Police detain agitating TSRTC employees
Police detain agitating TSRTC employees in Hyderabad | PTI file Photo
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Hyderabad: K. Chandrashekar Rao has governed Telangana with absolute authority — both electorally and administratively — since he became Chief Minister in 2014 for the first time. But now, he is facing his biggest challenge, in the form of the strike by workers of the Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC), which has thrown the lives of millions of people out of gear.

Defying KCR’s diktats, the strike entered its 12th day Wednesday. Amid fears of privatisation, about 48,000 employees have shunned work, demanding better wages, working conditions, and primarily, a merger of the debt-ridden PSU with the government.

What would be unsettling for the establishment is that the TSRTC workers haven’t relented despite the suspension of salaries and the announcement of dismissals. Analysts also blame KCR for allowing his personality to come in the way of conflict resolution.

The Telangana High Court observed as much while hearing the case Tuesday. “The government should be an ideal employer and deal with workers’ issues sympathetically. Why has the government taken such a stern stand against the workers? We expect the government to start talks with the workers immediately,” it said.

The issue could have immediate political ramifications for KCR and his Telangana Rashtra Samithi, as there is an assembly bypoll scheduled next Monday in Huzurnagar.

Also read: Why old foes KCR and Jagan Mohan Reddy are now working together instead of warring

Workers’ demands

The unions had issued strike notices over a month back with a charter of 26 demands, but say they were never engaged in talks.

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“Even a meeting scheduled on 21 September by the labour commissioner’s office was cancelled. A committee of IAS officers set up to address our concerns only sought time, without hearing us out,” Vilasagaram Tirupati, president of the Telangana Mazdoor Union told ThePrint.

“The government has simply shut its doors on us; we never faced such a humiliating situation during the Congress or TDP rule in united Andhra Pradesh.”

The situation has turned serious, with a driver and a conductor committing suicide. A bandh was observed in Khammam district Monday, while a state-wide bandh call has been given for Saturday, 19 October.

Thus, KCR’s ‘who blinks first’ problem has quickly transformed into a serious predicament.

Also read: Telangana State Road Transport Corp up in arms over govt’s move to sack protesting workers

KCR adamant

Officials say KCR is basically opposed to the merger, the workers’ primary demand. The CM is said to have been furious that the strike has continued despite assurances, and that it has continued through Dasara, the state’s biggest festival when people travel to and from their hometowns and villages. In press statements issued by the Chief Minister’s Office too, KCR has said he will not give in to the unions’ “blackmail”.

At a time when the Jagan Mohan Reddy government has merged the APSRTC with the government in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, bringing cheer to the workers, KCR’s dismissal of the workers and demands he once endorsed is fuelling the continuation of the strike.

Analysts say KCR’s “adamant stand” emanates from his godfatherly approach towards the state and its people, as his supporters refer to him as the “father of Telangana”. KCR’s usual riposte is: “When I am toiling for Telangana, how dare you question my sincerity?”

“KCR’s conviction is that all his actions and decisions are for the creation of bangaru (golden) Telangana. Given his high stature of leading the statehood agitation, it was easy for him to disparage anyone opposed to his views as being ‘anti-Telangana’,” said political analyst Jinka Nagaraju.

Politically, his near-total takeover of the pro-Telangana sentiment and a weak opposition Congress helped KCR not only win a second term last December, but also improve his Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s tally. His party has won almost all bypolls and civic polls since 2014, and also taken TDP and Congress MLAs into its fold.

However, the TSRTC workers’ total unity has come as an unexpected challenge. “While it did not leave any scope for talks, the government believed it could break the strike by getting back at least part of the workers with threats of sackings,” said political analyst Prof. K. Nageshwar.

“Ministers started criticising the strike as one managed by the opposition, as an anti-Telangana ploy. But the workers and union leaders who were at the forefront of Telangana agitation retorted with amazing unity. The government thought the workers would budge in a day or two, but its tactics came a cropper.”

Also read: Why KCR had BJP on his mind as he brought back nephew Harish, inducted 2 women in cabinet

Solidarity from various quarters

Despite KCR’s threats, the agitation is finding solidarity from various quarters every day. The Telangana gazetted and non-gazetted officers’ associations, which had last week distanced themselves from the strike after a meeting with the CM, announced Tuesday that they would now stand with their TSRTC brethren. The officers have their own demands and would not like to stand alone if and when they protest.

The government has submitted before the high court that conceding to a TSRTC merger could invite similar demands from other corporations. The electricity employee unions have stated that they could go on strike anytime from later this month, if the government does not concede to their demand of regularising employment and implementing benefits like employees’ provident fund etc.

Potential political impact

The outcome of the Huzurnagar assembly bypoll will show whether KCR’s popularity has started wearing down. But the TRS is leaving no stone unturned to win the seat, having deployed its major leaders to win the seat previously held by the Congress.

However, the Communist Party of India has pulled away its support for the TRS candidate, blaming KCR’s inflexible stand on the TSRTC issue. Sensing the increasing public resentment, the BJP and the Congress are also rallying behind the workers.

“Since the high court has also admonished the government, it should at least now call the unions for talks. By further precipitating the issue, KCR runs the risk of people believing all the talk about privatisation,” Prof. Nageshwar said. “But regardless of the outcome, the TSRTC strike will stand out as an act of defiance in an otherwise cowed-down state.”

The strike might prove to be the moment of truth for KCR — can he still take along everyone, like he did for statehood?

Also read: BJP gets ready to win over Telangana with ‘Hyderabad Mukti Divas’ celebration

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