Cover Story: Battlefield 2018

Telangana: A Hero’s Trial

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The state’s southern districts are among the top beneficiaries of K Chandrasekhar Rao’s welfare projects but they have also bred formidable opposition leaders

THE VILLAGE OF Pagunta in Jogulamba Gadwal district is littered with scraps of neon pink—wispy remnants of the banners and streamers that flew over Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s campaign meeting the previous evening. It is a sunny day and Pagunta, which today hosts senior Congress leader and three-time MLA from Gadwal DK Aruna, shimmers with delicious uncertainty, the Assembly election looming ever closer. Well turned out in a zari-flecked blue sari, diamonds and a Prada purse, Aruna has a self-assured countenance that makes you want to believe her when she says that notwithstanding the TRS’ political muscle, the Congress will retain its hold over the district—one of four that was carved out of undivided Mahbubnagar in southern Telangana. In the 2014 Assembly polls, despite a dominant Telangana wave, the national party won five of the 14 seats in undivided Mahbubnagar. The elections this year—to be held on December 7th— however, hold special significance for both parties. For the first time, the people of the state of Telangana are in a position to reward performance and need not vote on faith or hope alone. The TRS, therefore, is pitching its big ticket welfare schemes, infrastructure projects and successes at economic development as the mood swingers this time around. It is also anxious to make an infallible hero out of K Chandrashekar Rao, the protagonist of the Telangana agitation that culminated in the formation of India’s newest state in June 2014.

The Congress has recourse to just one strategy: to bust the messiah myth. A fairytale hero, after all, must survive a succession of trials, and KCR’s begins at home—Mahbubnagar, the constituency he represented in the 15th Lok Sabha between 2009 and 2014 upon winning it by a slender margin. Among the most backward, populous and drought-prone districts in the state, undivided Mahbubnagar has the cachet of shunting out a powerful political chieftain, former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister NT Rama Rao with a stunning blow in the 1989 Assembly election from Kalwakurthy. Could it now upset KCR’s hopes of a grand victory? In Nalgonda and Mahbubnagar, the influence of the Maoist movement and the state of severe deprivation meant that every day was a struggle, just not an ideological one. By bringing large tracts of agricultural land under irrigation—the government claims to have enabled the cultivation of 700,000 acres for the first time in the history of Mahbubnagar district—and providing access to drinking water to Nalgonda where fluorosis is an epidemic, the TRS is trying to reverse some of the damage of the past, and to court a people accustomed to neglect. All that is left is to ensure that KCR gets the credit for it—as well as for projects that weren’t even his to begin with.

“People won’t fall for KCR’s fake promises this time. He’s all hype and no action. Most of his schemes are rehashed and designed to siphon off money,” Aruna tells us, back at her residence in the town of Gadwal. Her family has represented the eponymous constituency in seven out of eight Assemblies since 1978. “The Kalwakurthy lift irrigation project, the Nettampadu project and Koil Sagar were all introduced by the Congress and much of the work was completed under our rule. By linking the last mile and adding some area to the original plan, KCR is claiming them as his own. The challenge is to educate people,” Aruna says. Her words are freighted with anxiety even though the TRS admits it is a tough battle in Gadwal for Bandla Krishna Mohan Reddy, who has lost to Aruna twice in a row.

“KCR is like the Lalu Prasad of Telangana. I cannot mess with that. What I can do is draw attention to his lack of scruples and turn disgruntled communities in favour of the Congress” - Revanth Reddy, Congress candidate from Kodangal and former TDP MLA

A chat with villagers on the sidelines of her address is revealing. Pagunta, barely a kilometre from the border with Karnataka, is a village of about 1,200 people. It is reached by a dusty road, winding through fields of paddy and chilli, further pulverised by visitors to the temple fair in the neighbouring village of Venkatapuram and by herds of sheep—a large number of them ‘KCR sheep’, distributed as part of the government scheme to give 20 sheep and a ram to every Yadav and Golla Kuruma family in the state. The village has been a Congress bastion, with about 70 per cent of votes polled in the 2014 Assembly elections going to the party. This time around, voters are cautiously flirting with both parties. “We started getting tap water under Mission Bhagiratha three months ago. No one but KCR could have implemented a scheme so vast,” says Ravi Kumar Reddy, 33. A farmer with five acres under paddy, cotton and groundnut, he is a Congress loyalist who is mulling giving the TRS a chance. “The government waived our loans—a sum of Rs 80,000—but since this was done in installments, we had to pay interest. The money received under the farmers’ support scheme this year, however, came in handy. Naturally, we are torn between Aruna, who has worked to link the village to the Nettampadu reservoir, and the TRS, which has promised to construct canals to ensure the water reaches everyone,” he says.

Political pundits say that the Reddys, landowners who are perceived to be loyal to the Congress, are among the biggest beneficiaries of the Rythu Bandhu scheme, under which the state government provides 5.8 million farmers Rs 4,000 per acre per season to support farm investment. The Opposition has pegged the scheme as a vast deception, a Rs 12,000 crore cash-for-vote scheme engineered months before the Assembly polls. A senior revenue department official, however, says the budgetary allowance was made possible with the completion of the three-year farm loan waiver, costing Rs 17,000 crore a year, in 2017-18. “We have partly funded some projects through corporations and others with loans. The first Budget was a baptism by fire, and once we pulled it off, accommodating all of the CM’s schemes, we focused on revenue generation. Tax revenues soared by 18 per cent, electricity consumption went up with 24-hour power supply,” he says, on condition of anonymity. It was important to be revenue surplus to avail the 0.5 per cent additional borrowing available to fiscally sound states as per the 15th Finance Commission’s provisions. A recent CAG audit found the revenue figures declared by the state to be bloated, but the revenue official attributes this to the lack of Central assistance for the Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project and other schemes, and delays in power and water sector works that have impacted cashflows. So why did the government have to take up multiple capital intensive projects at once? “KCR would not have won if not for the promises he made,” says the officer.

“People won’t fall for KCR’s fake promises this time. He’s all hype and no action. Most of his schemes are designed to siphon off money” - DK Aruna, Congress MLA from Gadwal

KCR, meanwhile, is basking in the vanity of the moment. The interim period after calling for elections is but a semi-colon in what he hopes will be a beautiful unbroken sentence. The joke, in Telangana’s political circles, is that he resorted to early elections because he rather fancied being called a ‘caretaker’. “He is the sole architect of Telangana. There is not a single person in the state who is not directly impacted by his schemes in one way or another,” says his daughter and Nizamabad MP K Kavitha, adding that he designs schemes with all 40 million people of the state in mind, not just for those who are likely to vote for him. In the four years that the state has been under his care, KCR’s powers have steadily waxed, much to the consternation of the Opposition and disaffected communities who allege that the rhythms of democracy are out of whack in Telangana, leaving little room for dissent. While opportunists from the TDP and the Congress defected to the TRS in a shambling file, those of a comfortable political dotage went into semi-retirement. A few stayed on to emerge as star campaigners for the Opposition, launching full-bodied attacks that occasionally cut through the unsettling layer of fallacy surrounding some of his poll promises, such as double bedroom housing for the homeless, reservations for STs and Muslims, and jobs for youth.

Some of the most eviscerating critiques of KCR to emerge in recent times are from Opposition leaders in undivided Mahbubnagar. Aruna, a master of the art of political invective, has managed to draw KCR into an overbaked personal tussle that automatically makes her chief ministerial material for the Congress. Revanth Reddy, an ambitious TDP man who joined the Congress last year, says that his motive, plain and simple, was to “play a bigger role as an adversary of KCR’s”. Reddy, 49, is a two-time MLA from Kodangal known for his double-edged slogans: ‘Kendram lo Modi, rashtram lo kedi (Modi at the Centre, a scoundrel in the state)’, and, ‘Sack one man and one lakh will get jobs’. “Telangana is different from other states,” he says. “People don’t care so much about corruption. They are of an ideological bent of mind. Welfare schemes are all fine but when the government gets richer and the common man stays poor, that becomes an issue. My strategy is to strike KCR on ideology, where it hurts him the most. I won’t let him ride the Telangana sentiment again. He has not even bothered to build a memorial for the martyrs who lay down their lives so Telangana could attain statehood,” Reddy says. We meet at his swanky bungalow in Hyderabad’s Jubilee Hills. “Let me put it this way. The time for Test matches and one-day cricket is past. What we need is a Virat Kohli who can hit every ball to the boundary.” Reddy understands the dangers of a presidential contest. “KCR is like the Lalu Prasad of Telangana. I cannot mess with that. What I can do is draw attention to his lack of scruples and turn disgruntled communities in favour of the Congress.”

ABOUT 1.5 MILLION people from undivided Mahbubnagar district are estimated to have directly benefited from KCR’s schemes. With directed focus on completing irrigation and drinking water projects in the district, seasonal migration is expected to taper off in the coming years. “It is not only a matter of monetary benefit. No other government has accorded farmers the dignity they deserve. The average farmer is proud of the government and wants to support us,” says Singireddy Niranjan Reddy, vice-chairman of the Telangana State Planning Board who, in 2014, lost to the Congress’ G Chinna Reddy by a whisker from the Wanaparthy Assembly segment. A lawyer and an erudite man, Niranjan Reddy says he used his proximity to KCR to get an agricultural science college sanctioned for Mahbubnagar district—the first in the state—besides a fisheries science college, and a medical college that will pave the way for a 400-bedded hospital in Wanaparthy. “Many MLAs haven’t been able to do what I have,” he says, on a busy campaign morning in Wanaparthy, his house raucous with party workers. An urbane NRI assists him, seemingly poring over data, and peeking from behind a laptop only to liaison with partymen who come bearing lists of new inductees. “The TRS’ USP is that we are still attached to emotional aspirations,” Niranjan Reddy says. “If we detach from that, we become like any other party.”

“It is not only a matter of monetary benefit. No other government has accorded farmers the dignity they deserve” - S Niranjan Reddy, TRS candidate from Wanaparthy

His opponent, incumbent MLA Chinna Reddy, is an unassuming man of modest means. He catches a few winks at a meeting with Sakshara Bharat volunteers before making a short speech. It’s lunch time and everyone makes a beeline for the biryani on offer. The Congress cannot spend much on campaigns, but family and friends partially support him, he says. “In the last election, we barely had time to get our manifesto out to the people. This time, we have done better than the TRS. We are offering pensions to all men and women over 58—not just to one person in each household,” Reddy says. “It was the Congress that brought the slogan of a separate Telangana to Mahbubnagar and it is the Congress that will lead the change in sentiment across the state today, starting from this district.”

In Nagarkurnool district, part of erstwhile Mahbubnagar, 70-year-old Nagam Janardhan Reddy, a five-time legislator who recently joined the Congress, cracks a smile as he struggles to shoulder the weight of a mammoth garland, presented to him by Muslim youth who recently joined the party. He wants to talk about real issues, but first, he must address the elephant in the room—the Telangana sentiment’. It was the Congress that granted statehood, he thunders, and KCR was a lucky bystander who walked away with the spoils. KCR’s former colleague in the TDP, Reddy says he joined the Congress “to send my friend to jail”. “Corruption is the big issue in Telangana. I have unearthed a Rs 5,500 crore scam in the Palamuru irrigation project and the High Court has reserved judgment in the case,” says Reddy. “It is obvious even to the common man. The free saris given to women on Bathukamma, for instance, are of the cheapest quality. Where do the funds go?”

At a small, echoey meeting in Chukapally SC Colony, Kollapur, dancers and drummers welcome TRS MLA Jupally Krishna Rao on stage—a modified truck decked up in party colours and parked next to the Chennakeshava temple. Onstage, Rao promptly brings up his Telangana agitator credentials. “I went to jail. I did not join the TRS for an MLA ticket,” he says, asking the audience, most of them women, to do their bit by not voting for the “Andhra party” and its ally, the Congress. If it sounds a bit rich coming from a former Congressman, minister and five-time MLA from Kollapur, no one mentions it. The moment the truck leaves, plunging the colony and its 500-odd residents into darkness, an angry mob of women surrounds us, asking why the MLA cannot be held to account for not fulfilling his promises. There is no approach road to half a dozen homes located behind the temple. Jyoti Cheekirala, 28, shows us how she goes home every day—by wading through a long and narrow trench with a babe in her arms. “A road was supposed to be laid to link the colony to the main street, but when we ask about it, he nods and does nothing,” she says. “Giving TRS a chance is like beating ourselves with our own slippers,” says Shiva Jetty, 28, a driver. At a mandapam next to the shrine, young men play a game of carrom. Jetty may blame himself for his fate—he abandoned college midway and did not manage to get selected for police recruitment—but other youth in the village say they feel betrayed by the TRS. Shivaji Maredi, 28, who has an MSc in physics from Osmania University, Hyderabad, and a BEd from a college affiliated to Palamuru University in Mahbubnagar, has been unemployed except for a brief stint as a junior lecturer at a private institute. “There is only one post in all of Mahbubnagar district for a physics teacher’s post. I appeared for the District Selection Committee exams but I could not get through,” he says, striking a black coin. “A government job is an aspiration we nurtured through the Telangana agitation. The youth are now looking for a change in the political landscape.”

“For various reasons, unreal expectations have built up. We have 100,000-plus vacancies out of which 30,000 have been filled and another 35,000 are in the pipeline. We don’t know how many more government jobs can be generated, but certainly, there is not enough for 2.5 million graduates,” says V Prakash Rao, a founding member of the TRS. Out of the 7,200 new industries set up in and around Hyderabad, 3,000 have started operations, generating 300,000 job opportunities, according to the government. “The government prioritised solving the problems of farmer suicides, irrigation and power. Education and universities had to be put on the backburner. The enormous delay in appointment of VCs to newly created state universities is a black spot on the government,” he says.

“It was the Congress that brought the slogan of a separate Telangana to Mahbubnagar and it is the Congress that will lead the change in sentiment across the state” - G Chinna Reddy, Congress MLA from Wanaparthy

TPCC SPOKESPERSON Krishank Manne says the students of Osmania University, who were the flagbearers of the Telangana agitation, are the most disappointed class in all of Telangana today. “There are over 1,500 vacancies for the posts of assistant and associate professors in Osmania University alone,” he says, dejected at not being given a ticket by the Congress. With 7.5 million voters in the 18-38 age group, no party seems to care about their interests, he says. Even Professor M Kodandaram, who floated a party to mobilise students and academics against KCR, and later joined the TDP-Congress alliance, does not seem to want to field student leaders. “The fact is, it was students who led the 610-km padayatra and had over 180 cases slapped against them. We went to jail and faced the indignity of squatting and getting our body cavities inspected. But the new state has no use for us,” Krishank says.

The discontent among youth who witnessed or participated in the Telangana agitation may be palpable but newer batches of students appear more practical, says S Ramachandram, vice-chancellor of Osmania University, a storied institution that was the epicentre of the Telangana agitations of 1969 and 2009, and provided the intellectual backbone for the Naxalite uprising in the state. “Ideology has long since disappeared from the campus and now it is just pure politics. Students realise they must focus on academics. Since state formation, the classroom environment has improved dramatically. We have been recording better attendance even in the social sciences, a department most often associated with political movements. Another encouraging trend is the decline in the number of students jumping streams aimlessly,” he says.

With the Mahakutami in disarray, and friendly contests likely to split Opposition votes in over 30 constituencies, the TRS may score points on the promise of stability alone. AK Goel, a retired civil servant who advises the state government on planning and energy, says that as long as the momentum of development is kept up, people are likely to vote the incumbent government back to power. “The creation of Telangana is a remarkable event in history, much like India attaining Independence in 1947. There is an important parallel here--there is new energy in any new state, the growth rate spikes, there is a lot of catching up to do, infrastructure to build, standards to set. There are frontiers we have not yet breached in Telangana, especially in nutrition and education. But politics is incidental to this. A state builds itself.”