KT Rama Rao: Chief Executive of a Startup State

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KT Rama Rao, the heir apparent in Telangana, wants to set a national example on welfare

IN 2006, SEPARATIST leader and the founder of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), Kalvakuntla Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR), quit as MP of Karimnagar and a partner of the UPA at the Centre, ending an era of compromise in the long and bloody battle for statehood. His resignation inspired others’, including, unknown to him, that of his son as regional director of sales across the subcontinent for Intrra, a global trade and transport company. “He was very upset when he found out. At the time, there was no way to be sure we would get Telangana and he did not want me to stake my career for politics,” says KT Rama Rao (KTR), 42. In December 2006, KCR won the by-election to the Karimnagar parliamentary constituency with a margin of over 200,000 votes, and yet, it would be years before the Union Cabinet passed the Telangana Bill. “I could no longer be a bystander when father was exhorting the youth to demand what was rightfully theirs,” KTR says. Sharpshooter and troubleshooter, youth icon and heralder of progress and industry, IT minister, and if you go by word on the street, soon-to-be-chief minister, KTR today is anything but a bystander in the nascent politics of Telangana. Since September 6th, when his father, the first chief minister of the state of Telangana, dissolved its first Assembly of 119 members where his party enjoyed a strength of 90, KTR has been at the forefront of devising election strategy along with his father, resolving conflicting interests within the party, stepping up the social media campaign, taking stock of the progress on the party’s poll promises from 2014, and keeping a hawk’s eye trained on the Opposition. As the TRS prepares for early polls hoping to put up a show of strength ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, he is busier than the proverbial one-armed paper hanger. And yet, working from the camp office in Hyderabad, surrounded by advisors, friends and partymen on a Sunday morning, KTR makes time to talk to Open about his father’s vision for Telangana. For, even a hero needs propaganda, and KCR, who has of late been giving an impression of aloofness and unapproachability, could not have asked for a better evangelist than a son who, according to a Silicon Valley investor who was persuaded by KTR to back a business here, “can sell ice cubes to an Eskimo”.

He starts at the beginning, with the ill-advised merger on linguistic grounds of Hyderabad State with the state of Andhra, and the clout of Andhra politicians who flouted the gentlemen’s agreement to give the region of Telangana its due. We all know how the story ends—with a state finally standing on its own feet after years of exploitation and neglect thanks to one unlikely firebrand articulating in Delhi the aspirations of its millions. Fast forward to four years later: half a dozen big schemes to deliver benefits directly to farmers, 7,200 industries cleared through the government’s self-certification policy creating 350,000 jobs, improved primary education and hospital infrastructure and emulation of the TN model of providing birth kits and incentivising institutional deliveries. Telangana is a startup taking a moonshot at glory, and it will stop at nothing to become India’s number one welfare state.

KTR briefly mentions the two startups he co-founded in another life—a serviced apartments business set up upon his return from America in 2004 is still going strong; an automobile company he started has since folded. An investor in and a supporter of Hyderabad’s embryonic startup culture, KTR says he may turn entrepreneur again some day. “Oh come on, you have the most important task in the state cut out for you here,” butts in a longtime friend, an industrialist and an MP. KTR smiles and brushes it off graciously, much as he does a well-intentioned testimony to his character—“He is a good boy, you know what I mean?”—from the older gentleman. The fact that KTR’s popularity has soared like a helium balloon since state formation in 2014—his speech at the launch of the Apple Development Centre in Hyderabad in 2016 went viral overnight—means that he is what the state wants today, say insiders.

THE FIRST FAMILY OF Telangana, with KCR as the supreme leader and visionary, is untrammelled in its ambitions. “They hail from a landowning family and they have a feudal bent of mind. The CM rarely meets heads of government departments or bureaucrats who seek meetings to discuss policy. KTR acts the part of the nawabzada. He is efficient, but senior leaders in the party don’t like that he talks like his father, his unparliamentary language in public speeches. He is not his father—he entered the movement only in 2006,” says a senior TRS leader on condition of anonymity. Speculations of KCR vacating the seat for his son after the parliamentary elections are yet premature, but there is little doubt that KTR’s political acuity would make him a natural successor to the throne. His sister, K Kavitha, 40, the MP representing Nizamabad, is winsomely unassuming in comparison, and seemingly content to lead the TRS contingent through the corridors of power in Delhi. If there are competing vanities in the relationship between brother and sister, they certainly don’t show it. The spare keys to the brand new kingdom of Bangaru Telangana are vested with Thanneeru Harish Rao, the chief minister’s nephew, a once-formidable leader who seems to have made peace with his limited role in the party, and Joginapally Santosh Kumar, KCR’s co-brother’s son and former personal assistant who assumed office as Rajya Sabha MP in April. All six Rajya Sabha members from the party—and the 105 MLA candidates, all but two of them incumbents, announced by the party so far—are said to be KCR’s personal picks. His inner coterie, says an insider, consists of Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister Kadiyam Srihari, Tourism and Tribal Welfare Minister Azmeera Chandulal, and other ministers who had worked with KCR in the former Telugu Desam Party (TDP) Cabinet. He is also said to be close to MLC Palla Rajeshwar Reddy and a handful of old-world businessmen and senior bureaucrats. When KTR takes over, he is expected to retrofit the stodgy TRS wagon with a sleek new engine. “Key policy decisions still emanate from KCR. KTR is more of an implementor, a troubleshooter in the party who has a free hand in certain matters of government, but when it comes to flagship projects, it is the leader’s ideas that get top billing,” says the insider, requesting anonymity.

“One of the fundamental things in fighting for Telangana was to fight for self-respect and self-rule, not to prostrate before Chandrababu Naidu” - KT Rama Rao, IT minister of state and son of K Chandrasekhar Rao

The Opposition has accused the family of feathering its nests by way of commissions from mega-projects, but by attacking and delaying the government’s landmark welfare schemes, the TDP and the Congress have only shot themselves in the foot. The TRS government’s biggest success stories are in power and water, subjects close to KCR’s heart. His knowledge of the state’s topography, proficiency in aquifer and river mapping and ability to design efficient and scalable models are legend, and even some Opposition leaders say they will not dispute his expertise in these areas. Mission Bhagiratha, the first state-level project in India to envision providing safe drinking water to all villages via 150,000 km of pipeline at a Rs 44,000-crore outlay, will miss its Diwali 2018 target by a long shot due to delays by contractors and monsoon rains, but the fact that in a state where 200,000 people are affected by fluorosis in the district of Nalgonda alone, and several other arid districts dread the coming of summer, the government has shown that it has got its priorities right is enough to instill confidence. “Despite over a hundred petitions filed by the Opposition in the High Court and before the Green Tribunal to stall the Mallanna Sagar Project, the Palamuru project and the ambitious Kaleshwaram barrages, the work is on track, with floods being the only major concern delaying projects. In a couple of years, Telangana will have one of the most sophisticated and well-planned lift irrigation systems in India,” says Veeramalla Prakash Rao, co-founder of the TRS and chairman of the Telangana Water Resources Development Corporation. When Rao first met KCR in 2000 as a researcher of the Telangana movement exhorting the politicians of the day—among them P Janardhan Reddy and G Chinna Reddy—to champion the cause of statehood, KCR knew next to nothing about the projects on the Godavari. “He did not even know their names. Quickly, as he assimilated knowledge and understood how the districts had been deprived of water—let’s not forget that in Warangal alone there were 500 suicides in the year 1998—he became an expert and now monitors Kaleshwaram and other projects via CCTV. We are racing against time. Kaleshwaram is perhaps the only government project where there are 22,000 workers working in three shifts,” Rao says. Mission Kakatiya, the state’s lake restoration project, is about to hit the halfway mark—out of 46,000 tanks 22,000 have been restored—and there are reports of a rising water table in several parts of Telangana.

“This is agenda-setting for the country if you ask me. Without sounding too immodest, I can claim that we have raised the bar,” says KTR, in his standard-issue white shirt and khakis. “Eleven states have studied Mission Bhagiratha, for instance. We have even delivered on promises ahead of time—the CM had said he would ensure 24-hour power for all in three years but this we accomplished in months.” The state has significantly added to its capacity—from 6,500 MW in June 2014 to 15,000 MW now— with a target to add another 13,000 MW over the next four years, according to D Prabhakar Rao, Chairman and Managing Director of Telangana State Transco and Genco. It continues to buy power from its neighbours Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh to serve 197 million customers. With the launch of 24x7 free power to the agriculture sector in January 2018, 2.3 million farmers in the state now directly benefit from the initiative.

“Our parents never told us what to study, which university to go to, when to return to India. It is the same now. We will continue to chart our own unique course” - K Kavitha, MP and K Chandrasekhar Rao’s daughter

THE RYTHU BANDHU scheme, under which farmers are directly given Rs 4,000 per acre as investment support ahead of the crop season, has further boosted the government’s popularity among farmers. “For the first time, a CM has had the gumption to spend Rs 12,000 crore from his Budget to give direct farm income assistance. Under the Rythu Bheema insurance scheme, even if you hold 100 sq yards, you are insured by the state without having to pay a premium, to the tune of Rs 5 lakh, and this includes natural and accidental death,” KTR says. The programmes have been heralded by economists like Arvind Subramanian as the way forward for agricultural policy that has only talked of direct benefit transfer until now. According to the state government, 92 per cent of the beneficiaries under Rythu Bandhu own less than 5 acres, 5 per cent own 5-10 acres and the remaining 3 per cent own more than 10 acres. While there are concerns that in villages with large farmers—an individual can hold up to 52 acres of land—it could widen disparities in income, KTR says it is still a work-in-progress. “As many as 5.8 million farmers benefit from the scheme, but if a couple of lakh farmers are left out because they do not own any land, the Opposition will attack us on this,” he says, mildly irritated. With a 4-million membership and a large army of party workers, the TRS is said to be making sure that the Congress “is silenced forever as a party in Telangana”, according to a legislator. They do not have much in the way of resistance, with RC Khuntia leading AICC Telangana. “Had the Congress brought in Ashok Gehlot or Sushil Kumar Shinde, they could have made a difference,” says a political observer, adding that when KCR called Rahul Gandhi a buffoon, the state Congress’ response was to “send out a press release condemning his unparliamentary language”. “What can you expect from this leadership?” he asks. A veteran Congress leader admits on condition of anonymity that there is “no structure, no money and no leader” left in the party. “What am I supposed to do? Who do we field, knowing that many of them will defect to the TRS if they do win?” he says, leafing through applications from aspirants at his Jubilee Hills office.

TELANGANA’S REVENUES have grown 17.17 per cent year-on-year since the formation of the state. Is it not enough to go to the people with this impressive report card? Must the incumbent government mud-wrestle an enfeebled Opposition? “This is a state we fought hard for,” says an unflinching KTR as he changes gears to politics. “Imagine if the Congress were to come to power in Delhi and if they are in power in Telangana and Karnataka. If a river water sharing dispute should arise, we would be left to the mercy of the Congress, which is in bed with a party that wrote dozens of letters to the Central Water Commission and the Government of India asking for our irrigation projects to be stalled. What would happen to the projects we started? We have to warn the people about such a possibility. One of the fundamental things in fighting for Telangana was to fight for self-respect and self-rule, not to prostrate before Chandrababu Naidu.” In his first years as party general secretary in charge of Mahabubnagar, which is still one of the most backward districts in the country, KTR witnessed firsthand the reality of deprivation and exploitation under united Andhra. “There are two major rivers running next to it, the Krishna and the Tungabhadra, yet 1.4 million people migrate out of the district every year. Palamuru labour has become a brand across construction sites. The biggest need was water. There was enough land available. The last Nizam had commissioned a survey for an Upper Krishna project to irrigate 1.75 million acres here, and had this happened, Mahabubnagar would have been as rich as the Godavari districts. The first chief minister of Hyderabad State, Burgula Ramakrishna Rao, was from Palamuru and he wanted to act on it and allocated funds. But then we merged with Andhra. After the TRS came to power, in just four years we have been able to irrigate 900,000 acres with new anaicuts, but the point is that we lost out for five decades, and the Congress and the TDP have to answer for their misrule and cheating.”

His father has not been as charitable towards his former colleagues in the TDP, flinging zingers that could make his own partymen blush. At the election season’s first rallies in Nizamabad and Wanaparthy, attended by large crowds, KCR’s speeches were thicketed with abuses and insults, and he seemed to derive an unseemly pleasure from deriding Congress and TDP leaders as “sheep”, “dogs under a cart” and “buffoons”. “For four years you have licked the armpits of Narendra Modi,” he said in a speech last week, taking a dig at Naidu for allying with the Congress. He also called the Congress a pest. “If you say ‘oh’, they file a case. If you take a piss, they file a case,” he said. Obviously aimed at rekindling the Telangana sentiment and swinging the neutral vote in his favour, the rhetoric could also help the party paper over lapsed promises, especially job creation, construction of double bedroom houses for the homeless, allocation of three acres of land to every Dalit family and 12 per cent reservation for Muslims. “The local media does not dare to question them on this front. No one knows what the government has done to boost manufacturing, for instance. Other than in IT and through police recruitment, job creation has taken a backseat. The situation is so bad that the CM cannot enter a major university without being heckled,” notes Palvai Raghavandra Reddy, a political observer.

By attacking and delaying the present state government's landmark welfare schemes, the TDP and the Congress have only shot themselves in the foot

“KCR is only interested in two things: populism and profligacy,” says senior Congress leader Jaipal Reddy, former Union Minister for Science and Technology. “He said he would be the watchdog but it is his family that controls the state machinery today. It is an autocracy.” KCR and his family are not known to encourage dissent. “KCR’s stance against having dialogue with civil society, academics and ideologues is a major concern,” says M Kodandaram, a prominent activist who took part in the Telangana agitation, a former professor at Osmania University, and the founder of the Telangana Jana Samithi, a new political party. “After the state was formed, and the gates of the Secretariat were thrown open in the first month, thousands came to see it. They had envisioned a larger role for themselves in this new state. The government soon turned hostile to the culture of democracy. KCR will have to face the wrath of the people this election,” says Kodandaram, who, along with a section of Telangana ideologues, has distanced himself from the TRS. The government’s move to ban protests at Dharna Chowk in Indira Park in the heart of Hyderabad after local residents complained of disturbance is perplexing to supporters of the Telangana movement who cannot imagine why a party born of dissent should now curb free movement and speech of activists. “We gave them space on the outskirts of town, in the same spirit that the party now conducts its meetings outside Hyderabad. Manmaani nahi chalegi (you cannot have your way),” says KTR.

The party has also engineered defections from the TDP and the Congress in the interests of “political stability”, alienating the principled old guard. The TRS denies double-dating the AIMIM, which it uses tactically to attract Muslim voters, and the BJP, which has not delivered on some of the promises made under the AP Reorganisation Act—the Bayyaram steel plant, Information Technology Investment Region projects for Bengaluru and Hyderabad, and bifurcation of the High Court are among the pending grievances—but it could cosy up to Narendra Modi closer to the parliamentary polls if assured of a major role in national politics. KCR is often dubbed Telangana’s Modi for refusing to meet the media and keeping his ministers on a tight leash. It’s a comparison his daughter Kavitha, who lives in a gated community in Kondapur, near the Manhattan of Hyderabad, does not care for. “The only reason we are seen as being close to the BJP is because we don’t confront them needlessly. We are a new state and Andhra the residual state but we have never got any support from the Central Government. Not enough roads and railways and not even enough visits by the Prime Minister. While the BJP does not have a future in the state, it is in our interests to maintain professional relations with the Centre so we can get projects and permissions fastracked. And it has worked for us. Kaleshwaram would have taken any other government 10 years,” says Kavitha, en route from Hyderabad to her constituency. She is addressing several community gatherings ahead of a big KCR rally on October 3rd and there are large cutouts of a smiling Kavitha dotting Nizamabad’s skyline. “I am not like my brother, I don’t mind being photographed,” she says. The cutouts and the pink streamers cannot divert your attention from the dug-up roads and the underground drainage pipes stretched out on the pavements awaiting installation. “How much guts do you think a CM should have, going to elections with all his roads in all his town dug up? I have told the people of Nizamabad, life will be hell for a few more months but you would never again have to worry about drinking water or drainage. KCR is not such a small leader that people would judge him for the delays that are inevitable in these big projects. They have seen the progress, they have seen the intent.”

The party doesn’t want to be caught up in national issues right now, she says. “We want to focus on what we have done and want the discussion to be around what the state needs. For these two months, we don’t have to talk about what’s happening in the rest of India,” she says. Delhi, she believes, will soon begin to see KCR as a tall leader in the making who deserves a bigger role in national politics. “It doesn’t have to depend directly on the number of MPs we elect to Parliament, but also on how KCR can make friends in other parties and how, together, we can write a growth story for the nation.”

A good conversationalist, Kavitha turns reverential to a fault when you mention her father. “I am a very new politician and I don’t have any ambitions except to help him see his dream come true,” she says. Her brother and KCR lock horns on policy matters more often, she says, crediting KTR with women-friendly policies like the SHE Teams division of the Telangana police that works for women’s safety in public spaces, and special buses for women in the IT corridor in Hyderabad. “Our parents never told us what to study, which university to go to, when to return to India. It is the same now. We will continue to chart our own unique course.” At least one of them, we can say with a degree of certainty, leads to the topmost job in the state.