Andhra Pradesh at the culmination of the longstanding agitation for separate statehood.
The Star Power Boost
On Wednesday, 18 January, when the first public meeting of Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) – a national party he launched by renaming TRS – was held in Khammam, Rao had the company of three sitting Chief Ministers – Pinarayi Vijayan of Kerala, Bhagwant Mann of Punjab and Arvind Kejriwal of Delhi.
The parties supporting him on the dais were Aam Aadmi Party, Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Samajwadi Party.
In essence, it seemed, the first public meeting of BRS attended by around five lakh people favoured a coalition of political parties, strung together by a common idea – dissent against the BJP’s model of development and politics.
Rallying Against Privatisation To Oppose BJP
At the meeting held in the evening, all leaders were critical of the BJP as was expected; after all, SP, AAP, BRS, and the Communist Parties have been fighting the saffron party electorally, with varying degrees of intensity, in their home states. While SP’s Akhilesh Yadav called for a union of all “secular, democratic parties” against the BJP, CPI’s D Raja said the “Republic of India is facing a crisis and is in danger” and CPI(M) Pinarayi Vijayan called for “people’s unity against the communal agenda that seeks to divide.”
True to their electoral battles on the home front, both TRS and AAP were critical of the Congress too – Rao and Bhagwant Mann criticised the Congress for “complementing the BJP.” AAP and BRS have been facing off with the Congress in Delhi, Punjab, and Telangana respectively.
However, apart from the scorching political statements, the meet allowed each of the leaders, present at the event, to voice their development agenda, antithetical to that of the BJP. While the AAP foregrounded education and health concerns ailing the country, the Communist parties spoke of the overall growth of the nation.
“It is our duty to resist the backward march of the nation…We are ensuring development and welfare in a communal tension free atmosphere so that our people can enjoy the fruits of progress…” concluded Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
Rao, popularly referred to as KCR, also made his agenda clear at the meeting: “If your (BJP) policy is privatisation, our policy is nationalisation,” KCR roared, to the cheers of his supporters.
He went on to condemn the Centre’s alleged move to privatise Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) and declared a war with the BJP for the benefit of LIC workers.
He foregrounded the farmers’ protests and said privatisation of the agriculture sector will be resisted. He asked workers of the power sector to fight privatisation of electricity. “Why should the state not do business? The state should intervene in business where ever it is required,” he said, adding cross-subsidisation is necessary for the benefit of the people.
Meaning, once again KCR appeared to have aligned himself with people’s causes – a strategy which had helped him during long years of agitation for Telangana statehood. Between 2001 and 2014, KCR was present at every protest meeting organised under every political banner possible, from events of political parties to focused campaign events organised by activists of different political hues.
In line with this move, on Wednesday, the BRS platform also became a stage to voice unequivocal support for welfare measures.
Welfare Takes Centre Stage
The BRS meeting was symbolically held after the second phase of Kanti Velugu, an eye screening programme which will benefit approximately 1.5 crore people of Telangana, was inaugurated. Under the scheme, 55 lakh spectacles and prescription drugs are expected to be distributed by the state government.
All the national leaders who attended the BRS public meeting also attended the inauguration of the Kanti Velugu event, giving legitimacy to KCR’s claim that welfare measures implemented in Telangana can be replicated across the country.
Speaking at the event, Arvind Kejriwal said, “We (parties present at the meeting) should not fight among ourselves. We should learn from one another.” Meaning, some of the political parties may have decided to collaborate, at least nominally, on the development front in their respective states.
As he spoke, KCR took the welfare promise to the national level.
“The country has valuable natural resources including water and land.” He said his welfare measures, including 24X7 power and irrigation to farmers and industries, will come to benefit people across India. He lashed out against the “revdi culture” remark made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to belittle welfare measures a “freebies.”
The public meeting, in a way, sounded like a short manifesto of the BRS, with the CM even promising to repeal the controversial Agnipath defence recruitment scheme, opposed by several aspiring soldiers. KCR promised, Dalit Bandhu scheme, which gives financial aid to economically backward families of Scheduled Caste persons, will be implemented across India.
Telangana Takes a Backseat, India Foregrounded
The message at Khammam, however, was neatly packaged for the Telangana home audience with the CM using his usually quips to capture the crowd. “Make in India has become Joke in India,” he said, as the crowd laughed, as they do when they listen to his sarcastic political comments. However, Telangana sentiment has clearly taken a backseat, the BRS event demonstrated.
In the first week of January, a group of politicians from Andhra Pradesh had joined the BRS, indicating the party does not plan to bank on Telangana’s still-relevant regional sentiment.
The feeling was only reinforced in Khammam, with KCR ending his speech with “Jai Bharat” instead of his usual, “Jai Telangana” salutation.
Can the party which was built on regional sentiment, outgrow its Telangana roots to reach national heights? Or, will the national entry affect the party on its home turf?
KCR seemed to have a plan of his own on Wednesday – lower rung prominent leaders of the party, including his son K Taraka Rama Rao may continue to harp on the Telangana sentiment even as the supreme leader of BRS, KCR, moves on to the national front. A balancing act? As Telangana is expected hold its Assembly polls in 2023, KCR’s political strategies could soon be tested.