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The Congress-Telangana Rashtra Samiti battle in Telangana is a bit like watching an Australia-India cricket match. The Congress has statistics on its side, a line-up of strong local leaders, ground-level cadre and the trump card of having delivered Telangana. The TRS, on the other hand, has passion, it’s a party which sustained the statehood call, its fiery leader K. Chandrasekhara Rao (KCR) has the kind of connect with voters politicians across parties envy. KCR had nearly merged his 13-year-old party with the Congress but called it off at the last minute as “people urged him not to”.
The TRS accuses the Congress of mimicking its manifesto but Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee president Ponnala Lakshmaiah is clear. “It is the Congress which promised Telangana, delivered Telangana and will now form the government to develop a ‘golden Telangana’. We don’t need to take notes from KCR, whose only agenda is to promote himself and his family members,” says Lakshmaiah, a strong contender for the CM’s post.
In Karimnagar, where KCR held his first simha garjana (lion’s roar) on May 17, 2001, people wear their T-patriotism on their sleeve. Almost every voter here, from 18 years upwards, is fired up when asked about the political scenario and expectations from the first government of the newborn Telangana. The emotional attachment people have towards KCR is extraordinary. “KCR is the man who brought the rulers of Delhi down to their knees and forced them to acknowledge the aspirations of the people of Telangana,” says Veerla Kavitha, who returned with her businessman husband from the UK to take part in the movement. Having contested for the post of zilla parishad chairperson, Kavitha feels that while the UPA Congress delivered statehood, it is the TRS which made it happen. Across the 13 Assembly constituencies of Karimnagar, the TRS has an edge in at least 8-10, say locals. The TRS is said to have a strong base in the north Telangana districts of Adilabad, Nizamabad, Warangal and Karimnagar and is gaining in Mahboobnagar too, if K.T. Rama Rao, KCR’s son, is to be believed.
Rama Rao has been MLA of Sircilla in Karimnagar district since ’09 and continues to enjoy some goodwill here though there’s been scant change in living standards. Beedi and power loom workers form a substantial chunk of the voters here. Of the 78,000 power looms across Andhra, 34,000 are in Sircilla. Many of the workers live in houses sanctioned by the late N.T. Rama Rao in the ’80s. Rolling beedis in a shabby one-room tenement in Taraka Rama Nagar in Sircilla, Bairi Laxmibai and Ashanapalli Sarojana are hopeful. “Mana rajyam vachindi (We have self-rule now). All these years, we watched prices spiral out of control while our incomes stayed put at Rs 50 a day. The TRS promises more jobs, two-bedroom houses and better power supply. So we must give KCR a chance. It’s a party born of this soil,” they say. Mekala Balalaxmi, another beedi worker, agrees, saying only a party born out of struggle can relate to the aspirations of the common voter.
Indeed, jobs commensurate with qualifications is what many people in Sircilla and across Telangana seek most. Adepu Sridhar, 35, manages eight power looms today. Though a graduate, Sridhar could never bag the government job he so craved and now has to content himself with a measly monthly income of Rs 6,000. TRS leaders admit it is difficult to skirt the “freebie culture” so successfully instilled by the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy. Perhaps why both parties are in a parallel freebie race, be it power, irrigation, crop loan waivers, government jobs or increased pensions. The Congress’ Lakshmaiah explains the issue. “What you call freebies, we call coming to the rescue of the poorest of the poor,” he says.
Incidentally, Karimnagar is a district where the lower Manair dam and Sriramsagar project bring in enough water for agriculture. In comparison to the drought-affected districts of Mahboobnagar and Medak, parts of Nalgonda, Adilabad, Karimnagar are much better off. But Karimnagar and Warangal have for long formed the basis of the T-movement.
It is said that during a conversation with famous irrigation expert and former Planning Commission member, Ch Hanumantha Rao, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had remarked, “The more backward a region, the more intense is the people’s movement.” Hanumantha differed saying that was not the case. For while the T-movement was strong in Warangal and Karimnagar, in backward Mahboobnagar, it was minimal. “People look forward to fulfilling other aspirations only after basic needs like bijli, sadak and paani are met,” Hanumantha Rao explained.
This might indeed be the case if voters of Nalgonda are to be believed. In Tipparthi mandal, Yadagiri Reddy, a farmer, says he is happy with Telangana statehood but his immediate concerns are drinking water and power supply for his pumpsets. “We want a party which is capable of continuing the irrigation projects and fulfilling promises to develop Telangana. I’d say the Congress alone has enough experience to do this,” says Yadagiri.
Venkat Reddy, a farmer with 12 acres of land in Nalgonda, says he is now hopeful that his sons studying BTech in Hyderabad will get good jobs in the capital. “But this common capital nonsense has to end,” he asserts. He says that because of lack of irrigation in Nalgonda, even farmers with 20 acres of land are driving autorickshaws in Hyderabad.
KCR’s typical humour is intact. He heaps insults on Naidu, the ‘Andhra’ TDP supremo, and various Congress leaders.
In Erragadlagudem, Gali Srinivas and Gandamalla Manohar are lying on a charpoy amid the paddy fields mulling the various political possibilities. “The TRS is a party with a big heart,” says Srinivas, who says he participated in various statehood protests through the Telangana Vidyarthi Vedika. Putla Sujatha, who’s filling water from a nearby filter tank says it is the Congress which ensured fluoride-free water for their village. While Sujatha is yet to make up her mind on a party, she says that safe drinking water and a health scheme for her child ranks high on her list. Nalgonda district, with 12 assembly constituencies and two Lok Sabha seats, is a Congress stronghold. Strangely, many voters here still speak of the Congress and the late YSR in one breath. The welfare schemes which YSR brought in still earn the Congress a lot of goodwill.
Huzurnagar MLA Uttam Kumar Reddy, a former fighter pilot, three-time MLA and another CM aspirant, says the Congress is peaking at the right time. “Despite the short campaign phase of 15 days, I’d still say we are gaining great momentum. Our final score will be much above the magic figure of 60 assembly seats,” he says. Uttam says the media hype around KCR will not translate into votes. “KCR runs the party on dialogues. The party has no structure, vision or commitment. In the 13 years since the TRS’s formation, the party has still not organised its local units. Out of perhaps 10,000 gram panchayats in Telangana, in about half TRS does not even have a presence,” he says.
A poor organisational structure is indeed the TRS’s biggest drawback, says Venu Sankoju, a poet in Nalgonda. But he believes that several young voters in Telangana are still tilting towards it because they see KCR as a leader who led a movement to its fruition. “This is the reason it might end up being a close contest between TRS and Congress. Otherwise, the Congress definitely has an edge,” says Sankoju.
In the huge playgrounds at Nagarjuna Degree College in Nalgonda town, several Muslim youth are playing cricket. They tell Outlook that the anti-incumbency factor is certain to nail the Congress. Mohammed Zubairuddin, an MBA student, feels a mix of corporate governance and rural development will guarantee a ‘golden’ Telangana. “KCR has some innovative ideas. His party might not be doing well in Nalgonda but he is my choice,” says Zubairuddin. KCR’s recent announcement of maintaining a distance from the BJP and talk of a secular Third Front has appeased Muslim voters. “In the last 10 years, Congress has not developed our region in any way. KCR talks of Muslim reservation and innovative budget allocation. He’s a better leader,” says Mohammed Ahmed, a 26-year-old voter from Nakrekal. There are others like 20-year-old Abdul Rafey who believe that the TRS and Congress might still form an alliance after the polls. “They are just ensuring that they keep the TDP and BJP out of the equation by contesting separately,” says Rafey.
Sabu Ahmed, a student of Nagarjuna degree college, asks, “Telangana toh aa gaya, magar hamare liye kya laaya (Telangana has happened, but what’s in it for us?)” Ahmed believes that the TDP-BJP alliance might bag around 15 seats out of the total of 119, thereby playing party pooper. “It will do the same thing that Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam did in 2009. Split votes,” says Ahmed.
Back in Karimnagar, M. Rajaiah, a mandal education officer from Vemulawada, comes to attend a KCR rally. The crowd laughs, claps and shouts as KCR goes about addressing people with his typical humour delivered in the Telangana dialect. Waving his hand about, KCR simultaneously exhorts, chides, appeals and appeases the crowd of about one lakh gathered at the SR College grounds in Karimnagar. The crowd goes wild as he heaps insults on the ‘Andhra’ TDP supremo Chandrababu Naidu and various Congress leaders. Replying to the TPCC president Ponnala Lakshmaiah’s charges that the TRS manifesto is an implausible one, KCR says yes it would be impossible in the case of the Congress because the grand old party believes in giving 25 per cent of the funds to the people and pocketing the other 75 per cent. In our case, it will be a 100 per cent manifesto implementation, he says. Warning Lakshmaiah and sundry other leaders, KCR bellows, “Remember Ponnala Lakshmaiah, no matter what you do or attempt, you can never be a KCR.”
Even in his interactions with the media, KCR says people’s affection for him and the TRS will far outweigh the Congress’s grassroots-level strengths. “The TRS will form the government and there is no question of discussing hypothetical situations or hypothetical alliances,” he says. That about sums up the essence of a man whose children Rama Rao and Kavitha might be in the electoral fray but will never try to corner glory when their dad’s around. So during the rally, both Rama Rao and Kavitha mingle with the crowd and sit on the ground like commoners.
The Congress, meanwhile, shuns individualistic campaigns, and has at least five CM hopefuls. Local leaders are sticking to their constituencies and working towards victories in smaller areas. Congress president Sonia Gandhi is still the star campaigner, scheduled to address three rallies in Telangana before the D-day on April 30. Assembly seat figures in both camps range from 40-60 depending on how optimistic the workers are feeling. The contest as they say might just boil down to the last over if not the last ball.