The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) has just scored a decisive triumph in the second election after the formation of Telangana. Exploiting its electoral potential and decimating its rivals’ strategy, the party has increased both its seat and vote share. This victory undoubtedly owes big to one of the shrewdest political entrepreneurs in our times, Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao (KCR), the undisputed leader of the TRS and the first chief minister of the state. With this win, the TRS not only consolidates its position but also asks serious questions of the Congress.
KCR’s decision to dissolve the assembly nearly nine months ahead of schedule and go for early elections was the final factor in what, with the advantage of hindsight, looks like a finely-crafted strategy to win and consolidate itself in the state. Legislative assembly elections in Telangana were due alongside the Lok Sabha elections next year. By doing an Indira Gandhi, KCR cut the link between the national and state elections and brought the spotlight on his government, party and leadership.
The early election ensured that the BJP could not ride on the coattails of its party leader and prime minister, Narendra Modi. At the same time, it hurried the Congress and did not allow it to get its act together. Most importantly, given the so-called honeymoon period the party is likely to enjoy, it could carry the momentum to the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. This puts the TRS in a strong position to influence national-level decision making for the next couple of years.
However, to get to this point, the TRS has, over the last four-and-a-half years, working with single-minded determination experiencing both the pressures and pleasures of being in government. It has borrowed liberally from its challengers, gradually closed the space and neutralised them. From the Congress, the party learnt that a host of welfare programmes and populist schemes could help create a loyal electorate. The advantage of being one of the richest states in the country and with a revenue surplus, the government splurged money on almost every section of society.
Some of its programmes like Mission Kakatiya, which sought to restore tanks and strengthen community-based irrigation, and Mission Bhagiratha, which aimed to provide clean drinking water across the state, received both national and international attention. At the same time, the government has also incurred more capital expenditure in the last four years than over the last decade.
Unlike say, a Digvijaya Singh, or a Chandrababu Naidu, who relied solely on development as the major plank of their appeal to voters, or a Lalu Prasad who played the identity card, KCR mixed policy-development performance and identity politics. Besides the basket of welfare programmes, the TRS attempted to specifically cultivate different groups. The party reached out to communities by promoting community halls and community-based schemes. Closer to the elections, the party also held public meetings that exclusively targeted one caste-based group at a time.
At the same time, KCR wore his religiosity on his sleeve, for all to see and this undoubtedly cut the wind from the sails of the BJP. He not only liberally endowed Hindu places of worship with gold, jewellery and money from the state exchequer, but also oversaw a series of “yagnas” and prayers supposedly for the prosperity of the state and well-being of its people. Besides this, the state also had an “advisor on architecture” to ensure that government structures were Vaastu compliant. Media reports over the past four years also highlighted how astrology and numerology influenced government decisions.
To demonstrate that the TRS was in no way inferior to the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) when it came to creating a business-friendly environment, the government adopted a series of initiatives to retain the investment destination tag. In the latest rankings of the ease of doing business index for states, Telangana came second after Andhra Pradesh. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), which has pockets of support in Hyderabad, was co-opted and made an ally. Besides this, the government also announced reservations for Muslims, despite knowing that it is unlikely to pass judicial muster.
From the Telangana movement to the government, it was a big step and a new phase for the party. In government, the party has had to defend policies and not criticise them, make compromises and not attack concessions. The militants in the movement were unhappy with the performance of the party and were critical of the compromises it made. To counter the Telangana Jana Samithi (TJS), which also emerged from the movement, the TRS strategically raised the bogey of Andhra rule and the role of Chandrababu Naidu.
The TRS and the new government, however, have a series of challenges before it. First, despite claims of a golden Telangana and promise to make it the most farmer friendly state in the country, there have been more than 2,000 suicides during the term of the previous government. Small and marginal farmers who constitute the bulk of the farming community have had little to cheer about. The Rythu Bandhu and Rythu Bima schemes are not necessarily universal and have generally benefited large farmers and exclude those who do not have land titles.
Second, it is unlikely that the new government will enjoy as much financial leverage as the inaugural government since the state’s fiscal deficit has already gone beyond the accepted limits. Third, the biggest challenge for the new government is likely to be increasing employment opportunities. Almost all recent surveys have shown that employment is among the biggest concerns for the voter. The youth played a massive role in the Telangana movement, and it was expected that their needs would be taken care after state formation.
Finally, this victory also strengthens the hold of the Kalvakuntla family over the party. This domination opens space for the exit of ambitious politicians and, at the same time, raises hope for political challengers outside the party.