WILL SOPS SEE HIM THROUGH?
APART FROM THE MAHA KUTAMI OPPOSITION ALLIANCE, KCR IS ALSO BATTLING HIS OWN AUTOCRATIC IMAGE
ASTROLOGY MIGHT UNDO THE first-mover advantage Telangana chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) had hoped for when he dissolved the 119-seat legislative assembly on September 6, nine months ahead of a full term. Both polling day—December 7, that falls on amavasya or New Moon Day—and the day of counting of votes—December 11, a Tuesday—are considered inauspicious. But first the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) chief has more down-to-earth problems on his mind. KCR has set himself an ambitious target of winning a 100 seats and cornering at least 50 per cent of the popular vote. To this end, he is relying heavily on the various sops he has announced with the widest possible outreach. He is trying to ensure that each family benefits from at least three of the 40 major development and welfare schemes, in which his government has pumped a staggering Rs 2,18,377 crore into since June 2014. The government claims 15 million of the state’s 21.4 million rural population has benefitted from these. Were one to total all the various schemes, their number would be over 69.2 million, nearly double the 35.2 million population of Telangana. This, the ruling party is convinced, will help it reap rich dividends at the hustings.
“‘Phir ek baar, KCR’ is the tagline of the TRS,” says his son and industry, information technology and municipal administration minister K.T. Rama Rao (KTR), who is campaigning for the party and his father. According to him, even though Telangana is a new state, it is growing at 17 per cent per annum and contributes more in taxes to the central government than any other state despite being deprived of funds for ‘game-changer’ schemes such as the Rs 15,000 crore it needs for Mission Bhagiratha to provide piped drinking water to all
homes in the state and Rs 5,000 crore for Mission Kakatiya to rejuvenate village irrigation tanks. Incidentally, the NITI Aayog had, after an evaluation, recommended these schemes as worthy of replicating in other states.
But even though this might help his cause, KCR faces a stiff challenge in the calibrated campaign the Congress has mounted to paint the 2018 poll as a dharma yudham between the KCR family and the people of Telangana. Rivals have repeatedly raised four major issues: that the TRS government is autocratic, with the state being reduced to a family fiefdom of KCR, KTR, nephew and state irrigation minister T. Harish Rao and daughter and Lok Sabha member K. Kavitha; they and other top leaders are involved in massive corruption; all democratic rights are suppressed brutally by the ruling TRS; and that the party has a tacit understanding with the BJP in Delhi and the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in Hyderabad.
Analysts say KCR hopes to win the elections with the support of Muslims and then shift loyalties to the BJP for the Lok Sabha polls. The TRS voted for the BJP candidates in the presidential and vice presidential polls, and was the first to support Prime Minister Narendra Modi on demonetisation and GST. “KCR is under the impression that by giving doles and providing all kinds of benefits, people will have no other choice but to support him,” says political commentator C. Narasimha Rao. “[But] people are not impressed by doles alone. When they doubt his honesty and truthfulness, and when they find no other leader in the party to correct him, people will desert in desperation. It isn’t political parties that will defeat him but the people.”
The Congress, though stunned by KCR’s decision to dissolve the legislative assembly in advance, has cobbled together a maha kutami (grand alliance) with the Telugu Desam Party, the Telangana Jana Samithi and the Communist Party of India, and will announce a common minimum programme after the Dussehra festivities on or
after October 20. “Anti-incumbency is also rising, besides the widespread disillusionment with the TRS and the desire to teach it a fitting lesson,” says Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee president N. Uttam Kumar Reddy. “People are seeing through KCR’s game and he can’t rely on stoking Telangana emotions forever.”
In his speeches so far, KCR still invokes the TRS’s contribution for separate statehood and he targets the Congress and TDP—which rules contiguous Andhra Pradesh—for being “in an unprincipled and unholy alliance”. Never mind that the TRS fought the 2009 polls alongside the TDP. “KCR’s outbursts against the Congress and the maha kutami are part of his tactic to divert attention from his corruption, but people will not fall for it,” says AICC secretary Madhu Yaskhi. “Was KCR’s self respect not offended when he decided to name his son after TDP founder NTR or when Andhra contractors were awarded most works during TRS rule? Is KTR not doing business in association with Andhra people in Bengaluru?”
KCR is peeved about the opposition parties coming together and of the coalition arithmetic coalescing in their favour. Adding to his woes is the growing dissidence in his party ranks by those denied party tickets. His decision to field most sitting members, including MLAs who defected from the Congress and the TDP to the TRS, has left those who contested and lost on the TRS ticket in 2014 disgruntled. Resolute TRS rebels are preparing to contest in 30 constituencies as independents while waiting for the final line-up of contestants to become clear by early November.
KCR is hoping that splinter anti-establishment groups and smaller parties will form a third front against the maha kutami, dividing the anti-TRS vote in the process. Telugu actor Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party and the YSR Congress are likely to support the TRS. The BJP, BSP and AAP plan to contest all the 119 seats. The dissidence against the TRS is spread across the state, particularly in Khammam, Warangal and Nalgonda. A worried TRS legislator E. Ravinder Reddy was caught on video offering women’s self-help groups Rs 5 lakh to vote for him. The video, which soon went viral, showed the women haggling for larger sums. In Khammam, dissidents released anti-TRS songs. In a major setback, the party’s tribal face, Ramulu Naik, nominated as an MLC for a six-year term in 2014, has switched to the Congress on being denied a ticket, alleging that the TRS has become “a private limited company in which there is no internal democracy and which is home to the betrayers of Telangana”.
Has KCR made a blunder by advancing elections? “Citing pending cases filed by rival parties as the reason is untenable as the courts are part of the constitutional scheme of things,” says former Supreme Court judge B. Sudarshan Reddy. “The KCR government suffers from a trust deficit.” Then, there are unfulfilled poll promises, including 12 per cent reservation for Muslims, three acres to each Dalit family, two-bedroom houses and a job for each poor family. Also, few women would have forgotten the promise of a Bathukamma sari on Dussehra. The Election Commission stalled the distribution of 9.1 million saris the state had spent Rs 280 crore on.
“Not all promises made by a political leader can be implemented in a short time, that too in a federal polity like ours,” says Prof. Ramabrahmam Ivaturi of the University of Hyderabad. “The challenges of mobilising resources and monitoring them are many in the context when a chief minister does not even visit the state secretariat. There is a growing negative opinion against KCR and it remains to be seen how he deals with it.” It looks like the TRS chief may have to pull a few more outrageous tricks out of his hat to shake off the negative image of himself and his party and vindicate his decision to advance the polls and enable the TRS to emerge a winner.
SOP SELLER KCR a day after his Sept. 6 announcment to dissolve the state assembly
MAHA KUTAMI CPI, Congress and TDP leaders announce the Telangana Parirakshana Vedika on Sept. 11