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Mainstream, VOL LX No 5, New Delhi, January 22, 2022

Telangana Rastra Samiti and Changing Political Dynamics in Telangana State | Karli Srinivasulu

Friday 21 January 2022, by Karli Srinivasulu


With the national BJP leadership looking towards the south for political support and the resultant active mode the state BJP demonstrating itself to be in through its aggressive mobilization we find the prospect of sufficient political heat in the state of Telangana. With the position of the BJP becoming precarious in the north in the aftermath of the farmers movement there seems to a strategy of sorts to focus on the south. The BJP has been successful so far only in Karnataka to consolidate its position and of course succeeding in capturing power. With its poor performance in the recent assembly elections in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in spite of a vigorous campaign here, the BJP sees meager prospects for it in these states in near future. This leaves the states of Telangana and AP as the two states left for it try its luck.

In this article we will try to look into the BJP’s prospects in Telangana by examining the changing political configuration in the state dominated by the ruling Telangana Rastra Samiti (TRS) party. Telangana is seen as the prospective turf for its politics by the BJP for the TRS which has been in power ever since the state was formed in 2014 is seen presently to be not as strong as it has been projected due to its internal discontent. Given that the party has been in power for the second term it is expected to be or rather seen to be subject to an anti-establishment mood in the state. The fact that the state was formed as a result of a protracted state demand movement that raised the expectations among the popular classes in fulfilling which the TRS expectantly has fallen short of. In fact no regime would realistically be able to meet such high expectations. Further, there have already been noticeable signals of disenchantment with the TRS among certain sections of society which the BJP hopes to win over by hyping up its political activity and thereby widen the cleavages in the support base of the TRS by expanding and scaling up the popular discontent.

It would be instructive to examine the changing political landscape of Telangana under the TRS regime for the following reasons. Firstly, the TRS represents a strong regional identity and aspiration that signifies regional autonomy without conflicting with national unity and in fact projecting a harmonious relationship; Secondly, the TRS stands for secularism without denying significance of religion in collective social life and posits an inclusive possibility and actively striving to protect it in the region which otherwise had seen violent communal situation before; Thirdly, the TRS like most of the regional parties has shown to have its ear to the ground and responded to the regional specificities with fairly elaborate social welfare programmes, which the national parties are oblivious of or tend to underplay; Fourthly, the undeniable uneasiness in the Opposition and especially among the regional parties and their regimes in the states at the overt centralization of power characterizing the present dispensation at the centre and growing imbalance in the centre-state relations and the obvious desire in them to regain their autonomy, with a crucial role in the government formation at the centre and for balanced federal governance. This, it is needless to say, necessarily involves the reclaiming of the critical space in the national governance and the TRS has not shied away from making explicit its wish to be a crucial part of this effort.

Rise of TRS 

The TRS which was in the forefront of the Telangana state demand movement and has been in power in the state ever since its formation in 2014 is two decades old. The party which was launched in 2001 in the midst of the Telangana movement is credited with giving the movement a distinct and determinate political leadership as a party that was founded with the objective of achieving statehood to the region. K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR), founder of the TRS, who till then was in the Telugu Desam party and government with noticeable disgruntlement due to his perceived marginalization in it could see an opportunity in the Telangana movement that started gathered momentum since the late 1990s.

The beginnings of the Telangana movement in the 1990s could largely be traced to the efforts of civil and democratic, student, cultural and peoples’ organizations that could garner intellectual and ideological support from certain public spirited individuals with prominent civil society presence. It thus could be broadly characterized as the result of non-party initiative. This scenario, despite the collective initiative through Telangana Aikya Vedika, a non-party joint action forum, not only provided scope for and in fact felt the need for an explicit party-political dimension to give the movement a decisive political character and organizational shape. In this KCR nurturing a sense of neglect in the ruling TDP could find an opportunity and promptly launched the TRS.

The two decade old TRS which began its journey as a ‘movement’ party has not only emerged as the ruling regime of the newly formed state but in fact going by its design and attempt in the 2019 elections could be seen visualizing itself and in fact making a concerted endeavor to forge a non-BJP and non-Congress ‘Federal Front’ at the national level. Despite the 2019 verdict turning out to be to the contrary, the TRS could be credited to project the necessity of a political front at the centre that reflects the multi-faceted regional diversity of India and the importance of democratic centre-state relations to its federal future. In view of its place in the state politics and its position on federal governance a critical appraisal of the TRS is opportune in the present context when there is a perceptible mood for change in the national politics.

The history of the TRS could be classified into two phases. The first phase was that of being a movement party. The second phase began with its coming to power in 2014. The transformation of the TRS into a power regime party is a study in deeper transformation in the interface between power politics, civil society and subaltern activism. Despite a sense of déjà vu that normally characterizes this transition in other contexts and times, there are also some particularities in the TRS story.

In its struggle to emerge as the party of the Telangana movement, TRS faced two formidable constraints. One is from the vibrant and multifaceted civil and subaltern society organizations organised along caste, class, craft—occupation, gender, sub-regional lines that reflected the popular aspiration for Telangana upholding social justice. With the movement turning into a protracted one these identity markers became formidable and brought their concerns, anxieties onto the imagination of social Telangana.

The other was from the multi-party presence in the region. With the exception of the CPI(M), the leaders and cadre of all the parties irrespective the official stand of their party were involved in the movement openly and almost unambiguously. This peculiar situation posed a challenge to the TRS’ intended claim to be the sole Telangana party.

As a result, the TRS had to sustain itself on two fronts. One, the popular mobilization front; two, the electoral front. Much more difficult that the TRS found was to project itself as a bridge between the two. This tension gave rise to the debate on two distinct and contrastive imaginations of Telangana: the civil and subaltern society as evident from their articulation through song, story and speech was aiming at what is called Samajika (social) Telangana that is imagined as inclusive, responsive and democratic and Bhowgolika (geographical) Telangana understood as a spatial or territorial entity carved out through the bifurcation of AP state. Thus the TRS had to address the challenges from the civil society and also from the political parties that were not a welcome to competition from a new entrant.

The TRS was clearly on the side of the politico-territorial state of Telangana. Its accent on the electoral game forcing bye-elections through resignations to the assembly and lobbying in the power corridors of Delhi during the movement and concerted effort at the marginalization of civil society organizations through cajoling or otherwise and accommodation of the active elements into the power structure after the state formation. Thus it must be noted that TRS had to engage not merely in organisational and spatial contestation but at a more substantive level on the ideological level.

Populist Cooption

The cooption of the popular happens at two levels, especially if the immediate context or foreground is marked by a popular movement of the kind Telangana has seen. One is at the level of the elite. The popular leadership that emerges in the course of mobilisational churning needs to be coopted, rewarded and accommodated into the emergent power structure. This would not suffice. There is also an accumulated popular desire which is difficult to be satisfactorily reconciled. The leit motif of the Telangana movement is its perceived, imagined, expressed regional backwardness. The physiognomy of this backwardness — real or otherwise- is articulated to be multi-dimensional — educational, social, political, sectoral (agriculture and irrigation being important ones), developmental, etc.

The TRS regime’s track record could be seen falling into a structure of sorts that could be broadly characterized as ‘patronage populism.’ There is a tendency on the part of the regional regimes to go in for populist welfarist policies of some kind. In the case of the TRS, given the caste dynamics of Telangana state and its political implications, populism could be seen almost becoming a political necessity. Historically, the Reddys have been the dominant peasant caste in Telangana. The Reddy political dominance pervaded all through the Congress phase. KCR belonging to a miniscule peasant caste of Velama is clearly in a disadvantageous position in comparison with the numerically larger Reddys.

Populism serves two purposes: firstly, its ownership lies almost entirely with the leader as it goes in his/her name and thus imparts political capital and the populist brand image to the leader — crucial to the personality cult. All the regional parties thus are supremo-centric. Secondly, in an inegalitarian society with huge deprivation of minimal entitlements, the policy assurance of food and minimum income has become foundational to populist politics. The TRS regime in Telangana could be seen putting in place a wide range of populist schemes and policies that are known by KCR brand. These include the subsidized rice scheme, mid-day meal scheme in government schools, various Asara pension schemes for the old aged, single women, widows and physically handicapped, Kalyana Lakshmi/ Shadi Mubarak for meeting the marriage expenditure of girls belonging to a poor Hindu and minority communities, sheep and fish distribution schemes for OBC communities. The TRS’ record on the welfare front so far has been quite remarkable.

Add to this the two missions of Bhagiratha and Kakatiya, the former providing potable water to the rural and urban households and the latter catering to the irrigation needs of the region through the renovation of the village tank system and providing for lift irrigation and construction of new projects, you get the developmental side of the TRS regime.

In the process, it must be noted that the other aspects of development like education have suffered almost total neglect, in terms of funding, leadership, policy attention. The pathetic state in which the colleges and universities, including the century old Osmania University, which is seen as the soul of Telangana, are is a clear vindication of the black spots in the developmental vision of the regime.

Democratic Deficit

With the unanimous and unopposed election of KCR as the president of the TRS for the last two decades is a clear indication of the state of inner party democracy in the TRS. One cannot overlook the intrinsic relation between lack of inner party democracy, paternalistic and patronage populism and authoritarian proclivity of the populist regimes. Its echoes and reflections are visible in the intra party democratic deficit, tartly relations with the media, undermining of civil society, uni-central flow of policies, etc. The TRS regime, in sharp contrast to the democratic spirit of Telangana movement, exemplifies all these authoritarian traits.

Noteworthy is that the TRS neither in its long course of career as a ‘movement’ (udyama) party nor after being in power paid any required attention to the party building. Its organizational mode has the MLA as the axis, seen as the supremo’s representative, bestowed with the party organizational, developmental and electoral responsibility. TRS returning to power in 2018 elections in spite of the absence of a well-knit cadre based organizational structure is largely due to the charisma of its supremo and the track record of implementing the above schemes that catered to the basic needs of the popular classes. This helped its victory in spite of the lackluster performance on the promise of two-bedroom houses, the non-implementation of distribution of three acres of land to the landless SC, ST families, negligence of public education and visible apathy towards universities.

On the front of social politics, which is critical to understand the character of a party/regime, the TRS regime demonstrates social regression. Telangana during the TDP rule experienced a play of intense policy and social politics by accommodating and empowering the major OBC communities in institutional structures from panchayat raj up to the state assembly. The Telangana movement involved expansive self-mobilization based on identities of caste, community, craft and gender, while TRS’ electoral strategy gave almost negligible representation to the OBCs and women. Instead it sought to make use of the internal differences among the subaltern communities for its electoral gain. The Most Backward Castes (MBCs) consisting of semi-nomadic and satellite castes, smaller in number and existing on the margins of social structure have seen a rise in the assertion of their identity and solidarity in the recent times. This segment is seen and projected to be distinct from the OBCs demanding their share in education, employment and political representation. TRS made attempts to patronize the MBCs so as to check the OBC assertion.

Changing Dynamics

In the dominant caste politics there could be delineated a tendency for the dominant Reddy political elite to move away from the Congress party that has been their traditional base. Seeing no prospects of resurgence of the Congress in near future, given the leadership deficit at the national level and absence of élan at the state level they have shown inclination to move to the aggressive BJP. This could pose a perceptible challenge to the TRS of course in the long run. Congress mukt Telangana which the TRS apparently aimed at achieving by weakening the Congress and emptying the TDP. Contrary to the TRS’ expectations and perhaps to its utter disappointment the weakening of the Opposition has posed a new challenge in the form of resurgence of the BJP waiting in the wings to fill the prospective gap thus emerging.

What seems to be compounding the TRS’ troubles is the strategic shift in the TRS’ treatment of subaltern groups. Instead of emphasizing the political aspect that is of empowering them through accommodation in the power structure, the TRS regime has treated them as beneficiaries through caste and occupation specific schemes. Thus, the schemes providing sheep to the Yadavas and fish to the Mutharasi, Besta and Gangaputras through their caste cooperatives as well as various forms of pensionschemes for the beedi workers (majority of them are women), weavers, Gowda toddy tappers, and other groups. Schemes for the benefit of the farming community include the rythu bandhu (an amount of Rs. 10,000 per acre per annum) and rythu bheema (crop insurance scheme) offeredas patronage by the leader.

If the TRS’ conscious attempt to empty the TDP and weaken the Congress through Aakarsh and through the means of cajoling and coercing is one factor then the dissatisfaction in the majority of the OBCs for the lack of appropriate political importance in the present dispensation is another that seem to have opened up opportunities for the BJP to pursue its southern expansion with the Telangana state as crucial entry point.

What needs to be emphasized is the diminution of civil society associations and subaltern group activism which Telangana movement was known for. Post-bifurcation, the social forces which played a crucial role in the discursive domain have either largely been coopted or rendered ineffective under the TRS regime. What transpired is the conspicuous prominence of the electoral-political domain leading to its usurpation of the social and cultural space. This is visible in diminutive quality of public debate and social deficit not only in the electoral politics but also in the media. The process of ‘partyisation’ has significant impact on not only the quality of electoral discourse but also on the nature of representation. The preference by parties for rich candidates has seen a conspicuous rise in their number and a massive increase in electoral expenditures. The state over the last couple of decades has seen a phenomenal rise in the role of money and the 2018 elections it is no exaggeration have made it irreversible for the future. The TRS centrally placed in this scenario cannot extricate itself of the responsibility for the deterioration in the quality of democracy, diminution in public discourse and asymmetrical disproportionality in popular representation.

With the shrinking of civil society and subaltern group activism which could have acted as a major defense, the liberal Opposition finding itself in a weak position, public discourse reduced to its lowest ebb and the electoral concerns dominating the complex political domain and on whole the state being on the road of democratic deceleration, there is a potential ground for the radical right to take a chance and grow.

It is the time that the TRS, claiming to be a party of the Telangana movement and standing for federal spirit, understands the need to course correct its mistakes by playing a pro-active role in creating conditions for the rejuvenation and strengthening of the civil and subaltern spheres that have consistently resisted the communal forces in Telangana and thereby plays a crucial role as a regional party for a democratic, secular federal India envisaged in our constitution.

(Author: Karli Srinivasulu is Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi; Professor (Retd), Department of Political Science, Osmania University, Hyderabad)

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