Hyderabad: The outgoing Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) was many things to many people.
He audaciously moved to morph his party from the Telangana to the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS). His was a welfare sarkar, one which reduced Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s to a sepia-toned memory.
But he was also seen as a leader who ruthlessly weakened the opposition; who displayed open contempt for civil society; who oversaw the establishment of a surveillance state.
A few years ago, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote that though KCR had denounced Narendra Modi and may ideologically be opposed to the BJP, he was more than willing to mimic its authoritarian methods. And there are many parallels between the two leaders, including vanity projects to redevelop government buildings. There is one big divergence: KCR does not harbour any animosity towards religious minorities.
‘Jai Telangana’, but small coterie
The BRS leader’s lasting popularity among the masses is due to his political leadership of the Telangana statehood movement. But it is a fact that civil society, students of Osmania University, cultural groups and many others played just as important a role – if not more – in the formation of the state.
But immediately after coming to power in 2014, KCR sidelined all the other key figures in the movement.
Within the government, power was quickly centralised among three persons: KCR, his son K.T. Rama Rao (KTR) and nephew T. Harish Rao. All decisions were made from the top, while MLAs and other party leaders repeatedly sang paeans to the BRS chief.
As the years passed, he was increasingly inaccessible not just to ordinary people but also to those with relative influence. Even as he was targeted by opposition parties for being a ‘farmhouse CM’ and compared to feudal lords who lived in forts, he did not feel the need to be more approachable.
Decision-making also seemed impulsive, rather than the outcome of consultations or democratic discussions. Take for example his flip-flops on the strike by employees of the state’s Road Transport Corporation. Even his decision to ‘go national’ was seemingly abandoned after the initial hype in late 2022.
During his tenure as chief minister, KCR delivered a few key promises – two-thirds of voters, according to a CSDS-Lokniti poll, said they were satisfied with the work done by the BRS government.
Telangana was notorious for power cuts and even the capital city of Hyderabad saw a few hours of “load shedding” every day. That is decisively a thing of the past. His efforts to provide drinking and irrigation water to the semi-arid region were well received. His son and information technology minister KTR ensured that Hyderabad continues to grow as an industry hub.
For these reasons, he will fondly be remembered for years to come.
Book of jobs
But his failure to address key issues like unemployment and providing government jobs – a core aspect of the statehood movement – was glaring. His government’s penchant for technocracy was also misplaced, especially the decision to digitise land records. Many people claim that local BRS leaders, colluding with government officials, took possession of lands illegally by fudging the records. There may be at least some truth to these allegations.
Once again, neither the BRS nor KCR made any effort – even a perfunctory promise to conduct an investigation – to assuage people. Their repeated claims that the Dharani portal was foolproof may have assured others but not people who lost lands.
Perhaps KCR thought his dominance was set in stone because, over two terms, he had practically decimated the political opposition and throttled civil society.
Dominance means destroying the opposition?
In the political arena, the first target was the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), of which he was a member before the BRS – in its previous avatar of TRS – was founded.
In 2016, two years after coming to power, 12 of 15 TDP MLAs defected to the TRS. In subsequent years, the party’s influence waned in Telangana and it decided not to contest the recently concluded polls because of the legal troubles that TDP supremo N. Chandrababu Naidu is facing in Andhra Pradesh.
Then, he turned his attention towards the Congress, a party that could claim credit for the formation of Telangana, which KCR had promised to merge with in 2014 before reneging. Just six months after the elections in December 2018, a majority of Congress MLAs defected to join the ruling party.
In the first term, the defection of TDP MLAs helped shore up the BRS’s numbers. The party won 63 seats, just over the majority mark of 60. But even after winning a brute majority of 88 seats in the second term, KCR continued to dismantle the opposition.
The weakening of these two parties allowed the BJP to fill the vacuum. It consistently performed well in by-polls, increasing its tally and expanding its footprint under dynamic leader Bandi Sanjay.
This posed KCR a problem: backed by money power and the might of the Union government, the BJP would prove to be a much tougher opponent than the TDP and the Congress put together. But the saffron party inexplicably faded away in the past six months as the grand old party resurrected.
Congress’s comeback vs KCR’s hubris
Just as the Congress came back from the dead, the suppressed voices of intellectuals and civil society became louder as the elections approached. Even those who had supported KCR in the past now became staunch critics. Those who stuck their neck out knew they would pay a great cost if the BRS retained power.
But in the end, it was KCR’s own hubris that led to his downfall.
Even when opinion polls put the Congress ahead of the BRS, KCR was still a favourable choice for chief minister among the people. Had he taken the legitimate grievances of the people seriously, been more available and done more to fill vacancies in government jobs, a hattrick could have been conceivable. Sensing the anti-incumbency sentiment, had he fielded new candidates, the results may have been starkly different.
But such is KCR’s arrogance that he once claimed even if he fields a dog as a candidate, people will vote for that dog.
The patriarch of Telangana, as he perhaps sees himself, will not just fade away into the shadows. It is clear that he will resurrect himself and his party. If he gets another shot at power, KCR will do well to remember that in Telangana, the people did and will continue to hold their elected representatives accountable.
The days of doras (feudal lords) have long gone.