Until he emerged as the face of the ‘separate Telangana movement’ and became the new state’s chief minister, K. Chandrasekhar Rao, or KCR, was an insignificant figure in the United Andhra Pradesh politics. Before starting his political career in the Youth Congress, KCR was known as “Dubai Shekhar”. He worked as an agent to send labourers to Gulf countries, and those agents earned the label as “notorious cheaters.” From Congress, he moved to the Telugu Desam Party or TDP when it was founded by N.T. Rama Rao in 1982. KCR rose to become a minister while also winning four consecutive assembly elections, but he was denied a ministry during N. Chandrababu Naidu’s second term in office. This made him resign from the TDP and launch the Telangana Rashtra Samithi in 2001.
Decades of administrative neglect had resulted in deep crises in rural Telangana, which drove anger and frustration sufficiently high among the people to give KCR the much-needed political capital to relaunch his career from obscurity. He portrayed himself as a saintly man with two children settled in the United States, humbly claiming that he bore no ambition for money or power, save for 250 grams of rice and a cup of lentil for himself and his wife.
By the late 1990s, the second phase of the Telangana movement simmering in rural areas had come to a boiling point. The main slogan of the campaign centred around the livelihood issues of nillu (water), nidhulu (development funds), and niyamakalu (employment). Much before KCR, in the grassroots, Maroju Veeranna, Belli Lalitha, Dusharla Satyanarayanaof the Telangana Jala Sadhana Samithi, and Maoist activists had awakened people against the Andhra capitalists’ land-grab in and around Hyderabad city. Taking cue from them, KCR promised to plough and redistribute the lands occupied by Ramoji Rao for his film city and other Andhra real estate barons. He passionately spoke in a Telangana dialect, and steered the people’s history of suffering to place himself as a champion of Telangana without a single agitation or march to his credit.
As a political typecast, KCR cleverly played with the emotions of people by equating his personal political career with a collective Telangana identity. Despite knowing his feudal nature, people were impelled to consistently back him through election cycles, fearing that his defeat could signal the end of the Telangana statehood movement. Students and teachers from Osmania and Kakatiya universities, folk performers, singers, and Telangana employees took on the mantle of the Telangana movement, allowing KCR to emerge as the face of revolution. In effect, it forced the Congress government to introduce a bill in Parliament on 2 June 2014.
Making half-baked promises
To oil organisational weakness, until 2014, KCR had promised to merge his party with the Congress once the state was formed. The latter was kept under tenterhooks, only to be shown the door later on, refused even in elections. Beleaguered, the Congress lost power at the Centre and lost cadre and leadership both in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Moreover, before the formation of Telangana, KCR had promised to act on the main demands of the Telangana movement. He had assured one government job per household, two-bedroom houses for the homeless, and three acres of land for every landless Dalit family, besides promising a Dalit chief minister in the state.
The new state sentiment and euphoria helped his party win a landslide electoral victory. Backpedalling on his promise, he declared to guard Telangana against the “Andhra vulture” after winning the election, made Tatikonda Rajaiah, a Dalit, the deputy chief minister, and dismissed him within a few months on the allegations of corruption. To this day, Rajaiah hasn’t been charged with any crime.
When the new state commenced functioning, it had a surplus budget, unlike Andhra Pradesh. Shedding the spirit of the Telangana movement, KCR’s feudal Velama caste avatar emerged as his true face and started seeing himself as a feudal king and the state as a fiefdom. Perching on his feudal throne, he gifted crores worth of gold and diamond jewellery to temples from the state exchequer.
Backtracking and regressing, the real face comes up
Conducting Yagn, public prostrations on the feet of Chinna Jeeyar Swamy, obsessive observance of Vastu and renovation of temples soon became KCR’s priority. On the advice of his religious gurus, he refused to induct a woman and Dalit into his Cabinet during his first term. Because of Vastu, he had also abandoned the chief minister’s residence used by his predecessors and built a palatial home, named Pragati Bhavan. Despite having never visited the secretariat, KCR ordered the destruction of the old buildings, citing the same reason. The state is functioning without a secretariat even today. His wasteful spending of public money on unproductive projects eroded the finances and accrued massive debts.
During the Telangana movement, the students of Osmania and Kakatiya universities, through their agitation, kept a close watch on the moves of political parties, including the TRS. Having assumed power, KCR is on his way to dismantle universities in the state as they became centres of assertion and mobilisation by the oppressed caste students. In the seven years of his rule, there has been no faculty recruitment, and many departments in the universities lack teachers, with bureaucrats placed in charge of vice-chancellors. Worse, private universities have been given leeway over public universities, where the majority of the students hail from the marginalised Dalit, Adivasi, and Other Backward Class (OBC) communities, whom KCR sees as a threat to his power. Telangana might be a rare state in India that does not have a women’s university. The promise of a government job for each household has also been a pipe dream.
Who is enjoying the fruits of the Telangana movement?
Among the issues raised during the Telangana movement, providing irrigation and water resources were the only ones that the KCR government focused on, and that too because they involved contracts worth hundreds and thousands of crores. The primary beneficiaries of these contracts are the feudal Reddy, Velama, and Kamma contractors who have diversified their money-making methods. Thus, the rhetoric against Andhra and Rayalaseema settler colonialists has been rewritten by KCR to guard their interests in Hyderabad and Telangana.
Contractors, film actors and investors who once feared KCR are now his cronies. His son Taraka Rama Rao aka KTR, named after N.T. Rama Rao befriends Andhra film stars and attends their birthday parties to indulge in flashy socialisation. KCR’s daughter K. Kavitha, a beauty parlour entrepreneur, became a Member of Parliament in 2014 from Nizamabad; she is currently a member of the legislative council. KCR’s nephew T. Harish Rao is his long-time lieutenant, critical troubleshooter and backdoor deal maker for the party. KCR branched further to include the Velama caste men who enjoy disproportionate representation in his Cabinet and prominent positions in the government. Today, they are real estate barons and owners of private hospitals.
KCR’s blind promotion of the Velamas can be understood through a case involving a sitting member of the legislative assembly from Vemulawada, Chennamaneni Ramesh. While the Centre revoked Ramesh’s Indian citizenship due to his possession of German citizenship, he continues to be an MLA with KCR prolonging the issue in courts. Ramesh is the son of a communist leader, and his uncle Vidyasagar Rao is an influential Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader.
Invisible caste code
True to his feudal arrogance, KCR follows the pattern of caste code and mistreats Dalits, Adivasis, and OBC leaders. When his political innings went low ebb, he fell on the feet of Jayashankar, an OBC who is known as the theoretician of Telangana. The movement dwindled with his henchmen resorting to physical attacks on marginalised castes leaders. In 2009, former Warangal MP, Ravindra Naik, an Adivasi, was roughed up by TRS activists. Afterwards, MLA Chandrasekhar and MP Sircilla Rajaiah, both belonging to the Dalit community, and Anil Kumar Elavathri, an OBC MLA, were physically assaulted.
KCR perceives any assertion from the leaders of oppressed caste backgrounds as a threat to his power. That is why, even Aeley Narendra, his compatriot in the Telangana movement, was shown the door. However, KCR shrewdly managed to win over some Dalit cultural activists and singers such as Gorati Venkanna, Rasamayi Balakisha, Mallepalli Laxmaiah, and Ganta Chakrapani and made them aids to legitimise his power.
Coming full circle
Instead of building institutions that can help people stand on their feet in a new state, KCR is devising schemes that disempower them. Schemes like Raithu Bandu are intended for people who own land, and the primary beneficiaries exclude the landless poor. Kalyana Lakshmi, Shadi Mubarak, and KCR kits for pregnant women sound attractive but they do not contribute towards meaningful transformation of people’s lives.
The other regressive aspect of KCR’s policies is promoting caste-based occupations such as the distribution of sheep and goats to Golla Kuruma communities. History has proved that education is the tool of social transformation that empowers people, not caste-based occupations. It reminds me of a childhood memory, when my grandmother once told me that my grandfather was a famed shoemaker. When I asked her, “why didn’t he teach my uncle the art of making shoes”, she told me that it was because he believed that caste-based professions never emancipate one from economic woes and will never give a dignified life.
As a Dalit from Telangana, I witnessed caste-based feudal oppression and dehumanisation. I often have an eerie feeling and constantly ask myself, “Is this the Telangana we fought for?” I feel history has been cruel to caste-oppressed and marginalised sections of society. For decades, people have fought against caste-based feudal oppression and exploitation. But the social, political, and historical conjuncture always worked against them, and the feudal elements returned with vengeance to reinforce their power and domination.
Even after the formation of the Telangana state, the same feudal forces continue to rule. In new Telangana, atrocities against Dalits are unabated and the killing of Manthena Madhukar and Pranay Kumar indicate this reality. I feel history has come full circle, and the oppressed are being deceived again. This reminds me of George Orwell’s satirical novel Animal Farm in which pigs betray the revolution and elevate themselves to the top and recreate the old oppressive structures.
Chinnaiah Jangam is Associate Professor of History, Carleton University, Canada. He tweets @cjangam. Views are personal.