Bengaluru: Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao, or KCR as he is known, has not been seen in public since 28 June, with questions being raised on his absence not just in political circles but also in the Telangana High Court.
With Telangana’s Covid fight beset by charges of poor testing and the chief minister missing in action, a petition has been filed in the Telangana High Court seeking details on KCR’s whereabouts. It states that 30 people have tested positive in the chief minister’s office, triggering speculation on KCR’s health.
The petitioner, political activist Naveen Kumar, told the court that the CM was last seen on 28 June during the birth centenary celebrations of former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in Hyderabad, where he allegedly participated without wearing a mask.
The government, however, has denied any such suggestions.
“Do not go by false rumours. There are many such floating around,” Ashok Tankasala, advisor to the Telangana government, told ThePrint. “The CM is very much working out of Pragathi Bhavan, his camp office. One should not bother where the CM operates from, what is important is that the state is governed well.”
But the Hyderabad Police have booked three journalists, including the editor of the Telugu newspaper Aadab Hyderabad, which published stories claiming the CM had tested positive for Covid-19.
It is typical of KCR, who, ever since he took over in June 2014, has governed with an authoritarian streak — reserving contempt for political rivals, slamming the press, promoting his family and allegedly taking decisions based on astrology and vaastu.
New secretariat, new image
Amid the pandemic, what has surprised KCR’s critics is his intent to realise his long-pending dream of building a brand new secretariat. The seat of governance, which has housed 14 chief ministers of undivided Andhra Pradesh, is being torn down, wing by wing.
In June 2019, KCR laid the foundation for the new secretariat and earmarked the assembly complex to be built in the iconic Errum Manzil at the cost of Rs 500 crore. The demolition of the old complex began Tuesday.
“KCR says we should have a majestic building, an imposing structure. The new building will be the pride of Telangana,” said Tankasala, explaining the rationale behind the decision. “When other states can have a building that is impressive, why not Telangana ? The old structure was dilapidated.”
The opposition is not buying it.
The Telangana Jana Samithi (TJS) chief Prof. Kodandaram, who successfully led the mass students’ agitation for a separate state of Telangana alongside KCR before the duo parted ways, believes there are other reasons.
“Firstly, KCR does not want to have anything that reminds him of his predecessors,” Kodandaram said. “It also reflects the feudal mindset of the leader. He believes that if the secretariat is big and grand, it will also improve the image of the state.
“Why cant he spend the money on building more Covid facilities? Telangana has the highest positivity rate and the lowest testing,” he added.
Those close to him say that as a staunch believer of numerology, astrology and vaastu, KCR felt that the old secretariat was not favourable to him. “As chief minister he visited the secretariat a few times before he was told the complex had ‘vaastu-dosha’,” said an aide.
The ‘autocratic’ leader
Throughout his tenure as chief minister, KCR has been dogged by allegations of authoritarianism, especially in governance.
“Every file, every decision should have his stamp on it. Nothing moves without his nod,” said Kodandaram.
The chief minister had continued as a single-man cabinet for nearly 60 days after being elected CM for a second term in 2018.
“He doesn’t have a strong opposition and Congress is groping in the dark. KCR treats the opposition with contempt as well,” said political analyst Telkapalli Ravi.
Like many other leaders across the political spectrum, Rao’s family is acknowledged as the “first family” of Telangana as they virtually control the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS).
His son K.T. Rama Rao and nephew Harish Rao are already ministers and now he has ensured a place for his daughter K. Kavitha to be inducted into the ministry as well. Kavitha had lost her Nizamabad seat to the BJP’s Dharmapuri Aravind in 2018.
“It is well-known in political circles that KCR wants to make his son, K.T. Rama Rao, the next chief minister so that his political legacy is further protected,” says political analyst Palwai Raghavendra Reddy.
But the chief minister has shown political astuteness as well. To win elections, KCR has banked on his welfare schemes. In the 2018 elections, TRS’ policy of praja kalyan (public welfare)’ through a host of initiatives had thrashed the ‘Prajakutami’ or people’s alliance of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Congress.
He had built his campaign on three aspects — Neellu, Nidhulu, Niyama Kaalu (water, funds and jobs) — to win over voters.
Need to erase united Andhra’s past
Critics accuse KCR of consistently trying to erase the past of when Telangana was a part of united Andhra Pradesh. He has repeatedly emphasised that it was he who fought for the creation of Telangana and in the bargain, created an anti-Andhra sentiment in the state.
“Now he wants all the projects, buildings or symbols that remind him of both former (Andhra) chief ministers, N. Chandrababu Naidu of the TDP and late Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy of the Congress, removed,” said one former associate. “He wants to leave his mark on Telangana at any cost. The secretariat is one such symbol.”
KCR also discarded or restructured irrigation projects started by the TDP and YSR governments. Take, for instance, the multi-crore Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project on the Godavari.
Under YSR, it was called the Pranhita Chevula Lift Irrigation Project and was located at Tummadihatti village. KCR later redesigned it, expanded its scope and relocated it downstream to Medigadda in Jayasankar Bhupalpally district under the new name Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project.
Analysts claim that the decision has come at a high economic cost.
Tankasala, however, disagrees that the CM wants to erase the past or demonises those from Andhra.
“He made everybody feel comfortable and safe. People from Andhra Pradesh have been treated respectfully,” he told ThePrint. “There has not been a single attack against Andhra people unlike 1969, when it was violent. KCR commands a lot of admiration from people from Andhra and Rayalaseema.”
Appropriating P.V. Narasimha Rao
KCR has also taken a cue from the BJP’s strategy of appropriating Congress leaders such as Sardar Patel and Subhash Chandra Bose to further their politics.
Critics say that a quest to build a national political legacy is behind KCR’s new-found love of former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao or PV as he was known.
Rao was born in Laknepally village in Warangal district that now falls under Telangana.
In June this year, KCR wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him to rename Hyderabad Central University after the former prime minister.
Then, on 28 June, full-page advertisements praising Rao appeared all across national and local newspapers. TV commercials were seen singing praises of Narasimha Rao and projecting him as “Muddu Bidda” or the son of the soil. KCR also urged Modi to confer a posthumous Bharat Ratna on Narasimha Rao.
Although he claimed this was to honour Rao and mark his centenary celebrations, critics allege that KCR aspires to be the prime minister himself.
“Rao is undoubtedly a towering personality as far as Telangana is concerned and by appropriating him, KCR is trying to create pressure on the BJP and Congress. It is purely his political strategy,” Kondandaram said.
“He wants to project PV as the first PM from Telangana and the next one will be himself,” said Telkapalli Ravi.
“There is a feeling among the public that KCR is correcting the injustice that was done to PV by the Congress. The shabby treatment meted out to PV after his death where his body had to be brought to Hyderabad for the funeral is something that people will not forget or forgive. KCR has been trying to encash on that as well.”
But Tankasala, the CM’s advisor, said KCR, like any other senior leader, has political ambitions but the idea behind floating the Federal Front in 2019 was to create a platform for economic development coupled with social and human development.
“KCR had a vision. But the other regional parties who wanted to erase the Congress or BJP did not have the agenda and the vision KCR had,” he said.
The Covid crisis
Despite such aspirations, KCR has been found wanting in his management of the Covid crisis. Telangana has the second-lowest Covid-19 testing rate in the country and one of the highest positivity rates.
The chief minister, however, has been slamming the press. In June, he hit out at the media for writing negative stories about his government.
“Write good things if you can or go to sleep at home…. You should get corona, I am cursing you,” the chief minister was quoted as saying. “Why are they writing like this in such a time?”
Much of criticism has centred around testing rates. The state had been conducting only a round 2,000 tests per day but ramped it up after receiving flak.
As on 9 July, 5,954 tests were being conducted and in all, 1,40,755 tests have been done till date.
KCR’s government has also come under the scanner for its refusal to engage private labs. His announcement of having just one Covid hospital for treatment of a 4 crore population was criticised by the Opposition who termed his handling “utter mismanagement”.
The KCR government has defended itself claiming it has followed ICMR guidelines .
“A team that visited our state could not find fault with our method because we were following ICMR guidelines. We have been able to manage the pandemic as it comes, “ said Tankasala.
The chief minister also claimed that an expert on Covid-19 had assured him that coronavirus will perish because Telangana’s temperature is above 30 degrees Celsius, so there is little chance of the virus to survive under such conditions. “A strip of Paracetamol is adequate,” he had stated.
With the declaration that his government was ready to spend Rs 500 crore to prevent the virus in the state, he has also boasted that stocks of masks, suits and sanitisers.
Analysts, however, say the leader has been underplaying the crisis to ensure that infrastructure projects are not delayed as there is a chance the workforce may flee the state fearing the virus spread.