Lakshmi (name changed), 54, a mother of two and a wife to an ailing husband, lives in a compact one-bedroom house in Karimnagar in Telangana. Until a few years ago, the couple worked at a construction site, but after her husband took ill, she now works as a domestic help. She takes care of the household, her husband and her two children—one is five, the other a toddler—with the little income she gets. The lanes and by-lanes surrounding her house are inhabited by families that work very hard to arrange two square meals a day.
Over the past few years, these families have been getting visitors—guests who are uninvited but not unwelcome. These are Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteers, men and sometimes women, who have been visiting these families from time to time to inquire about their health and well-being. They carry with them plates containing vermillion, a blouse piece and some saffron threads—all neatly arranged.
“They touch our feet as a mark of respect. They assure us that we will be okay. They are strangers when they enter our house, but by the time they leave, they become a part of our family,” says Lakshmi. “If we are lucky, we also get silver,” she says. “Is it wrong?” she asks, perplexed.
The RSS volunteers seem to quietly go across the town, into the deserted lanes jam-packed with houses, inside people’s homes, as if they knew them all along. Touching women’s feet almost becomes a show of ‘total loyalty’—a pledge of undying, unquestioning servility, flattery and sycophancy. “We feel obligated to vote for them because they made the effort to come to our house, bow down and touch our feet. We only do that with our elders, my husband and God around here,” says Lakshmi.
These visits by the RSS volunteers should be looked at in the context of a significant political development of 2019. In the general elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Bandi Sanjay Kumar trounced sitting Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) Member of Parliament (MP) Boianapalli Vinod Kumar from Karimnagar, who is considered close to Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR). The victory by more than 80,000 votes, which came after a communal build-up in the run-up to the elections, stumped both the BRS and KCR.
Karimnagar—A BRS Stronghold
Karimnagar, also known as Elagandula (ancient name), is a city and district headquarters in Telangana. It is a major urban agglomeration and the fifth-largest city in the state. It was also home to the first public meeting of the erstwhile Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), now BRS. Party chief KCR’s association with Karimnagar began in 2001 when the TRS came into being at a public meeting named ‘Simha Garjana’ here.
Being emotionally attached to Karimnagar, he had built the North Telangana Bhavan—now renamed KCR Bhavan—for his stay in the town. Over the years, he ensured that all the BRS’ political strategies were worked from here.
The Karimnagar Lok Sabha constituency, one of Telangana’s 17 parliamentary seats, has seven Assembly segments—Karimnagar, Choppadandi, Vemulawada, Sircilla, Manakondur, Huzurabad and Husnabad. Ever since the party was formed in 2001, Karimnagar has been a stronghold of TRS (BRS), with KCR winning twice from here. In fact, the BRS had won all the seven Assembly segments within the Karimnagar Lok Sabha constituency in the 2018 state polls.
To KCR’s surprise, in the last general elections in 2019, the BJP’s Kumar won. While he had contested the 2014 and 2018 Telangana Assembly elections, he lost to the BRS. But the 50-year-old Telangana BJP chief hit the ground running after his 2018 loss. Party members close to him say that the BJP leader is “most comfortable” among the people. He “walked the talk,” as his party workers say.
By single-handedly raising funds and building a temple in the region, Kumar paved the way for garnering support from local devout Hindus in Karimnagar. Apart from that, wherever there is a communal flare-up in the region, Kumar is known to be vocal while airing his views, which often include calls for “surgical strikes” on the BRS and corruption.
During his student days, Kumar had amassed a lot of young followers in Karimnagar when he joined the RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). He also became the ABVP’s national secretary and accompanied senior BJP leader LK Advani for several days during his 1996 Rath Yatra. He then went on to become a municipal corporator of Karimnagar in 2005, a post he held until 2019. He is known to have a strong bond with the party grassroots.
What was little known to his Opposition was the micro-level campaign being carried out to woo voters in the constituency. Some BRS workers said on condition of anonymity that they believe that such a campaign was one of the reasons behind the party’s loss in the region in 2019.
After his defeat in the 2019 general elections, the BRS’ Kumar said: “I worked hard in the best interests of Telangana and Karimnagar. It is because of me that Karimnagar got the Smart City tag, a new railway line, a Science centre, AIIMS, Central University and IT tower and a cable bridge along with clearances from many departments for the dream project of CM KCR—Kaleshwaram (irrigation project).” He also said: “Men may come and go. But the work we do will remain forever in the hearts of people.”
In the first week of July, the BJP replaced Kumar, the firebrand leader, with a well-liked Gangapuram Kishan Reddy to lead the party into the Telangana Assembly elections later this year. It was alleged that Kumar had frequent run-ins with rival leaders within the BJP and those who recently crossed over to the BJP from the BRS. However, the strategy of sending RSS volunteers to visit families belonging to a certain strata of society seems to have worked in the BJP’s favour.
Wooing Women Voters
Like Lakshmi, there are many other women in Karimnagar who are at the other end of the door-to-door campaign by RSS workers. “We feel a sense of happiness that they are showing us respect. It is no different to what our family members do for us and what we do for them when we go to each other’s houses on auspicious occasions,” says Gayatri, a vegetable vendor.
While justifying the visits by the RSS volunteers, she says, “It is not that they give us these things so we vote for them. They become familiar faces and fulfil promises made to us so we know who to vote for. We return the loyalty.”
Data shows that over the last few elections, registered women voters have risen numerically alongside a steady rise in the numbers who are coming out to vote and contributing to the winning side, making them a significant target group for all political parties. In Telangana, 3.5 lakh new women voters were added to the electoral roll by the beginning of this year.
“If you look at the vote percentage, more women are voting. Men are managed through bars, wine shops and other places where they are usually found. Women are mainly found at self-help groups, caste gatherings and church-level meetings. Political parties target these spaces particularly,” says Sujatha Surepally, professor and Head of the Department of Sociology at Satavahana University, Telangana. She is also a prominent activist and advocate for Adivasi and Dalit women’s rights.
If you put justice on one side and Bhagwan (God) on the other, people will go for Bhagwan, Surepally recalls her observations from her election campaigns. She joined the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 2018 and was up against BRS candidate Balka Suman from the SC-reserved Chennur constituency.
She says such practices are not uncommon. “Political parties know who to target. They won’t come to us, educated people. The parties try to tap into the age-old sentiments being practised in these houses. As a result, women from illiterate and marginalised backgrounds fall prey to such kind of emotional blackmailing. The general perception is that women will be happy if they are given these things,” she says.
These days, most parties offer money to voters, but capturing their emotions by endorsing religious and cultural practices has become a potent electoral strategy, she adds.
Do Voters Respond?
Almost five years since the last election, some women say that the ambitious election promises have remained idle, in cold storage. “They assured us big things … free healthcare, education and jobs. But I still struggle to pay fees for my children,” says Lalitha, a construction worker. “But my husband tells us to vote for the BJP because we always have, so that’s what I do,” she says, pointing to her husband. “Nothing, she is asking me who I voted for,” she says after her husband appears curious.
Samatha, a domestic worker, however says that such tactics do not work on her anymore. “They only come during election time, almost disappearing after that. We could have been influenced once or twice but not every time. They tell us promises made to us will be fulfilled but none of that happens,” she says.
Along with Samatha are other women domestic workers in the state who have a WhatsApp group where they inform each other about such groups approaching them. “We tell each other that such people are coming and offering gifts. We then congregate and place our demands in front of the parties. We have been asking for a provident fund for domestic workers and other self-employed persons. But it hasn’t been done till now. Some parties come and discuss these issues with us. But some only do it for symbolic reasons,” says Samatha. “Now elections will come again, they will start coming again…” she says, chuckling.
While there is no empirical evidence to determine if the micro-level campaign has been successful with women, sociologists and election analysts say that women expect some material assurances, too. “Touching feet, giving kum kum are all traditional practices of a family that are usually witnessed during auspicious and inauspicious situations such as birth, death, marriage and puberty ceremonies. By reinforcing these practices, the party wants to believe they can propagate their ideology within everyone which will, in turn, translate into a vote,” says Professor E Venkatesu from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. They believe every house, every ward and every person must be touched by the party’s beliefs, Venkatesu says. He believes that the BJP has not been able to secure votes by raking up issues such as Ayodhya in South India. “Hence, they are resorting to micro-level campaigns by using existing traditional practices, a big deal to people down South. Whether it will convert into an effective vote bank for long is a thousand-dollar question,” he adds.
Telangana women have played a very important role in the struggle and the mobilisation for the formation of Telangana as a separate state. Equal pay for equal work, wife battering, alcoholism, nutrition and hygiene, worksite facilities for women at industrial sites and the provision for separate toilet facilities were some rights that the women fought for.
Now these women lament that Telangana didn’t become what they had imagined. “Telangana was achieved after several social struggles. But now women and Dalits are just being used as token representatives by political parties,” says Sujatha.
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(This appeared as 'Vermillion for Votes' in print)