War Won, Now Battle Begins For Telangana

A woman casts her vote in a polling booth in the outskirts of Hyderabad. Photo: AP
For Nalla Sathaiah (60), a farmer in Gajwel, Telangana statehood does not translate to a better life. He hopes that his children or grandchildren would get jobs, as was promised by political parties. Photo: Saptarshi Bhattacharya
Baba (45) says the cotton farmers of Gajwel, including him, lost business after the bifurcation. Photo: Saptarshi Bhattacharya
Medak and Karimnagar districts have traditionally been parched lands with no rivers, canals or irrigation channels. Photo: Saptarshi Bhattacharya
Pillallamari Veeranna (40), a weaver who has studied up to 7th Standard, has no prospects of getting a job but hopes that his children will get employment in the new State. Photo: Saptarshi Bhattacharya
Kodam Venkatesam (43) is thankful to the Congress for doing away with the Fuel Surcharges Adjustments (FSA) and bringing down the power tariff through subsidies. He too hopes his children would not have to slog for a living like him and would find employment. Photo: Saptarshi Bhattacharya
The forum of elderly wisdom, in Karimnagar. From left: M. Gangadhar, Karimnagar Branch Secretary of Indian Institute of Public Administration; Prakash Holla, Advisor, Karimnagar Consumer Council; T. Ganga Rao, District Vice President, Karimnagar Consumer Council; N. Srinivas, District President, Lok Satta; and K. Chokka Reddy, Editor Navatha. Photo: Saptarshi Bhattacharya
Imam (52), a small vendor in Tangallapally near Sircilla, thinks people are faced with the dilemma of choosing between the mother and the father in this election. Photo: Saptarshi Bhattacharya
It is likely to be a three-cornered contest between the Congress, the TRS and the BJP-TDP-Lok Satta combine in the newly formed State of Telangana, which went to the polls today. While gratitude for the realisation of Telangana would likely be the most major poll plank, a vision for the development of the State would also be high on people’s minds when they vote, says The Hindu Centre's Saptarshi Bhattacharya after a visit to the region.

The Deccan has always been bathed with generous sunshine, but the midday sun was perhaps most merciless on this day, a Friday, signalling the advent of summer. The main avenue of this small town looked deserted. The row of shops, many among them workshops for agricultural machinery and showrooms for spare parts and equipment, on either side of the main road were open but there wasn’t much activity. While the tumultuous days of the Telangana agitation did not affect the town much, the political uncertainty has cast a shadow on Gajwel, a once flourishing town about 65 kilometres from Hyderabad.

As we drove into the town, small processions of a handful of people either clad in pink stoles or the tricolour came into view. The local body elections were on and the political parties were campaigning hard to capture the imagination of the people. After the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh State into Telangana and Andhra, these polls were the first real test for the parties as a precursor to the Assembly and Parliamentary elections to be held simultaneously in April-May, 2014.

Along the way, we stopped at a quaint little tea shop operating from the shade of a shamiana, which had clearly seen better days. While the tea-seller served and entertained the customers, his wife made tea that had a generous helping of sugar. Nobody seemed to complain. Neither did I, as I sipped the oversweet tea.

Sitting on one of the benches and looking away towards the far end of the street as he sipped his tea was Nalla Sathaiah, an elderly gentleman clad in a crisp white shirt and a white dhoti, his largely grey hair cropped closely. He sipped the sugary tea unmindful of my presence.

“How is the campaigning going?” I asked the tea-vendor in Hindi, attempting to strike a conversation. Thanks to the influence of the Nizam of Hyderabad, who ruled Telangana region (then Hyderabad state) for 220-odd years, all residents have a working knowledge of Urdu or Hindi. “It is picking up. The local body polls are on and hence, you can see them [pointing at a tiny procession passing by] on the roads,” he replied.

“What chance do you think the TRS [Telangana Rashtra Samithi] has after the bifurcation of the State?” I probed further. “Well, I am just a tea seller here. You should ask the educated people or senior persons like him [pointing at Sathaiah],” the vendor replied. I decided to break the old man’s reverie.

“Do you think the TRS can capitalise on the Telangana sentiment,” I asked the elderly gentleman as an ice-breaker. I had by then attracted his attention sufficiently when I started the little political chat over chai.

Sathaiah is a 60-year-old farmer who owns 10 acres of land adjacent to Gajwel town. He grows cotton and a small crop of rice and, with the present water availability, or the lack of it, he could barely get one crop of each.

“Yes,” Sathaiah broke his silence. “They delivered Telangana. Now they are stronger. Besides, this (Medak district) is KCR’s (TRS leader K. Chandrasekhar Rao) home district.” Chandrasekhar Rao, a former minister in Chandrababu Naidu’s cabinet who broke away from the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and formed the TRS in 1991, has nurtured Siddipet, a town about 100 km from Hyderabad and nearly half that distance from Gajwel, as his pet constituency from where he won at least five elections. In the 2014 elections, however, Rao is contesting from the Gajwel Assembly segment and the Medak Parliamentary constituency.

“A lot of people will vote for the TRS because of the Telangana factor,” Sathaiah reflected. “How did the bifurcation benefit you?” I asked. “There is no benefit for us. But they say that our sons and grandsons will get jobs,” he said.

Sathaiah has three sons – one of them a graduate, one who completed Plus Two (Higher Secondary) and the other who passed 10th Standard. For want of jobs, all of them are engaged in farming, he said. Each of his sons has two children.

type=quote;; position=left;; text=A lot of people will vote for TRS because of the Telangana factor;;

For a farmer like him, everyday life has increasingly become a struggle. Sathaiah said that he used to make about Rs. 2 lakh a year from his 10 acres about five years ago. His income has now halved. “There is no water here. Borewells give us a couple of inches of water (indicating the measure in the irrigation tank). Now, I take home four annas while 12 annas are spent towards raising the crop,” he said. Annas were a measure of Indian currency in the pre-Independence days, before the country switched over to Rupee and Paise mode. One Rupee equalled 16 annas.

To make ends meet, Sathaiah now wakes up at 5 am, milks his three buffaloes and sells the milk in Gajwel town at the rate of Rs. 30 a litre. A buffalo gives three to four litres of milk a day. It is a paltry sum but it takes care of small incidental expenditure, he added.

While we chatted, Sathaiah walked me over to a shop a few feet away from the tea stall. It was a battery shop owned by another farmer, Baba (45), who is the Mutawalli (a trustee) of the local Wakf Council coming under the Hazrath Syed Shah Mohammed Khadri Rehmatullah Alleh Dargah. A former Congress supporter himself, Baba is now caught up in a bitter legal battle with the sitting Congress MLA from Gajwel, Tumkunta Narsa Reddy, over alleged grabbing of Wakf land.

Gajwel town roughly has 7,000 Muslims out of a total population of 13,000, said Baba.

“This time I will not vote for the Congress because the sitting MLA has not done anything for the people. He was involved only in land grabbing,” he said. In the same breath, he fondly recalled the tenure of the previous Congress MLA from Gajwel, former minister Geetha Reddy, who had set up 400-KV electricity sub-stations in several villages to tackle power fluctuation problems and also laid many roads.

The Telugu Desam Party, he added, is being favoured by many who wanted development in Telangana, a surprising development considering the party’s ambiguous stand on Telangana till the last moment. In both the States, the TDP is fighting the elections with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had taken a principled stand in favour of the division. Besides, the Muslims in Gajwel town did not seem to feel threatened by the presence of the BJP in the alliance, a factor that might make Chandrasekhar Rao a little uncomfortable.

Justifying his aversion to the TRS and the Telangana sentiment, Baba said that the bifurcation had, in fact, spelt doom for the farmers of the region. The farm produce, paddy, cotton and maize, was being procured by the Agricultural Marketing department from the farmers. The minimum procurement price for paddy was Rs. 1,300 (per 100 kg or a quintal) while for cotton it was Rs. 4,200. The shandy operated by the Agri Marketing department often remained closed during the harvest season forcing the farmers to sell their produce to local traders. “They form a syndicate and pay us Rs. 1,000 for a quintal of rice and Rs. 3,500-Rs. 3,800 per quintal of cotton,” Baba alleged.

“I sell one quintal of rice to buy half a quintal of urea,” chipped in Sathaiah.

Before the bifurcation, hundreds of agents who worked for spinning mills based in the Andhra region, would visit Gajwel town to buy cotton directly from the farmers. “Till last year, at least 200-250 lorry loads of cotton a day used to be exported to various parts of Andhra from Gajwel alone. This year, when the bifurcation bells were ringing, exports dipped to roughly 40-50 lorry loads a day,” he added.

For Sathaiah or Baba, the fruits of bifurcation are distant; they perceive that it would in later years translate into jobs for their children. But the Telangana statehood issue, they agree, will be playing in their minds when they vote. It all boils down to how they perceive the division to have affected them.

Employment, the common thread?

“Telangana or not, we labourers have to work hard. It makes no difference to us. It will make a difference to big officers.” There could not have been a more in-your-face reply than this one from Pillallamari Veeranna. This 40-year-old weaver from Sircilla in Karimnagar district has passed 7th standard and barely has any job prospects. He slogs for 12 hours a day to earn Rs. 400, a princely sum compared to what he took home a few years ago.

Sircilla, situated about 100 kilometres northward of Gajwel, had been through bad times during the early 2000s. Considered the Manchester of Andhra, the textile town had been infamous for weavers’ suicides. High debts squeezed out the lives of at least 1,000 weavers from 1997 onwards, the worst phase coming in 2000-2001 when about 250 weavers ended their lives, said Samala Mallesham, State Vice President of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). He has worked with the weavers’ community for 40 years.

Veeranna, like thousands of other weavers in the town, is in a much better situation than he was a few years ago, when work was hard to come by. Now, his wife has bought a sewing machine with their savings and she supplements the family income by stitching petticoats.

Usury, intermittent work and lack of scope for bank loans had pushed the impoverished weavers to a corner and it took the government nearly a 1,000 lives to wake up to the issue. Government action ensured that usury and private micro finance companies were obliterated from Sircilla and several schemes like easy and small bank loans for women’s self-help groups, 50 per cent power subsidy and 35 kg rice at the rate of Re. 1 a kilo helped improve their lot.

type=quote;; position=left;; text=There are people claiming paternity, those claiming maternity and then there are others who claim midwifery;;

Kodam Venkatesam (43), who has 24 looms at his house and employs two weavers in the unit, said that his heart reached out to the Congress for waiving off Fuel Surcharges Adjustments (FSA), which had been a serious burden for the powerloom units in Sircilla inflating the power bill manifold. He, too, believed that his children would have a better future after the division. “The educated people have told us this. It must be true,” Venkatesam remarked. Still undecided, he said that he would take a call on who to vote for at the time of polling.

He has invested Rs. 11 lakhs in his unit and is using the skills he acquired working in Bhiwandi in Maharashtra to take home between Rs. 10,000 and Rs. 15,000 a month. Modernisation is a far cry since loans are hard to come by and involve heavy paperwork.

The constituency had been a bastion for Chennamaneny Rajeshwar Rao, initially with the Communist Party of India (CPI) who later shifted allegiance to the TDP, which sent him to the Andhra Pradesh Assembly at least six times. That was until 2009 when the TRS, in alliance with the TDP (as part of the Maha Kootami or grand alliance involving the Left parties), put up Chandrasekhar Rao’s son K. Taraka Ramarao as the candidate. He scraped through with 171 votes but in the bye-elections the following year, he lapped up a huge win. In 2014, he is seeking a re-election riding on the Telangana statehood sentiment.

Gratitude for T-State, vision for rebuilding and the caste factor

The common prevailing sentiment across the Telangana region, according to N. Venugopal, Editor of Veekshanam journal, is that whatever the movement entailed did not happen. “For 10 years, the admission quotas in the education institutions will be shared and the common entrance tests will continue to be held. So, the students are against the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 2014. Besides, provisions in the Act pertaining to sharing of the 89 government companies and corporations mentioned in the Ninth Schedule of the Act and 107 State training institutions mentioned in the Tenth Schedule also drew flak from the government employees,” Venugopal said.

The overarching factor influencing the elections would be the bifurcation of the State. While gratitude for bringing about Telangana would be one major plank, the reconstruction push and a vision for the future would constitute the other, he maintained.

While the first plank augured well for the TRS, the second one, incidentally, had the Congress edging out the regional party. “In this context, people will vote for a party who they feel would be able to get funds from the Centre,” he explained.

In a three-cornered contest that Telangana is witnessing between the TRS, the Congress and the TDP-BJP-Lok Satta Party alliance, it would be difficult to gauge the support for each party in the present circumstances. Historically, the performance of the TRS had no correlation with the intensity of the Telangana movement till the death of the then Congress Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, in a helicopter crash in September 2009. That was primarily because the movement preceded the TRS and a large part of the agitation was led by mass organisations, called the Joint Action Committees (JAC), belonging to different pressure groups of students, government employees, engineers and academics, Venugopal elaborated.

In addition, there could be the third plank of pent up aspirations, backwardness and caste equations that could play their part silently. Caste had been a dominant factor in Andhra Pradesh elections for long. A political observer for years, Venugopal predicts that the caste dynamics will undergo a change post-division.

From 1956, the Congress has remained in power due largely to the consolidation of the Brahmins, the Reddys and the Velamas, with the Reddy domination being the operative base of the party. The Dalits too went with them. This equation remained unchallenged and the feudal structure of society fanned this arrangement.

In 1983, the Telugu Desam Party entered the scene as a predominantly Kamma party. They promised to destroy the feudal structure and abolished the Watandari system, the feudal system that was prevalent at the time. This got the Backward Classes (BC), which form over half of the population in Telangana, rallying behind the TDP. Though they lost power in between, the sailing was by and large smooth for the regional party for about 25 years till the first dent came in 2004 when the Telangana movement was gaining momentum. The BCs voted for other parties leading to the electoral defeat of the TDP. In 2009, the shift of the BC votes was more pronounced towards the TRS, when the caste lines were almost blurred due to the movement. Now that the division is achieved, the lines are reappearing, said Venugopal, who has been following the Telangana issue closely.

“The BCs are regrouping and demanding their share of power. They do not have a party representing them and are seeking tickets from the existing political parties,” Venugopal observed. The dynamics of the caste matrix, indeed, throw up a challenge for the political parties. While the BCs do not show up as a consolidated vote bank, the Madigas, a group among the Dalits who launched a movement a couple of decades ago seeking separate classification within the Scheduled Caste category, are relatively more consolidated. Their leader, Manda Krishna Madiga, is unchallenged. He has hobnobbed with the Congress when Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy was alive, and then with the TDP. Venugopal felt that his pro-Telangana but anti-TRS stand could give the regional party some jitters. In Telangana, Madigas constitute about 14 per cent of the population while other groups like the Malas make up about two per cent of the population.

T-State: Staking claim over paternity, maternity and midwifery

Now that the Telangana dream has been realised, there are several claimants to it, according to Syed Amin-ul-Hasan Jafri, a former journalist and now a Member of the Legislative Council representing the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). “There are people claiming paternity, those claiming maternity and then there are others who claim midwifery,” Jafri says in jest. But the underlying meaning was quite powerful. In context, Jafri recalled a statement made by BJP leader Sushma Swaraj: If you give credit to Peddamma (mother’s elder sister), so be it. But please do not forget this Chinnamma (mother’s younger sister).

Jafri feels that the Telangana issue has ceased to influence voter behaviour. Instead, the voters would go by their political preferences, regional aspirations and caste and community equations.

Though the division is achieved, certain aspects of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act were against the interests of Telangana, such as Hyderabad as the common capital for 10 years and the Governor being put in charge of the law and order in Hyderabad, Jafri says. And it is by citing these aspects that the TRS leader Chandrasekhar Rao moving away from his previous promise of merging his party with the Congress after the bifurcation. The TRS going it alone would be a new political development because ever since its inception in 2001, it has either sailed with the Congress or the TDP, the two major power centres in Andhra Pradesh. It will also put to test the candidates that the party puts up.

The TRS has a strong base in the districts of Adilabad, Nizamabad, Karimnagar, Warrangal and, to some extent, Medak. The region has seven Lok Sabha seats and 49 Assembly seats. In 2009, the Congress bagged five of those Lok Sabha seats while the TDP and the TRS could win only one each. This time around, Chandrasekhar Rao is contesting from Medak Lok Sabha constituency, a seat vacated by Vijayashanthi after she joined the Congress, while his daughter Kavitha is contesting from Nizamabad Parliamentary constituency. His son K.T. Rama Rao is seeking re-election from Sircilla Assembly constituency while his nephew Harish Rao is re-contesting from Siddipet. Jafri feels that they do not have enough number of credible faces to conjure up a majority by themselves.

The Congress, on the other hand, has a slight edge with a large chunk of sitting MPs and MLAs – 10 MPs after a couple of defections and at least 50 MLAs. “It is only a question of retaining them and winning a few more. A post-poll arrangement is always possible after that, even if they fall short,” Jafri exuded confidence.

Successive poll predictions have predicted a neck-and-neck battle between the TRS and the Congress with the regional party having a slight edge but falling short of a simple majority in the 119-member house. A post-poll truck is perhaps imminent but the elections would definitely test the strength of the parties.

Pragmatism breeds scepticism

Although the bifurcation issue would be the overarching factor, there was enough scepticism over the formation of the new State. The people of the newly formed State may be thankful to the Congress and the TRS for the division, but Chandrasekhar Rao’s manoeuvres are not going down well with the people. “His integrity is being questioned,” said N. Srinivas, a retired banker and the Karimnagar district president of the Lok Satta movement. “He had mentioned before that his family will not enter politics. He had also expressed a desire to see a Dalit as the first Chief Minister of Telangana,” he added. Apart from him, three members of his family are contesting the elections.

The TRS and the Congress cannot be sure of victory just because they brought about Telangana, Srinivas asserts.

In May 2001, Chandrasekhar Rao began the TRS’s Telangana movement from Karimnagar in the presence of nearly four lakh people.

The TRS propaganda that every household will have a government job once Telangana is achieved might backfire on them sooner than later. But there are local issues in play as well.

Srinivas says that more than three lakh people from Karimnagar, Nizamabad and Adilabad districts work in the Gulf countries as labourers. Migration started in the late 1970s. The local residents have been seeking a grievance cell and a separate ministry to handle these affairs but all they got are promises.

As an aside, Srinivas mentioned that Chandrasekhar Rao, too, ran an agency that recruited labourers and send them to Gulf countries to work. “During electioneering, the Telangana Congress president, Ponnala Laxmaiah, too raked up this old issue and accused KCR (Chandrasekhar Rao) of cheating several labourers,” he recalled.

type=quote;; position=left;; text=You are asking me to choose between mother and father. Who do I choose?;;

That was not all. Srinivas told me about an incident that took place recently. The Andhra Pradesh government had, through the NTR Health University in Vijayawada, conducted the entrance test and interviews for the recruitment of doctors to Public Health Centres, the first time in eight years. The previous recruitments have been only on contract. As many as 53 doctors were allotted to Karimnagar district.

These selected candidates were asked to report to the District Medical and Health Officer. At the time of registration, Srinivas said, the clerks at the office demanded a bribe of Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 7,000 from each candidate to simply push their papers. When it was brought to his notice by the parent of one of the candidates, Srinivas called up an office-bearer of the Non-Gazetted Officers’ Association. The answer that he got shocked us all. The leader, Srinivas revealed, coolly said, “So far the Andhra people were making money. Now let Telangana people collect.” This incident happened right after the passage of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Bill in the Lok Sabha but before it was passed by the Rajya Sabha. “It is not for nothing that we are sceptical,” Srinivas clarified, a standpoint well explained by the little anecdote.

“Telangana is not a magic wand,” joined in Prakash Holla, a businessman and Advisor to the Karimnagar Consumer Council. “It is simply an identity. If anything thinks it to be anything else, they are fools,” he asserts.

Who should I choose? Mother or father?

On the way back from Sircilla, I stopped by at a bunk shop in a village called Tangallapally, a little away from the textile town. The shop owner, Imam (52), had just returned from West Asia where he worked as a labourer. Although completely illiterate, his local wisdom and political understanding was quite striking. “The winds favour the TRS,” he said. “Nativity was an initial hiccup for the TRS but past few years, they have managed to stay close to the people.” Imam says that the people in his village know that both the parties fought for a separate Telangana and feel that it would not have been possible without the Congress. Asked which party he would prefer to vote for, he quipped, “You are asking me to choose between mother and father. Who do I choose?”

The dilemma thrown up by him perhaps is an indication that the battle for Telangana would be a closely fought one. But then, the beauty of Indian democracy is the several surprises it throws up every once in a while.

As I was pulling out, Imam calls me and says, “I will take care of mother and she will take care of father.”

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