BY GOVIND KRISHNAN V
PHOTOGRAPHS BY HARSHA VADLAMANI
In September 2010, Kalvakuntala Chandrashekar Rao was almost finished. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the party he founded for a separate Telangana, was coming undone. His coalition with the Congress was long over, and the state government led by the charismatic Y. S. Rajashekar Reddy had persuaded 10 of his 26 MLAs to defect to the Congress by 2008. To stem the tide, Chandrashekar Rao, universally known by his initials KCR, had forced his remaining MLAs to resign and went in for by-elections in April 2008.
The move back-fired—the result reduced his party to just seven in the 294-member Andhra Pradesh Assembly. In the next state elections in 2009, the party got just 10 seats and a vote share of around 4 per cent. It was a sign that the momentum for Telangana that TRS had built since 2001 was ebbing. The election was so disastrous that KCR resigned as party president for a while. Rumours were rife his nephew Harish Rao, the second-in-command in the party, would defect to the Congress. KCR was staring at the barrel, his three decades in politics close to amounting to naught.
That was then.
Today KCR is the tallest leader in Telangana, and carving the new state in his own image. A leader from nowhere, who is now everywhere; a man who found a cause as much as a cause found him; a careful, career politician who embraced audacity; a man who faced with all-or-nothing odds staked his political capital and won it all; a man of the masses promoting his family over others.
Even before becoming the first chief minister of Telangana on June 2, 2014, KCR grabbed the headlines for actions that were seen as both whimsical and authoritarian. He announced that all Andhra government servants living in Hyderabad should leave, as jobs in the city were only for Telangana people. After being sworn in, he created panic by ordering a household survey in Hyderabad to determine whether the residents belonged to Andhra or Telangana. While some media commentators described the survey as “Hitlerian”, the high court stopped the survey from asking the question about nativity.
Today KCR is the tallest leader in Telangana, and carving the new state in his own image. A leader from nowhere, who is now everywhere; a man who found a cause as much as a cause found him; a careful, career politician who embraced audacity; a man of the masses promoting his family over others
At the beginning of his term, the government unofficially banned two news channels—TV9 and ABN Andhra Jyothi—when TV9 ran a satire on the manner in which TRS MLAs took their oaths. In a speech KCR threatened to finish off the channels, saying, “We will bury them some 10 km. We won’t hesitate to break their neck and then throw them out … If they want to operate here, they should salute and respect the people of Telangana.”
While TV9 apologised to the government, to date ABN Andhra Jyothi remains unavailable despite a court order to the contrary.
He ordered all Andhra number plates changed to Telangana ones, only to be stopped by the courts again. He started a demolition drive against illegal houses in Madhapur but it was stopped once allegations surfaced that the notifications targeted only Andhra-dominated areas.
A believer in vaastu, he announced that the secretariat be moved to the Government TB and Chest Hospital, which in turn would be shifted to a location outside the city. With widespread protests, the plan is in cold storage now, but KCR is known to have visited the vaastu-unfriendly secretariat only three times in as many months, preferring to clear files from his residence.
For astrological reasons, he changed the colour of the vehicles in his convoy from black to white. He incensed student supporters at the Osmania University by a plan to take away university land for housing for the poor, as well as stubbornly sticking to a plan to move the Osmania General Hospital and demolish the historical structure build by the Nizam.
He made eccentric promises that are legally impossible to implement. He has promised a Christian Bhavan and Muslim Bhavan; as well as 12 per cent reservation for Muslims. Then there are his frequent spats over resource-sharing with Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu.
KCR is often seen by the national media as someone out of his depth—a bumbling agitator yet to transition to an administrator. But behind the picture created by headlines, is a man firmly in the saddle as a politician, whose word is the law, and whose popularity has soared sky-high in the one year since he assumed power.
Whimsical and eccentric he may be, but there is method behind some of his madness.
Almost every politician and journalist I spoke to for this story, including bitter foes, described KCR as a brilliant, even gifted politician.
“He is clever, extremely well-read, and able to sway people with his opinion. His grasp of subjects is deep and he can build propaganda around issues,” says Raghunandan, a distant relative of KCR. Raghunandan, who was a TRS leader during most of the agitation, is now with the BJP.
KCR’s partymen would not speak of his management of party affairs even on condition of anonymity. Such is the fear he inspires that even some political antagonists and journalists who gave their opinions for this story refused to be named. Attempts to get an interview with KCR failed. Messages and several calls to his private secretary went unanswered.
In April 2001, KCR took the biggest gamble of his life: he quit as deputy speaker of Andhra Pradesh, alleging continued discrimination against people of Telangana. He floated his own party, with the stated goal of statehood for the Telangana region.
The demand for Telangana has spawned political agitations since 1951, after Andhra—carved out of Madras Presidency—was united with Telangana, an area that was part of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s domain.
In 50 years of united Andhra Pradesh, people from coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema came to dominate every aspect of the state’s life. Telangana had become a distant dream rather than an achievable goal. No political heavyweight from Telangana, from any party, was willing to follow KCR into the TRS. However, KCR’s dynamism and ability to mobilise people around the idea of a new state brought Telangana back into public consciousness.
Within a month, KCR organised a massive show of strength, taking a rally from Hyderabad to Karimnagar. There he attracted the kind of crowd that BJP and Congress politicians who took up the cause of Telangana had never managed. He also got Shibu Soren—leader of the Jharkhand movement—to take part. And in oratory that has come to define his style, he told the crowd, “If the people on this dais desert the Telangana movement, the people should stone them to death.”
The words struck a chord, as would similarly impassioned speeches over the next 14 years. In the 2004 Assembly elections, TRS took 26 seats in the region. While TRS shared power with the Congress, KCR joined the UPA cabinet as labour minister.
This was the high point for KCR and his dream of Telangana. The next six years saw a gradual slide to near political irrelevance. Though the cause of Telangana had electoral representation for the first time since 1971, KCR’s hope that his ally would bring a bill in Parliament to create the state of Telangana was belied. In 2006, he quit the UPA saying it was not committed to Telangana.
In the next three years, TRS began to fall apart. Chief minister Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy, whose political empire was financed by Andhra business interests, understood the importance of keeping the TRS in check. Though in public he expressed support for Telangana, he moved systematically to lure TRS MLAs and weaken ground support for the movement.
He was helped by more than money power. In his first term, YSR undertook a massive scheme of public subsidies, including free engineering and medical education. It gave him unrivalled popularity among the rural sections.
“At that time it looked like the TRS was finished. None of us had any hope that Telangana could ever be achieved as long as YSR was in power. KCR used to say ‘YSR is the only obstacle to Telangana,’” says a former member of the TRS.
The party crisis and loss of confidence in KCR’s leadership became so deep that the central committee actually considered making Harish Rao party president. Several sources privy to the internal affairs of TRS in 2010, confirmed that Harish Rao had realised that TRS was at a dead-end. By September, Harish Rao, now minister for irrigation and legislative affairs in the Telangana government, had even finalised his plans to move to the Congress.
Telangana Bhavan, the sprawling TRS office, is located in Hyderabad’s upmarket Banjara Hills. A marble staircase spirals up three open floors, ending in a huge dome painted pink. Three enormous pictures at the top of the stairs catch the eye. Pictures are arranged in a line like a holy trinity: that of Telangana martyr’s memorial, of Batukkamma, the goddess of Telangana, and a portrait of KCR. A life-size portrait of the late Jayashankar—former economics professor, Maoist sympathiser, and the chief ideologue of the Telangana movement—is below on a pedestal.
I meet Srinivas Reddy, office secretary of the TRS, almost a month after the first anniversary of the formation of Telangana on June 2. The grand celebrations sponsored by the government lasted a week, with parades, tableaus, and cultural and food festivals. KCR started the events by paying respects at the martyrs’ memorial in Hyderabad, a 25-foot granite statue in the state secretariat built to commemorate those who died in police firing during the 1969 agitation for a separate state. The memorial had been the starting point or destination for hundreds of rallies and protest marches that rocked Hyderabad during the 42 months of the Telangana movement. He also issued a government order declaring June 2 as “Martyr’s Day”, with commemorations to be carried out in all district headquarters.
Reddy, a frail-looking man in his seventies, is furiously scribbling on a sheet of paper as I talk to him in his Telangana Bhavan office.
He tells me the history of the movement and says 369 people, including students, were killed in the police firing in 1969. I ask him about the role of student protestors from Osmania and Kakatiya universities in the phase leading to statehood. The students led many protests, clashing with police and para-military, facing rubber bullets instead of the real ones used to kill their predecessors in 1969.
Reddy is dismissive.
Hundreds of students (the exact number is disputed) across the state committed suicide by hanging or self-immolation, saying they were doing it for the cause of a separate state.
“They did not play a big part. From the beginning, he (KCR) decided not to involve students too closely as there were suicides, and he didn’t want students to lose their academic year and lives. He also had to keep the movement non-violent as the earlier movements failed because they became violent,” he says.
Earlier Reddy had been speaking to me about KCR’s contribution in forming the new state. On the mantle of a cupboard behind him, is a trophy awarded to KCR. It spells out the title “Telangana Super-Fast Express”.
KCR always had trouble convincing people he was serious about Telangana. Too many politicians over the years had betrayed the movement. “There has been a long history of Congress politicians using the Telangana movement to further their careers and then abandoning it. In 1969, the agitation was led by Marri Channa Reddy, G. Venkataswamy, M. J. Manik Rao, and other Congress politicians. They broke away from the Congress and formed the Telangana Praja Samithi. It won 10 Lok Sabha seats. At the peak of the agitation, Indira Gandhi came to Hyderabad and met the rebel leaders. A deal was struck and the Praja Samithi merged with the Congress. The movement was abandoned and Channa Reddy was rewarded with a governorship,” says Jinga Nagaraj, a veteran political reporter, now researching the Telangana movement at Gulbarga University.
With statehood now achieved, KCR is shy in admitting that the movement was not his alone. Senior party members too, it seems, are obliged to play up the cult of KCR, shadowing their own achievements and those of others in the movement.
“The Telangana movement was a mass movement. There were bandhs, processions, rasta rokos, rail rokos, non-cooperation movements, and strikes by schools, colleges, government employees and lawyers. People from all parts of life including students, lawyers, and government employees, housewives, farmers, all took part in it,” says Krishank, a member of the Telangana Students Joint Action Committee, a multi-party collaboration working for the cause of the new state.
A senior journalist told me, “I thought Telangana was a mass movement. Now all we hear about is this one man called KCR and his family.”
Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao was born in 1954 in Chintamadaka village of Medak district in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, the tenth child of Kalvakuntla Raghava Rao and Kalvakuntla Venkatamma. Raghava Rao was a contractor belonging to the Velamma caste. When KCR appeared in Osmania University at the beginning of the Seventies to study Telugu literature, the heyday of the Telangana agitation had passed. Indira Gandhi had become a national hero after the 1971 war and with the Congress winning an overwhelming majority in the Lok Sabha, the Telangana Praja Samithi had few options.
Passing with an M.A. in Telugu literature, KCR retained both a love for Telugu and a reading habit that would hold him in good stead in public life.
Like any young man interested in politics those days, he gravitated towards the Congress. He joined the Youth Congress in 1970, when Sanjay Gandhi was leading it.
“After Andhra was merged in Telangana, state politics was dominated by two major castes. The Congress leadership was dominated by Brahmins. But in terms of numbers, they were a minority. In the three decades after state formation, Brahmin leaders entered into a coalition with the dominant Reddy caste, who were financially and numerically strong, against the Kammas. Most of the highest political offices were cornered by these two castes. Other forward castes like Rajus, Velamas, Kammas and Kapus were underrepresented, as were the backward castes and Dalits,” says Nagaraj.
In his early life as a politician, his caste or Telangana origins did not hold Chandrashekar Rao back even if it did not privilege him. He rose through the Congress party steadily, becoming the Youth Congress vice-president in 1982. Around the same time as KCR, another young man had joined the Youth Congress: Nara Chandrababu Naidu, a Kamma from rural Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh, hailing from an agricultural family.
Four years older than Chandrashekar Rao, Naidu’s rise in the Congress was meteoric. He studied in Venkateswara University in Tirupati, then a hotbed of Kamma-Reddy rivalry. The Kammas were starting to resent and fight the dominance of their Reddy rivals in politics and as a student leader representing Kammas, Naidu shot up through the Youth Congress hierarchy. Considered particularly close to Sanjay Gandhi, he stood staunchly behind him after the Emergency. He was given an MLA ticket in 1978 and won the election. Naidu was inducted into the state Cabinet at 28 as the technical education and cinematography minister. He held a variety of low-key portfolios under various chief ministers.
By 1983, the younger Chandrashekar Rao was yet to get an MLA ticket, and his bitter rivalry with Naidu was decades away.
In 1980, Chandrababu Naidu did something that would profoundly affect the destinies of both men. He married Bhuvaneswari, second daughter of Telugu mega star Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, popularly known as NTR. In 1983, NTR sent seismic waves through the Congress-dominated politics of Andhra Pradesh by floating his own party—the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Like Naidu, NTR too was a Kamma.
Nagaraj says, “The Kammas were financially powerful, but politically weak. They had investments in industries, movies and hotel businesses, but it wasn’t reflected by their representation in politics. When NTR almost retired from movies, he approached Vijay Bhaskar Reddy, the Congress chief minister for a Rajya Sabha nomination. The story is that Reddy laughed at him. A humiliated NTR consulted Kamma leaders and they decided to challenge the Reddy-Brahmin dominance by launching a political party.”
In many ways NTR did in Andhra Pradesh what MGR had done in Tamil Nadu only six years earlier. Like MGR, NTR’s on-screen charisma helped him achieve a pan-Andhra iconic status. His portrayal of mythological characters and stints in family dramas endeared him to Telugu audiences. In 1983, building a party structure almost overnight, NTR’s TDP swept the polls, making him the chief minister.
“The Congress was a party of extremes, drawing its vote bank from Brahmins (and Reddys) and Dalits. In north India, intermediary classes were starting to mobilise. NTR observed this phenomenon and projected TDP as a pro-backward caste party. The numerically strong OBCs, with castes like weavers, dhobis and goldsmiths (they are part of SCs in the north), came up to almost 60 per cent of the state’s population. He introduced reservations for backward castes in corporations, municipalities and panchayats, giving them a space in state politics. The TDP voter base was composed of rich Kammas and OBCs,” Nagaraj says.
KCR was quicker to see which way the wind was blowing, while Chandrababu Naidu, in spite of family ties with NTR, didn’t realise that the state’s politics had forever been altered. KCR left the Congress and joined TDP
KCR was quicker to see which way the wind was blowing, while Chandrababu Naidu, in spite of family ties with NTR, didn’t realise that the state’s politics had forever been altered. KCR left the Congress and joined TDP. “With senior Congressmen dominating most regions, NTR was looking to poach young Congress leaders who could represent their region. He was impressed by KCR’s grip over language and his persuasive abilities,” says Nagaraj.
In 1983, NTR gave KCR a ticket from Siddipet, in the young leader’s home district of Medak. KCR lost to the Congress heavy-weight Madan Mohan by less than 1,000 votes. It is the only election he has lost since.
In 1985, he contested from Siddipet again and became a TDP MLA at the age of 31. The personality cult of NTR dominated both the TDP cadre and common voters for more than a decade. And Chandrashekar Rao, now increasingly known as KCR, was an enthusiastic hero-worshipper of the man who had given him his first political break. He named his first-born K Taraka Rama Rao in homage.
KCR came to power with 63 MLAs in the 119-member Telangana Assembly. Now he has 76, with 13 legislators defecting from TDP, Congress, the YSR Congress (YSRC), and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in one year. Opposition leaders allege that TRS bought their MLAs for huge sums of money and the promise of plum government or ministerial posts. With the unofficial support of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), KCR has the support of 85 MLAs, reducing the Opposition to just 34.
“From the moment KCR assumed power, he has had a single point agenda: eliminate TDP as an effective opposition. And having been in TDP, he knows how the party works. Almost every opposition MLA has been approached to switch sides,” says K. P. Vivekananda, TDP MLA who represents Quthbullapur constituency.
Vivekananda’s two-room office is next to a vacant lot and a school. His three aides in the outer office are watching the news on television. There is not a single visitor in the office, a tell-tale sign for an elected MLA. Bespectacled and dressed in a yellow shirt and casual pants, 38-year old Vivekananda is one of the youngest MLAs in the state. He claims that he was approached by TRS to switch loyalties.
“I was approached through a close relative, who is also a politician. The man who spoke to me talked about Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav, people who have changed the politics of a state. He compared KCR to them. He said that I should join TRS for the cause of the state. I was offered the chairmanship of a government cooperative right away if I joined. And in the next term, I would be made a minister,” says Vivekananda, who chose to remain with TDP. Vivekananda said the man who spoke to him gave him to understand that he was talking on behalf of Harish Rao.
Vivekananda says opposition MLAs are being choked at the constituency level, with government officials under instruction not to work with non-TRS MLAs. Gesturing to his office, he says; “I am hardly here. If I call officials to get some work done, nothing happens. I have to run around myself.”
An MLA who cannot implement projects in his constituency faces a grim future in the next election. Several opposition politicians contacted for this story said TDP and Congress MLAs were being coerced to switch sides through obstacles to effective work in their constituencies. They also alleged that in some cases, MLAs were intimidated by threats of investigations into their personal finances and properties.
Raghunandan, who repeated the same charge, says, “The Parakala (Warangal district) MLA, Dharma Reddy is a government contractor. He apparently had some government bills pending, which it refused to sanction. Thus pressure was brought upon him to switch parties. Madhavaram Krishna Rao (the Kukatpally MLA) is in the construction business. There were allegations of illegal constructions and they used these allegations to target him. He switched to TRS.”
Sridhar Reddy, Telangana BJP spokesperson, says, “The entire thing is undemocratic. And they are crossing a line. You cannot go after a person’s personal life, business or property.”
Vivekananda believes KCR is determined to finish TDP as an opposition party in the state. With the Congress in terminal decline, he sees TDP as the only opposition.
KCR’s strategy has been to paint TDP as an Andhra party and blame Chandrababu Naidu, and sometimes his alliance partner at the Centre, for the problems Telangana is facing. He extends tacit support to YSRC, which has no presence or ambitions in Telangana, as an alternative to the TDP in Andhra. Before the elections, his oft-repeated line was “Akkada Jagan, ikkada KCR. (Jagan there, here KCR).” Jagan refers to Y. S. Jaganmohan Reddy, the head of the YSRC and son of former chief minister Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy.
Raghav Reddy, a political observer based in Hyderabad, says KCR’s strength lies in his understanding of the Telangana voter.
“He can speak in the local idiom, Telangana Telugu, and he uses proverbs that hit the mark. His speaking style is very effective,” says Kodandaram, the chairman of the Telangana Political Joint Action Committee, a multi-party organisation that led the Telangana agitation.
Narasimha Reddy (name changed on request) runs a political PR firm in Hyderabad that designs election campaigns for individual politicians. His firm ran customised campaigns for TDP and TRS MLAs in Andhra and Telangana, as well as for a national Congress leader in Chhattisgarh.
Before turning to PR, Reddy worked as a journalist for 15 years, picking up political contacts that came in handy when he launched his own enterprise. The years he worked in Andhra-dominated media organisations and the discrimination he says he faced there has shaped how he views KCR and his government.
“I believe he (KCR) is the first brave politician Telangana has produced. If he had been born in the 1930s he would have produced better results for Telangana. People from Andhra have always had better education, are culturally advanced, and have been financially forward. To compete with them you need both finance and the knowledge and ability to use it. In 2000, when KCR started TRS to get Telangana, people did not believe it would happen. The entire state media was in Andhra hands. It carried out a defamation campaign against KCR so that no one would believe him or what he said.
“They did stories saying he was lazy, that he did not get up in the morning, that he drank late into the night. This was in a state where everyone drinks. He was not only fighting the police and Naidu, but powerful media groups with enormous financial capability. His message was clear: he only talked about separate Telangana. He said that to achieve Telangana, he was willing to do anything, even kiss a gongali purugu (a species of worm considered particularly hideous-looking). ”
Reddy feels KCR’s greatness lies in the fact that he won against insurmountable odds, without resorting to politics of hatred. He has been following the Revanth Reddy episode keenly, and sees it as a spectacular move in a political chess game with Naidu.
On May 31, the Telangana government scored its most stunning political upset against KCR’s old friend-turned-foe Chandrababu Naidu. The Telangana Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) arrested Revanth Reddy, a firebrand TDP MLA and star campaigner in Telangana, charged with attempting to bribe nominated MLA Elvis Stephenson to vote for the TDP candidate in the MLC elections.
In a sting operation managed by the ACB, Reddy was caught on tape offering money to Stephenson. Even as he was arrested, ACB officials leaked the video clip of the sting to T News, official news channel of the TRS. Soon the entire Telugu electronic media got hold of the clip and it played prominently across Telangana and Andhra Pradesh for several days.
Further unattributed leaks revealed that Naidu had rung Stephenson and assured him of support on the deal. This was followed by news channels playing an audio recording of Naidu allegedly talking to Stephenson and assuring him of cooperation. For the next two weeks, Hyderabad was abuzz with speculation that Naidu would be summoned for questioning by the Telangana ACB. With law and order in Hyderabad under Telangana’s control, this was a possibility. The resulting Andhra-Telangana rivalry led to hundreds of cases being filed in Andhra Pradesh against KCR for illegally tapping the Andhra CM’s phone. Though Naidu was never summoned, his name was mentioned several times when the ACB filed the chargesheet.
In casual conversations in offices, cafes and restaurants in the city, Andhraites had their task cut out to defend their CM, while those from Telangana could hardly suppress their glee. To twist in the knife into Naidu, TRS leaders are going to town heaping shame upon the “corrupt TDP” for buying off legislators over a single botched attempt.
The resulting Andhra-Telangana rivalry led to hundreds of cases being filed in Andhra Pradesh against KCR for illegally tapping the Andhra CM’s phone. Though Naidu was never summoned, his name was mentioned several times when the ACB filed the chargesheet
A Vijayawada magistrate court is hearing the Andhra Pradesh government’s case that KCR has been illegally tapping the phones of Chandrababu Naidu, his son and several TDP MLAs. On the orders of the Supreme Court, mobile phone operators Bharti Airtet, BSNL Reliance and Idea handed over a list of numbers the Telangana government had asked to be put under surveillance.
A special investigation team of Andhra police has served notices to the Telangana home secretary on the orders of the Vijayawada court, asking the Telangana home department to produce records of the phones it has intercepted. The Telangana government has approached the high court seeking a stay on the order and disputing the jurisdiction of the Vijayawada court. The Andhra government has also submitted evidence to the Union home ministry as well as a list of IAS and IPS officers allegedly involved in tapping
Naidu is hoping that the threat of a constitutional crisis would be a political bargaining chip against any attempt by the Telangana government to prosecute him in the Revanth Reddy bribery case.
After the Congress defeat in 1983, Chandrababu Naidu quit the party and joined TDP, in the footsteps of KCR. At first, even as NTR’s son-in-law he found it difficult to rise in the party; the fact that he was a Congressman for many years came in the way. Naidu soon got his chance when he helped NTR avoid a coup by a section of TDP leaders. A grateful NTR made Naidu the TDP general secretary, entrusting him with internal party affairs. He had a number of major portfolios in the NTR cabinet, while KCR had only a short stint as drought and relief minister in 1987-88. Towards the mid-Nineties, KCR was part of a small group close to Naidu.
“TDP leader Bojjala Gopal Krishna Reddy, now Andhra Pradesh forest minister; the current MD of news channel ABN Andhra Jyothi, Radhakrishna; KCR and Chandrababu Naidu were part of this gang. They were on intimate terms, frequently drinking and hanging out together,” says Raghunandan. His friendship with Naidu would help KCR break the ceiling and eventually emerge as an important figure within the TDP.
In 1995, Naidu launched his own palace coup against NTR, whose health was worsening. KCR played a significant role in the takeover. Naidu negotiated with KCR a few days before he made his move, trying to persuade KCR to abandon NTR. “When Thummala Nageshwar Rao and Venugopala Chary were present, Naidu promised KCR that he would reward him for his switch. Naidu called his son Lokesh and placing his hand on his head swore that KCR would get an important Cabinet post if he became CM,” Raghunandan says.
Nageshwar Rao is now Telangana roads and buildings minister, while Venugopala Chary is part of the TRS. KCR took the offer and switched loyalties.
The majority of TDP MLAs sided with Naidu and NTR watched as Naidu took over the party he had created. Naidu became chief minister and KCR the transport minister. Though NTR’s heyday as a film star was over, he was still a very popular figure. Naidu could not afford to be seen as a usurper in the public eye, and he assiduously set about replacing NTR’s legacy with his own.
“KCR helped design many of the policies the government implemented at that time. He is a great organiser and used to take lectures for party members. He helped conceive popular policies like Janmabhoomi and Prajala Vaddaku Palana (governance at citizen’s doorstep),” says Raghunandan.
As KCR came to play an increasingly important role in the government and party, Naidu started becoming insecure about the talented politician from Telangana. “KCR was well-read and had a deep knowledge of various subjects. He could debate and dominate people in a way Naidu could not. KCR would sometimes talk to a roomful of people including MLAs and they would not have a word to say against his argument. Naidu could never do that and he was careful about KCR.”
When TDP came to power for a second term in 1999, Naidu sidelined KCR. According to Raghundandan, KCR wanted to be made home minister. Naidu however made him deputy speaker, effectively leaving him out of important government business.
For months KCR negotiated with Naidu for a ministerial berth but was not successful.
KCR resigned from the party and as MLA on 27 April, 2001, and stepped into the political wilderness.
Letting KCR go is a decision that Naidu has much cause to regret. He would lose the next polls. When he became chief minister again after a decade, he would be the leader of a truncated state, placed in the impotent position of ruling from Hyderabad, a place under the administration of his rival KCR.
One of the most unusual traits of KCR as a politician is his history of working with various non-political left groups, cultural organisations, and activist groups for more than 14 years in a united effort to form a separate state. In a country where most politicians follow a feudal style of functioning, KCR linked his electoral politics with a diverse group of intellectuals, social activists, writers and artists. This forced him to follow a democratic style of functioning, at least outside his party.
Many people who knew him from that period say he was easy to access, had a deep interest in most issues, and was ever ready to discuss and debate. Vivekananda, who started his career with the TRS, recounts, “I could go to his house at any time and talk to him. He would discuss things with you for over an hour or two.”
From all accounts, almost immediately after he took oath as chief minister, his style changed drastically. Both as head of government and of TRS, KCR is described as an autocrat, inaccessible except to the most powerful, and exercising control over colleagues and subordinates alike.
A top office-bearer of the Telangana Employees Joint Action Committee (TEJAC), an organisation of government employees which played a part in the statehood agitation and worked closely with TRS, spoke about KCR’s transition from agitator to administrator.
“We met him several times during 2013-14 to discuss our issues. As someone who led the agitation for 13 years, he was able to understand people’s aspirations and problems. His basic advantage when he came to power was that government employees, teachers and all pressure groups had a direct link to him.”
The Telangana government implemented a 43 per cent hike in government salaries and also issued free health cards. However, the TEJAC official said government employees have been unable to meet KCR to discuss the non-implementation of the health card or problems with division of employees between the two states. He says KCR refused to meet contract employees on dharna demanding regularisation.
“He was accessible till June. After that he became inaccessible to everyone. We have never had a CM like that. YSR, Rosaiah, Kiran Kumar Reddy, they all received hundreds of visitors a day. He used to say ‘Bara darwaze khule!’ (All my 12 doors are open) but now all the doors are closed all 24 hours.
“KCR has surrounded himself with a coterie of IAS officers who run the show—Raymond Peter (principal secretary), Rajiv Sharma (chief secretary), the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation Commissioner Somesh Kumar, Ramakrishna Rao (special secretary, finance department), and Smita Sabharwal (additional secretary). All policy decisions are taken in consultation with this group. Ministers have absolutely no independence. Finance Minister Etela Rajender and Home Minister Nayini Narasimha Reddy have no power. Other than KCR, the only ministers who take decisions are his son K. T. Rama Rao (called KTR, panchayati raj and IT minister) and nephew Harish Rao (irrigation and legislative affairs minister),” he said.
In the 13 months of the TRS government, most major decisions have been announced by KCR, his son KTR, nephew Harish Rao, and his daughter and MP K. Kavitha.
'KCR has total grip over the party. No one dares spread information against him. He is a supremo like Jayalalithaa. Most MLAs also do not have access to him. The phones of all TRS MLAs are reportedly tapped and they are under constant surveillance'
“KCR has total grip over the party. No one dares spread information against him. He is a supremo like Jayalalithaa. Most MLAs also do not have access to him. The phones of all TRS MLAs are reportedly tapped and they are under constant surveillance. Party leaders have no liberty and they are not happy with that,” the TEJAC official said. Other sources report that the TRS government is tapping the phones of its own MLAs as well as members of the Telangana Political Joint Action Committee.
Cheruku Sudhakar is one of the heroes of the agitation. A former polit bureau member of the TRS, he was arrested by the Andhra Pradesh government under the National Security Act (NSA), meant to prevent espionage and anti-national activity. It allows preventive detention for up to one year. His arrest created unprecedented outrage, with protests for his release erupting all over Telangana. It was one of the high points of the Telangana movement. He is one of the many second-rung TRS leaders who quit before the elections, for being denied a ticket in favour of TDP and Congress leaders entering the party.
I meet Sudhakar in a small apartment in Hyderabad. He lays out a couple of chairs from a stack of plastic chairs stacked on top of each other. This sparsely furnished apartment is going to be the future office for the Telangana Udyama Vedika, an organisation Sudhakar has helped create to fight for Dalit uplift.
In the last 18 years, his political life has come full circle. A doctor by profession, his tryst with the Telangana movement started in a similar office in 1997, when he became convener of the Telangana Mahasabha in his home district of Medak. The Mahasabha was one of the first organisations created around the idea of a separate Telangana. Sudhakar says it attracted almost 20,000 people to its membership.
An economics professor called Kothapalli Jayashankar—who would become the movement’s chief ideologue—became interested in the Mahasabha. Gathering a group of intellectuals and social activists including Professor M. Kodandaram, he started an umbrella group of Telangana organisations in 1999 called the Telangana Development Forum, which anticipated the Telangana Political Joint Action Committee (TPJAC) of 2010.
During his years in the TDP, KCR did not show any interest in the cause of Telangana and that did not change in his last three years in the party, when the newest phase of the movement was developing. Naidu had a standing rule in Cabinet meetings that the region would only be referred to as “backward region”, never as Telangana. A few months before KCR’s dramatic resignation, a friend suggested that Sudhakar try to rope in KCR, as a prominent political face from Telangana, to lend support.
“I called KCR on his landline. I couldn’t talk to him directly, but relayed the message. We did not get any response. These were the months that he was negotiating with Naidu,”
Aman without a party, KCR was now in search of a cause. And the Telangana movement, hamstrung without a platform for mass mobilisation, was a cause in search of a party. KCR spent several weeks in discussion with Telangana leftist intellectuals, trying to understand the economic and social problems the districts faced and the political formulation that was feasible.
Among KCR’s first contacts was Inaiah, once associated with the CPI (Maoist) but at that time a Telangana activist. He was soon in touch with Jayashankar who would become KCR’s mentor and guide for the next 11 years. Jayashankar, who died in 2011, was convinced that for the nascent Telangana movement to become broad-based, it needed an electoral stage. And in KCR he found the man who could energise people to believe in the possibility of Telangana.
“KCR engraved the name of Telangana in the hearts of people,” says Raghunandan, who, inspired by KCR’s rhetoric, put aside his practice as an advocate to join TRS.
Jayashankar’s support was however, essential for KCR. The ideologue convinced the various activists, artists, writers and social workers, with their left and anti-caste politics, that the upper caste professional politician was the man to lead a party dedicated to achieving statehood.
Sudhakar, who is from a lower-caste community, says: “I initially had reservations about trusting KCR. Upper-caste politicians had always used the cause of Telangana for their benefit and betrayed it. But it was Jayashankar Sir who persuaded me to merge the Telangana Mahasabha in TRS. He used to say ‘Achieve geographical Telangana first. Then you can support whoever you want’.”
From 2000 to 2010, when the movement entered the phase of agitation, the base was expanded across Telangana. “With the TRS and the platform of general elections, more funds and resources came into the movement,” says Sudhakar. Outside TRS, social and cultural organisations involving people like Kodandaram, spread the message of Telangana in its villages and towns. Untiringly, small public meetings, the singing of revolutionary Telangana songs, Batukkamma festivals, and poetry readings were held by dedicated Telangana
workers. The roots of Telangana regionalism which were planted then nourished not only the mass movement that created the state, but determine the dynamics of state politics today.
TRS attracted people from all sections. The depth of sentiment was such that in 10 years it brought every section irrespective of background together.
Raghunandan, who was closely involved in the finances of the TRS, says the party financed itself by a soft form of extortion of Andhra businessmen. During the period when he was in charge of operations, Raghunandan recounts how the TRS used agitation as a tool to get funds.
“All the infrastructure businesses gave large amounts. We would disrupt business by giving a bandh call, set fire, throw stones or create fights with the employees. We would use this as a threat. Sometimes when there was a bandh we would act it out so that one guy in front would shout we should break things up because the businessmen are anti-Telangana. A second guy would try to pacify him and when this was happening, someone from the back would throw a few stones. We used such pressure tactics. When KCR called the businessman later, he would say that the TRS was planning a programme or meeting and he would be glad of his help. Of course, the businessman would contribute to the party fund.”
He adds bitterly “KCR never got his hands dirty, people like me did all the work.”
Before coming to power, KCR in his speeches attacked Ramoji Rao—head of the Ramoji Group which owns Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad—as a businessman looting the people of Telangana. He alleged that Ramoji Film city had encroached on land and that if TRS came to power he would take back the land and give it to farmers.
“Ramoji Rao was not funding us. This was a way of trying to get him to come around to our way of thinking. With others, when such threats succeeded, we left them alone,” says Raghunandan. Sudhakar says he was aware that “many party members collected money by threats”. The idealistic politics of the Left groups and the cynical politicking of KCR made for strange bedfellows. In spite of outward unity, there was always an inner tension and mutual distrust. “He (KCR) was afraid of the Left groups from day one. He wanted power but was apprehensive that the Left groups would not allow it. They never wanted him to grab power. But they needed him as someone to take the movement to completion.”
The formation of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand gave the movement’s leaders hope that this time Telangana was an achievable goal. In 2004, when KCR joined the UPA Cabinet as labour minister, the left groups expected him to use the five TRS MPs in Parliament to push the cause of Telangana with the Manmohan Singh government.
“Sonia Gandhi had always been sympathetic to the cause. On KCR’s birthday, a few months after he became minister, she called him up to wish him. She told him ‘Mr. KCR, your dream of Telangana will now come true’,” Raghunandan says.
Two years later, with no real progress on the statehood demand, the left groups became impatient. They suspected that like previous politicians who had used the movement to gain office, KCR would sell out
Two years later, with no real progress on the statehood demand, the left groups became impatient. They suspected that like previous politicians who had used the movement to gain office, KCR would sell out. “KCR did not want to resign as minister. But the left groups pressured him and he had to quit,” he says.
On September 2, 2009 a Bell-430 helicopter took off from Begumpet airport, Hyderabad. It carried then chief minister Y. Rajasekhar Reddy and several crew members. Encountering bad weather, the helicopter crashed near Rudrakonda hills, in the Nallamala forests, killing all five people on board.
On October 29, KCR launched a fast unto death for Telangana, sparking off the biggest political mass movement India had seen in a decade.
“YSR’s death was a miracle. It changed the course of the movement,” says Raghunandan. As always, KCR was the quickest to see the opportunity and he seized it without hesitation.
“KCR is a chain smoker and heavy drinker. He suffers from a liver ailment and is being frequently treated at Yashoda hospital,” says Raghunandan The exact nature of the ailment was, of course, a closely guarded secret. But there was concern among TRS members when KCR announced his fast unto death.
“He told us ‘I know how to take care of my health. You go ahead and just make the arrangements. I will take care of the rest’.” Raghunandan, who had assisted in KCR’s previous fasts, says the fast was managed at every stage so that his health would not deteriorate. “He used to take fluids, multi-vitamin tablets and medicines regularly. But being a brilliant organiser he arranged for it to look like an indefinite fast to the death. Even what photographs were to be taken (by the press) were arranged.”
On the second day of his indefinite fast, a video circulated online showing an emaciated-looking KCR sipping juice. As rumours that he had compromised gained ground, a seething volcano of fury erupted amid students protesting since the first day of the fast. KCR was denounced as a traitor and effigies burnt. KCR announced immediately that the news was false and that he was still fasting. He broke his fast only after P. Chidambaram, then home minister, announced that the process of forming Telangana had been initiated. But the UPA backtracked and the pro-state agitation took on the character of a mass movement.
KCR’s daughter K. Kavitha, now MP for Nizamabad told The Caravan in 2014 that her father being under police custody was manipulated into drinking the juice. Raghunandan has a different version. “He did break the fast. He was getting worried that the agitation by the students would go out of control and become violent,” he says.
In a short while, the students of Osmania University formed a Telangana Students Joint Action Committee (TJAC). It had representatives from the student outfits of all major political parties except TDP, as well as non-allied students. The idea of an umbrella organisation of all political parties was later taken up by KCR, and members of the Congress, BJP, communist parties and TRS all joined under the leadership of Professor M. Kodandaram. Following the student TJAC, the group was named the Telangana Political Joint Action Committee. These groups determined the flow of events in the agitation. The fast was the turning point in the history of the movement, sparking a level of support that even TRS had not anticipated.
After the momentum of the agitation shifted from TRS to the Political TJAC and the Student TJAC, KCR had his apprehensions about the growing clout of these bodies. “He was afraid the students could form a body like the Assam Gana Parishad, which could be a counter to TRS,” says Raghunandan.
Cheruku Sudhakar says that in spite of public statements of support, KCR “preventively diluted the agitation” at various stages to ensure TRS’s leadership position. “He tried to dilute support to the Million March and the Sakala Janula Samme. He was never part of these movements himself.”
The Sakala Janula Samme was a month-long agitation starting from September 2011, in which various sections including lawyers, students and government employees struck work.
The Million March was a plan by the Political TJAC to create a mass protest on the streets of Hyderabad by mobilising people from all parts of Telangana to converge on the city. Tens of thousands of people were on the streets and violence erupted in the Tank Bund area, where the protestors demolished public statues.
Sudhakar shot into the limelight during the Sakala Janula Samme. As part of the programme, the Political TJAC declared that no buses plying from Andhra would be allowed into Telangana. The government started running buses—through what was then an imaginary border—late at night.
Sudhakar was tipped off that buses from Andhra were passing through his home town, Nakrekal. Telangana protestors under Sudhakar decided that they would block the highway. “I am a well-known doctor in the area, so the police allowed me. About 50 buses from Andhra were passing through. All TV channels, including the national media had descended on the spot. It was a live show. TV9 asked us ‘Are you trying to stop the buses?’ We said we will stop the buses in Nakrekal. At that time people started throwing stones. Once somebody starts, the whole crowd starts pelting. The police managed to let the buses go on to Hyderabad. But we broke every window on every bus.”
Sudhakar says he soon got a call from Jagadish Reddy, a colleague in TRS, now education minister for Telangana. “He said ‘Boss is asking, only digital sound is there, no light effect’.”
Sudhakar says this was an instruction to set buses ablaze if possible. “He (KCR) knows well how to instigate,” he adds.
Sudhakar was arrested for the attack. He got bail, but was re-arrested under the National Security Act. A review board constituted by the state government under the provisions of the National Security Act recommended preventive detention for a year. But the Andhra Pradesh High Court dismissed the case. Sudhakar says he spent 37 days in Warangal jail, with hardly any TRS leaders visiting him.
“Except for Etela Rajender (now finance minister), no one came. There was great public pressure on TRS for not agitating to release me. The perception was that they were not responding because of pressure from the government. Gaddar (a famous Telangana poet) criticised TRS people. Manda Krishna Madiga, the social activist, went on a fast to secure my release. Then TRS gave a bandh call. Lakhs of people came out on the streets all over the state. For 30 days I had no communication from KCR, till he finally visited me.”
When the high court released him, Sudhakar emerged from jail as one of the greatest heroes of the cause. He says KCR explained that he was reluctant to instigate protests for his release because he feared that more TRS leaders might be arrested. After getting out of jail, Sudhakar wanted to go to Nakrekal, where he was expecting a rousing welcome. But KCR had other plans. He asked that Sudhakar be admitted to a hospital for a few days.
“He said that we have claimed everywhere that I was suffering from ill-health. It will not look good otherwise. And that health reasons was part of the reason the court had released me. But the court order did not mention any medical grounds. I was admitted to a hospital. After two days I called KCR and requested that I be discharged and that I cannot stay in the hospital anymore. I went to the district (Medak) after that.”
Sudhakar quit the TRS a month before the elections, when he was not given a seat to contest.
“One thing was very clear. KCR didn’t want anyone else to assume a position of importance. Not even his family members.”
Raghunandan had told me something similar about KCR. “KCR doesn’t trust his own shadow. He is just like Chandrababu Naidu in that. Both the Chandrus are in the same boat.”
By 2013, in spite of the mass demonstrations, non-cooperation and civil disobedience, the ball was in the central government’s court. It had to bring in a Bill to create a separate state and also create a political consensus with opposition parties. During the agitation, KCR announced that he would merge TRS in the Congress if the Centre granted Telangana. A few months before the decision was made public, the Congress high command had informed KCR that an announcement on Telangana was imminent. Before the Bill was introduced in Parliament, KCR left for Delhi announcing that he would come back only with a separate Telangana.
He came back to Hyderabad to a hero’s welcome; the Congress had miscalculated badly by letting KCR take the credit for state formation. KCR had no intention of merging his party with the Congress. He was looking for a coalition.
Once the Bill was passed in February, he arrived in Delhi with his son KTR, daughter Kavitha, and his wife. There he held consultations with Sonia Gandhi and Digvijay Singh, then in charge of Andhra Pradesh.
Palvai Govardhan Reddy, Congress Rajya Sabha MP from Telangana, who acted as mediator between KCR and Sonia Gandhi, recalls: “KCR was keen on an alliance with the Congress. He wanted a seat-sharing alliance between the TRS and Congress at 40:60. His other condition was that he should be made chief minister. Sonia Gandhi was willing to accept these terms. Other leaders like Ahmed Patel, Gulam Nabi Azad, Chidambaram, A. K. Antony and Sharad Pawar were in favour of the plan. But the Andhra-in-charge (Digvijay Singh) misguided Sonia Gandhi. Once the bifurcation announcement had been made, half-a-dozen Telangana Congress leaders were hoping to become CM. They convinced him (Digvijay Singh) that it was better for the Congress to go it alone. He ruined all the results of my negotiations. Otherwise the Congress would be sharing power with TRS right now.”
'The Andhra-in-charge (Digvijay Singh) misguided Sonia Gandhi. Once the bifurcation announcement had been made, half-a-dozen Telangana Congress leaders were hoping to become CM. They convinced him (Digvijay Singh) that it was better for the Congress to go it alone. He ruined all the results of my negotiations. Otherwise the Congress would be sharing power with TRS right now'
On his long road to chief ministership of the new state he wanted to create, fortune intervened several times on KCR’s behalf. This was another one of those times when chance triumphed. Unwilling to give up on being CM, KCR was forced to face the polls alone. His strategy was to poach MLAs from other parties, especially TDP. The process had started a year back, in 2013. This is what turned away people like Raghunandan and Sudhakar, who have been members of the TRS since the beginning.
Raghunandan was expelled in 2013, when he rebelled against KCR’s decision not to give him an MLA ticket.
The number of people who joined TRS from other parties between 2013 and 2014 makes up a significant population within the 119 MLAs who contested elections. Twelve defected to TRS after the government was formed. Seven of the 18-member Cabinet consists of people who joined TRS in the last three years from the TDP or Congress. Konda Surekha, a former Congress MLA and a supporter of Y. S. Jaganmohan Reddy joined TRS before the elections and is now MLA from Warangal East. Jaganmohan Reddy was a bitter opponent of the Telangana movement and Surekha had called KCR a lanjakoduka (son of a whore) in public in 2010.
Sudhakar says: “KCR’s contribution to the movement is great. But he has taken the sole credit. He forgets that when TRS car got stuck (the party symbol is a car), it needed people like us to push it.”
After the TRS had been formed, KCR declared in public that none of his children would follow him into politics. Raghunandan recounts: “He had said ‘Nenu, naa musalamma, iddarame unnam’ (‘There is only me and my old lady’). In 2006, his son KTR returned from the US and joined the TRS. Kavitha, who, like KTR, had completed her post-graduate degree in the US, also became part of the TRS and was the force behind promoting the Bhatukkama festival. During the agitation, both KTR and Kavitha were prominent faces of the TRS. While KTR won from the Sircilla constituency as MLA and joined as IT and Panchayati Raj Minister in his father’s Cabinet, Kavitha won the Nizamabad Lok Sabha seat.
Almost all the people spoken to for this story, were unanimous in their assessment that power in the government and party was exclusively concentrated in the hands of KCR’s family. The big four—KCR, Kavitha, KTR and Harish Rao—make all the major decisions, announce most major government decisions and implement all big government projects. Harish Rao is in charge of Mission Kakatiya, an ambitious government irrigation project to restore 45,000 tanks and lakes constructed in Telangana by the Kakatiya dynasty. The total budget allocation of the scheme is ₹20,000 crore of which ₹ 9,500 crore has been allocated in this year’s budget. Opposition politicians like Sridhar Reddy and Raghunandan allege widespread nepotism in the scheme, with most non-tender projects being handed out to TRS cadre.
The other big project the TRS government has undertaken is under KTR: a Water Grid Scheme to ensure drinking water supply to gram panchayats and urban municipalities by linking up water resources in the Godavari and Krishna Basin using a 1.25 lakh-kilometre pipeline network.
“No other minister in the government has any decision-making power. The home minister is like a puppet. The government and the party is split into four groups, each owing allegiance to one of the four members of KCR’s family. No person in the party has the right to speak against KCR. He is sowing the seeds of dynasty politics in Telangana. The benefits of an agitation of four crore people are going to four people,” says Sridhar Reddy.
Whether Telangana is headed for dynastic politics or not, it seems definite that the TRS’s political future is tied to its first family. There have been media reports of tension between KTR and Harish Rao, which the party has been quick to counter. “KTR is media savvy, well-educated and has appeal among the urban voters. Harish Rao, however, has been with the party from the beginning and controls the booth level politics. He is very popular with the cadre. The succession in the TRS will come down to these two.”
But there are many who believe that like in 2010 when he was about to deflect to the Congress after failing to take over the party presidency from KCR, Harish Rao would make the first move. Two different people, one a veteran journalist and the other a politician, told me the exact same thing: “Harish Rao may become to KCR what Naidu was to NTR.”
Raghunandan, who had worked with KCR and Harish Rao for most of TRS’s existence before it came to power, says KCR was always on his guard against Harish Rao. “KCR fears him. KCR came to power first by betraying NTR. History repeats itself. There is a saying in Telugu. ‘Neevu nerpina vidya, nee painey vaadtaaru.’ The knowledge you teach will be used against you.”
(Rajesh Asopa contributed reporting from Hyderabad.)
Edit September 2, 2015: The first paragraph of the story has been updated for clarity.