Elections 2019: Hyderabad pitches for a New Delhi role
6 min read.Updated: 10 Apr 2019, 05:06 PM ISTSunit Arora
While there’s unanimity that TRS will romp home, speculation remains over who KCR will support post 23 May
With no significant opposition in the state, all eyes are now on KCR and his likely role in government formation post 23 May. Which dispensation will the TRS support, and on what terms?
Last Saturday, it seemed like all of Hyderabad dressed up to mark the festival of Ugadi and made their way to the new pilgrimage site—Ikea’s flagship store in HITEC City. The massive do-it-yourself (DIY) store by the Swedish furniture giant was packed to the gills with happy shoppers of all hues—a model advertisement for new India. Apart from a small poster in common areas that the store would open after lunch on voting day, there was no visible chatter about the Lok Sabha elections in Telangana on 11 April.
That’s because the citizens of Hyderabad appear to have already called the election. While visibly the city is awash in pink, the colour of the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), and politicians are busy campaigning, there’s unanimity K. Chandrashekar Rao—or KCR as he is referred to—will romp home.
Five years after the state was carved out of Andhra Pradesh, its leader KCR has cemented his hold on the state with a barrage of sops across the social spectrum. The election comes barely a few months after the TRS swept assembly polls against a Mahakutami—a Congress-led grand alliance, comprising its former arch-rival Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Telangana Jana Samithi (TJS), and the Communist Party of India—in December 2018. “Unfortunately, the narrative to counter KCR hasn’t reached the people. We haven’t moved forward," admits M. Kodandaram, founder of the TJS.
It’s not surprising that the punters have already vacated Hyderabad, shifting their attention to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh where there’s a keener contest. Back in Hyderabad, there are media reports of TRS’s election meetings being cancelled in some parts of Telangana because it is getting tough to drum up enthusiastic foot soldiers, as they believe it’s a no-contest. Why, there’s even some humour in the air: on 1 April, All Fools’ Day, Deccan Chronicle headlined a piece that claimed senior TRS leader Harish Rao, nephew of TRS president KCR, was leaving the party to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). After many people shared the report, Harish Rao tweeted against the “insensitive #FakeNews".
Turning the wheels of power
On serious electoral matters, discussions have moved beyond the Congress’ diminishing chances in the 17 parliamentary seats to KCR’s role in the central government formation post 23 May. Which dispensation will the TRS support, and on what terms? For a small state with limited bargaining power, tying up with the powers in Delhi is strategic survival. But beyond that, KCR has tried to muddy the waters by painting himself as a potential prime ministerial candidate for the third front, with his son K.T. Rama Rao (KTR) holding the reins in Hyderabad.
That is usually laughed off as unlikely, but can be better explained by an expression in Telugu, chakram tippadam, or turning the wheels of power. KCR is flashing out all scenarios, ruling out none, until the elections throw up a clearer picture.
Even so, it is an uneasy waiting period for the state, because tying up with one of KCR’s options—the BJP—could come at a price. The TRS partners with the Muslim-focused party, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen or AIMIM, whose front man Asaduddin Owaisi is seeking his fourth term as the member of Parliament (MP) from Hyderabad. Muslims make up 12% of the state’s population and the AIMIM has a support base across the state. The state has had an enviable level of social harmony since communal riots in the early 1990s.
While the TRS has never had any formal arrangement with the BJP (KCR last year told Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he would only be open to a post-poll arrangement), the general consensus is that KCR would need to align with one of the alliances after the general elections. While there is talk about three potential groupings (led by the BJP, Congress or a third front), the expectation is that TRS would throw in its lot with the BJP.
“KCR is agnostic and will go with Modi, even though he has never announced it internally," avers an official who works closely with KCR, adding, “(If that happens), TRS and AIMIM will split." Many across the political spectrum feel that such a tie-up is the most likely option. “You have to be with one or the other in Delhi. KCR openly criticizes the BJP, but in reality, he’s acting. He would perhaps support the BJP in Delhi," says Kodandaram.
Of course, the potential of a TRS tie-up with the BJP has been talked about by the Congress (in December 2018, Rahul Gandhi said the TRS and AIMIM were the ‘B’ team and ‘C’ team of the BJP). While the AIMIM is ideologically ranged against the Hindutva agenda of the BJP, what are its compulsions? “Our thinking is that KCR should choose a Congress alliance," says a person close to Owaisi. The party also realizes that there is no credible opposition to the TRS in the state. “TRS is in consolidation mode. There is a vacuum and TRS is filling it fast," says the person.
KCR and Owaisi have an excellent working relationship, and going by multiple accounts, Owaisi is the one person KCR will listen to. A person who knows Owaisi well says that he has asked KCR three times whether the TRS is joining up with the BJP, only to get a denial each time. Clearly, nerves are fraying as 23 May draws closer. And it is safe to assume that if it wasn’t for Owaisi and AIMIM, KCR would have gone over to the BJP before the polls.
The political vacuum among the opposition is not helping matters. The principal opposition Congress is weakened by defections. The party, under the control of the Reddy community, no longer holds sway in the state. In fact, there is a backward class surge in the state, argues P. Vinay Kumar, vice-chairman of the other backward classes department of the All India Congress Committee: “Now that most Reddys have left the Congress, it will become a backward class party."
While the TDP’s prospects in the state are completely over, what about the BJP which had expected to grow in the new state? “The BJP needs a social group to move to it en masse, but that’s not happening," says Ram Karan, a journalist and political commentator. The BJP is clearly waiting to see how the cookie crumbles, saying that “KCR belongs to no one".
An understanding of KCR’s compulsions will clear the air about what possible direction he will take. KCR last year launched the direct farmer investment support scheme Rythu Bandhu where landed farmers would get ₹8,000 per acre per year. He has also introduced a pension scheme, and a host of sops to every category possible ( ₹1 lakh for marriage of every girl, full support for anyone doing a master’s abroad and so on). He also needs centre’s support for large irrigation projects.
“KCR wants to spend as he is a populist, and Hyderabad allows him that," says Amir Ullah Khan, economist and a professor at the Dr Marri Channa Reddy Human Resource Development Institute of Telangana, a training institute for the state’s civil servants. The city accounts for 87% of the agrarian state’s revenues, one that is growing 27% per annum. Clearly, Hyderabad is the goose that lays golden eggs. In return, says Khan, “KCR has provided easy access, land, electricity and super law and order."
Saurabh Marda, managing director, Freyr Energy Services Pvt. Ltd, a solar solutions company based out of the city, agrees: “Telangana has done better since the split in terms of infrastructure. Moreover, (KCR’s son) KTR is in all the right places making the right noises."
So, what are KCR’s options? He admires Modi, his decisiveness, and praises him regularly (barring demonetization in one notable instance), while tactically criticizing him during campaigning. At the same time, KCR needs the money to fund his empire of largesse, one that his detractors say is feudal, patriarchal. Either way, one can expect the biryani capital to play a role in the new government in Delhi.