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Telangana: Tensions Simmer In The Modern Nizam’s Palace

As contenders wait nervously for KCR to announce his cabinet picks, murmurs abound that the CM’s hard-working nephew T Harish Rao, who heads a group of 22 MLAs, may not be content to fade quietly into the shadow of the first family

By GS Radhakrishna

From the erstwhile Hyderabad state to Andhra Pradesh and now Telangana, the people of Telangana’s tryst with the benevolent authoritarian rule of a monarch—much like that of the past rule of the Nizams—continues.

The most memorable example of this comfort with authoritarian rulers is during the Janata Party wave in the post-Emergency general election in 1977, when the entire country voted against Indira Gandhi’s ‘dictatorial’ rule. United Andhra Pradesh (AP), including Telangana, however voted for candidates of Indira Gandhi’s Congress party in 41 out of its 42 Lok Sabha seats. The lone winner for the Janata Party was Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, who had been a two-time Congress chief minister.

Late AP chief minister and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) founder NT Rama Rao, though hailing from Krishna district in AP, found acceptance in Telangana because, besides being monarchical and authoritarian, the cinestar-turned politician was viewed as a good Samaritan. The TDP without NTR was unacceptable to Telangana, hence post his death in 1996, the party’s votebank in rural Telangana districts evaporated. The same was the case with late Congress chief minister of AP, YS Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR) who ruled with an iron grip. YSR’s hometown is in Rayalaseema’s Cuddapah district, yet he won much support in Telangana seats in both the state Assembly and Parliament in 2004 and 2009.

Telangana now reveres its new and very own demi-god, Chief Minister Kalvakuntla Chandrasekhara Rao (KCR), hailing from Medak district in the state and founder of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), the party ruling Telangana since its birth in 2014.

When he assumed power in 2014 as the first chief minister of Telangana, then newly carved out of Andhra Pradesh, KCR made many promises. He said he would turn state capital Hyderabad into either Venice or Istanbul. He launched massive programs to provide two-bedroom houses to the poor, bring tapped drinking water to every home, irrigation to all cultivable land and jobs to all educated youth.

Four and a half years later, with these programs nowhere near completion, KCR dissolved the State’s first Assembly in September 2018, eight months ahead of its expiry. On the campaign trail for early Assembly elections, KCR unabashedly said, “It takes time to fulfill every promise”. Telangana accepted his explanation and the TRS won power again—with a thumping majority. KCR’s party bagged a near three-fourths majority—88 of 119 seats.

In KCR, another Nizam is born in Telangana. The TRS chief—a Velama landlord with 80 acres of land—has emerged as a true representative of Nizami culture in every aspect. His personal mannerisms, batha-khani (accent, slang and conversation style), his practice of Deccani customs and traditions and worship of all folk deities make him a darling of the Telangana people.

Whether as CM or earlier as an MLA and MP, KCR never left home without the jamali or tayilalu (red band), tied on to his right shoulder by his relatives or a priest every day. KCR is every inch a Telangana bidda (child).

People accept all of his eccentricities, his lordly behaviour including daily durbars, and lavish personal habits. “KCR could be hailed as Telangana’s NTR and people accepted whatever he did, right or wrong,” his personal numerologist Sudhala Sudhakar Teja, whom KCR made a vastu adviser to the state government with cabinet minister status in 2015, told this reporter.

KCR tightens his grip on his party and state

Perhaps, then, it is no wonder that KCR won hands down in the December 2018 Assembly election, grabbing a huge 47% voteshare and leaving very little room for the main Opposition challenger, the Maha Kutami (big alliance) formed by the Congress, TDP, Telangana Jana Samithi (TJS) and the Communist Party of India (CPI). The Maha Kutami could win only 21 seats with a combined voteshare of 33%, and the TJS and CPI drew a blank. The Congress party in Telangana was seen as dominated by Reddys and thus representing a feudal class. In fact, Reddys are still referred to as doras (landlords) in Telangana. The Telangana electorate was also wary of experimenting with the TDP and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Bahujan Left Front, comprising 28 political outfits.

In fact, a post-poll analysis in TRS mouthpiece Namaste Telangana said that AP CM N Chandrababu Naidu, present chief of the TDP, being a Maha Kutami star campaigner had come as a blessing in disguise for TRS. The party had been wary of the impact of a predicted Congress sweep in the northern states of Rajasthan, Madhyra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which had voted at the same time as Telangana. Till Naidu came on the scene, the TRS was worried about Congress’s possible performance in Telangana, but patiently waited as he (Naidu) formed a front in partnership with Rahul Gandhi which reduced Congress as a threat to TRS, said senior TRS MP B Vinod Kumar during a news channel debate after the election results.

KCR has a deep-rooted understanding of the psyche of the Telangana people and has never lost an election since 1985. During his political career, he has represented Medak and Mahbubnagar in Parliament, and famously won the Karimnagar Lok Sabha seat byelection with a two lakh majority in 2006. He has also been elected to the state Assembly four times from Siddipet in his home turf of Medak before shifting to neighbouring Gajwel, making it the prestigious constituency of the state’s CM since 2014.

As a politician, KCR is a mix of the old and new, a man who emerged from the village and combined a grassroots acumen with the skill of techies. He has used this combination to skilfully pit political opponents against one other and consolidate his votebank in rural Telangana.

Now in 2018, KCR has also won over the urban areas, breaking the vice-like grip of the Bharatiya Janata Party and TDP on urban votes in Hyderabad and Ranga Reddy districts. The BJP lost even the few urban seats it held to the TRS in 2018, retaining only one seat in the state Assembly. The TDP was similarly humbled. The 2018 voting pattern shows that TRS eroded the TDP and BJP votebanks, suggested Pasam Jagannath Naidu, a political analyst based in Vijayawada, during a news channel debate after the election result.

KCR’s hold over Telangana seems complete, for now.

Trouble in Paradise

As with all monarchies, the Kalvakuntla court is ridden with palace intrigues. KCR launched both his children K Taraka Rama Rao (KTR) and K Kavitha into politics, KTR from the Sircilla Assembly seat in Karimnagar district and Kavitha from the Nizamabad Lok Sabha seat, both of which are dominated by his Velama community. KCR shrewdly ensured his children, though urbane, have their political base in rural seats. But in launching KTR, KCR has also kept his nephew and long-time associate Thaneeru Harish Rao at bay.

Harish has played a key role in KCR’s political journery from its start. He even inherited KCR’s Siddipet Assembly seat when the latter chose to enter Parliament in 2004. As KCR’s key troubleshooter and second in command, Harish had steered the regional party’s relationships over the years, be it with the Congress to the TDP and later BJP very deftly, to suit KCR’s interests. He finally dumped them all in 2014, partnering instead with Asaduddin Owaisi’s Hyderabad-centric All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), bringing in more urban voters to KCR’s kitty. Harish did all the hard work involved in negotiating these alliances, while KCR’s kin played safe.

After 2012, though, KCR brought his son KTR onto the political scene and installed him as a party spokesperson at TRS Bhavan in Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills. It was crystal clear that KTR was the new rising star after he gave up his job in the United States and returned home to become the party’s face on all Delhi English TV channels.

Harish would thereafter have to play second fiddle, as people gravitated toward the new power base and would seldom approach him at TRS Bhavan. After the sudden death of YSR just a few months after the 2009 elections, the weakened Congress government in united AP suited KCR, who raised the pitch on his demand for a seperate Telangana state through agitations. The high voltage political events from 2010 to 2013 in the AP Assembly, with Congress MLAs and ministers of both Telangana and Seemandhra resigning to pressure the Congress high command for and against the division of Andhra Pradesh, respectively, earned Telangana, TRS and KTR plenty of space on Delhi channels. KCR’s supporters had also launched Namaste Telangana and Telangana TV channels to cater to Telugu media followers. Harish Rao was no longer needed as a face for the party.

After TRS won power in the newly created state in 2014, KCR made Harish Rao the state’s irrigation minister and handed him responsibility for key irrigation projects, including Mission Bhagiratha, Mission Kakatiya, Kaleswaram and Palamuru projects. But KCR gave the most important jobs to his son KTR, including handling party affairs, the GHMC polls and the politically crucial portfolios of information techonology and Panchayat Raj. Thereafter, Harish became just another TRS leader.

KCR thus tightened his control over the party and administration. He hardly ventured out of his palatial official residence Pragati Bhavan—renovated twice for Vastu compliance and his convenience—from where he ruled like a Nizam, ignoring the state secretariat.

Tensions simmer during the suspense over KCR’s cabinet picks

After the December 2018 elections, KTR has now been made Working President of the TRS. Harish has publicly welcomed KTR’s elevation, but the move has triggered simmering discontent in his group. With 22 MLAs in his camp, Harish Rao is no pushover. He has also nursed his Siddipet constituency so well that he bagged 1.2 lakh votes in the Assembly election, wiping out his opponents’ deposits. This is a record that not even KCR could match in this election.

On his part, Harish is maintaining a guarded silence and waiting to see what importance KCR will give him when the CM announces the new state cabinet. On December 14, three days after election results, only KCR and Mohammed Ali were sworn in as CM and Home Minister, respectively, to end the caretaker status of the KCR government.

Senior TRS leaders told The Lede on condition of anonymity that KCR is likely to “shock everyone in cabinet formation this time and might drop many seniors and those known to be admirers of Harish Rao.”

“There is a churning in the party ranks amid rumours that KCR would go for a totally young, loyal and dedicated team for his son KTR so that in event of changeover there is no trouble,” they confided.

Harish Rao himself is staying away from the party office for now.

It’s expected that by the second week of January, KCR will finally form his cabinet, even as the contenders remain on tenterhooks. TRS leaders speaking strictly off the record say the wily KCR has kept both cabinet formation pending and all party leaders, including Harish Rao, in the dark about his plans. The CM has a tough job on hand to accommodate not only pre- and post-poll defectors from Congress and TDP, but also giant killers in the TRS who defeated heavyweight opponents like Congress leader A Revanth Reddy. Not least, KCR also needs to quell the palace intrigue. Will his cabinet picks succeed in hitting all birds with one stone? We will soon know.

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