Will Kodandaram help Congress do a ‘Gujarat’ in Telangana?

Helped by common caste interests, the Congress-Kodandaram alliance would attempt to trounce K Chandrasekhar Rao and break his family’s hold over Telangana politics. Will it work?

If one were to identify two key developments in Telangana’s politics in the four years of its existence as a separate State, it would be the gradual evolution of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) as a family-centric party dominated by chief minister K Chandrashekhar Rao (KCR) and the rise of an Opposition that is stridently anti-KCR in character.

While KCR, a Velama by caste, is attempting to transfer control of the party-government power structure to his son KT Rama Rao, his Opponents want to replace the KCR-KTR duo with another power block, mostly belonging to the Reddy community. In many ways, this caste arithmetic and its expression in politics will determine the outcome of the 2019 elections. But before exploring its electoral aspects, it is necessary to see how various groupings are placed at the moment.

Small numbers, big influence

The Velama caste is a miniscule community that makes up less than one per cent of the State’s population. On the other hand, the Reddys are slightly bigger group with a three to four per cent share. The formation of Telangana with KCR as its presiding figure has tilted the power scales in Velamas’ favour. Between them, these two numerically small groups control the state’s power stakes.

In the past, the two communities flourished during the Nizam’s rule in the Telangana region and also in post-Independence regimes that came to power in united Andhra Pradesh. Consequently, an influential elite emerged within these communities. At the same time, a bulk of the region’s population of Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) – who have been involved with the struggle for the establishment of a ‘People’s Telangana’ – could not emerge as viable political force beyond their status as voters.

As a result, in the post-Telangana formation phase, the politics of the region has degenerated into a Velama versus Reddy battle. The unrest among the Reddys, who lost power in the Telangana state, is evident in the mushrooming of organisations both on the ground and in the social media sphere. In recent times, Reddys of all political hues have sought to challenge the existing situation. In February 2018, the community organised a huge public meeting of the Kakatiya Reddla Sabha in Warangal and vowed to launch a Gujjar-like agitation for reservations. Simply put, their agenda is the restoration of power to the Reddys.

It is in this scenario that the Congress headed by Rahul Gandhi, and made up of a core of Reddy representatives, is trying desperately to restore its own dwindling political fortunes.

Congress sources say that the party is planning to replicate its ‘Gujarat model’ in Telangana in 2019 to topple ‘KCR’s family rule’ and is in search of allies who could be described as T-Hardik, T-Jignesh and T-Alpesh. The ‘T’ here of course stands for Telangana.

Enter TJS

It is also as part of this existing ground reality that Telangana Jana Samiti (TJS) of M Kodandaram Reddy enters the picture. The new party, formed in February, has the starting advantage of being represented by the former Osmania University political science professor who is a well-known and well-respected pro-Telangana voice.

It may be argued that professors – usually seen as articulate and civil, ‘clean’ and endowed with left-leaning ideals and unfamiliar with realpolitik – are normally not taken seriously in politics. But KCR, who is known for his sharp political instincts, lent enormous credence to the word ‘professor’ in the course of the Telangana agitation by roping in many into the movement.

In the days of the Telangana movement, KCR seldom addressed a press conference without being flanked by professors. These professors with their fund of data on Telangana helped KCR to mould himself as a ‘savior’ of the Telangana people. When the TRS banner was proving to be hindrance in spreading the Telangana movement to every nook and corner of the region, KCR floated the Telangana Joint Action Committee (TJAC), an umbrella organisation of all T-backers, with Prof Kodandaram as the chairman.

TJAC spread like wildfire under the leadership of the bespectacled, soft-spoken, sincere-looking professor. Kodandaram became a household name. TJAC or JAC, for short, sprang up in every village and street and found favour with all castes and professions. Yet, this larger than life image of the middle class professor made KCR insecure about his own clout with the people once Telangana had been achieved. The Telangana patriarch disowned the professor after the State’s formation and ensured that many important organizations quit JAC. Hurt and left with a handful of supporters but retaining a widespread goodwill, Kodandaram toured the entire state speaking of KCR’s ‘great betrayal’, and the hijacking of Telangana by a ‘dora’ (warlord) family. Wherever he went, he was met with entreaties to convert the JAC into a party, fight KCR, and build the real ‘People’s Telangana’.

The activist transformed into a political leader over time. He graduated from talking about people’s issues to ruthlessly attacking KCR. And along with politics has now come the attendant need for managing electoral caste arithmetic.

According to professor S Simhadri, a contemporary of Kodandaram, and also the president of the Samajwadi Party in Telangana: “TJS of Kodandaram is an out and out anti-KCR party. Its program is KCR-centric, not people centric. There is no space for vast masses of OBCs in his program. At best it could help Congress carry forward its anti-KCR agenda.”

Though Kodandaram doesn’t like to be identified as a Reddy, Simhadri said his party, the TJS, had emboldened non-Congress Reddys to gravitate towards him. “There is not much difference between Congress and TJS. See what they talk and do, it is KCR-centric politics. They have no agenda of social justice. Finally they both will end up fielding about 50 % Reddys in 2019,” he said. Congress circles admit that informal talks between representatives of Congress and Kodandaram are on for seat-sharing.

The Gujarat experiment

By aligning with Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor for the 2017 Gujarat polls, the Congress shook Narendra Modi’s grip in Gujarat. Congress sources told SW. that the party is exploring the possibility of a similar social alliance with “like-minded forces” to regain lost ground in Telangana. The task of stitching the alliance has reportedly been entrusted to K Raju, a former IAS officer committed to the politics of social justice, and now an aide to Rahul Gandhi. The likely constituents of this social coalition are prominent SC leader Manda Krishna Magida of the Madiga Reservation Porata Samiti (SCs), Prof Kodandaram (Reddys, urban middle class), and a couple of other Telangana organizations. R Krishnaiah, a popular OBC leader and TDP MLA, is also expected to join hands with the Congress against KCR.

TRS counter strategy

As a strategy to counter any possibility of a Congress revival, the TRS government has decided to operationalise direct cash transfer schemes that will reach people of all castes. According to sources, about 75 lakh farmers in the State would stand to get cash from substantial direct benefit transfers into their bank accounts just before elections. Farmers will be given cash at the rate of Rs 8000 per acre to meet farming expenditure. Similarly all OBC castes too are slated to be given assurances of occupational assistance in cash. By the time elections are announced there will be no family from any caste or religion that has not benefitted from the KCR government in one way or the other say TRS sources. According to them, TRS is hoping to neutralise the anti-incumbency generated due to corruption, joblessness and complaints of family rule in the state with this move. Added to this, there is also speculation that KCR will win over Chandrababu Naidu to gain support from Backward Caste voters who have traditionally been with the TDP in Telangana.

What role will the newborn TJS play in Telangana politics? It may be too early to predict. Yet one thing looks certain – the professor of political science is bound to lend credence to the anti-KCR campaign unleashed in the State by Congress as they both speak the same language.

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