August 7, 1988, was a red-letter day in the politics of Andhra Pradesh. Chief Minister and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) founder NT Rama Rao was chosen chairman of the National Front, heralding an era of coalition governments at the Centre.
NTR, as he was popularly called, was accepted as a national leader by stalwarts such as VP Singh, Jyothi Basu, Madhu Dandavate, Biju Patnaik, M Karunanidhi, SR Bommai, PK Mohanta and Devi Lal. Just six years into politics after a sterling film career, he was neither a political veteran nor fluent enough in Hindi to lead a national front dominated by leaders from the North.
A decade later, in 1996, N Chandrababu Naidu, NTR’s son-in-law and Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh from the same TDP, was given the reins of the United Front. Chandrababu, who took a complete U-turn in just a couple of years, again won the pride of place in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) as well, as he was even made the convener of the alliance.
Chandrababu has the distinction of heading both anti-Congress and anti-BJP coalitions. Both he and NTR were content with the role of king-maker.
Although NTR did float an outfit called Bharata Desam, it was not a serious attempt. Bharata Desam was announced as a quick reaction to Rajiv Gandhi’s jibe that “The country would disintegrate if every state launches parties like Kashmiri Desam, Bengal Desam followed NTR’s Telugu Desam.” To prove that he had indeed a plan to launch a national party, NTR announced Bharata Desam. But it was not a serious intention to switch base to New Delhi.
However, K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR), Chief Minister of the newly carved out Telugu state of Telangana, is different. He is desperate to migrate to New Delhi with a specific agenda.
He believes his mission in Telangana has successfully been accomplished and it is time to run the Central government on similar lines. But, in spite of his best efforts and enviable credit of leading the Telangana statehood movement, the opportunity to cobble together a political coalition at the Centre, like his mentors NTR and Chandrababu did, looks elusive for KCR.
Unsettled by the failure to become the nucleus for a coalition of regional parties, and the growing threat of the BJP in the state, KCR has become maddeningly pedantic. Not a day passes without him haranguing party workers or the media on how to run the Union government and what should the foreign, agriculture, water and economic policies contain. But, unfortunately for him, his appeal refuses to travel beyond the state borders.
It is evident that KCR has not been able to convince non-BJP and anti-BJP political parties on the need to forge a federal front as per his game plan. He has been calling on leaders from all corners of India. His pre-2019 endeavour was a disaster. And his post-2019 attempts are a non-starter.
No bang, but whimper
Though KCR has intensified his anti-BJP and anti-Modi rhetoric recently, following the setback in two by-elections, he has not been taken seriously as the icon of secular India against the Hindutva BJP. His high-profile meetings with the chief ministers of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Delhi ended not with a bang but a whimper.
The response was so poor that at the party’s recent plenary, KCR had to declare that he had never had a plan to forge an anti-BJP coalition. He comically rubbished the idea of the front he assiduously worked for over three years.
The statement, however, appears to have come from a painful realisation that a fluent Hindi-speaking mass leader like him who achieved statehood for Telangana without shedding a drop of blood was being given short shrift by non-BJP and anti-BJP parties.
Son’s succession plans
KCR’s annoyance is not without reason. The more he delayed his New Delhi departure, the rougher became the succession road for his son KT Rama Rao (KTR).
KCR wants the succession in the state to be a smooth affair, and savour it as an icing on the cake along with his triumph in national politics. Because previous takeover bids by political family members in the combined Andhra Pradesh had ended up in coups of sorts.
In 1996, Chandrababu had to literally stage a coup to succeed his father-in-law NTR, in a manner reminiscent of Mughal palace intrigues. And, in 2009, a young Jaganmohan Reddy could not succeed as the Congress supremo in the state after his father YS Rajasekhar Reddy’s untimely death in a helicopter crash. Jagan’s dream of becoming chief minister soured. He had to tread a tortuous path for eight years, that included jail time. Chandrababu’s dream of anointing his son Nara Lokesh as his successor in 2019 was shattered by the arrival of Jagan.
So, KCR wants the succession in Telangana to be a peaceful and proud moment — after all, his son state minister KTR is a legitimate heir. Any delay and the BJP could play spoilsport.
TRS to BRS?
The situation worries Gadari Kishore, a TRS MLA from Tungaturti. In his view, his boss is being given short shrift by other political parties because the TRS is a minor party in the Lok Sabha with just nine seats out of 17 from the state.
To overcome the problem, the MLA suggests KCR convert TRS into BRS – Bharatiya Rashtra Samiti – so that the party can contest from neighbouring states to increase its tally to at least 50. “KCR led a historic movement to achieve statehood for Telangana. He led the TRS party so successfully that it commands an absolute majority in the Assembly. As Chief Minister, KCR transformed Telangana into a power surplus, water surplus state. The welfare schemes KCR introduced are being replicated in other states. So, it is high time that KCR renamed TRS as BRS to launch a national movement for good governance at the national level,” Gadari Kishore wrote in a Telugu Daily.
Cracks appearing at party level
But KCR’s unsuccessful chasing of an unrealisable national agenda amid aggressive expansion of the BJP in the state is taking a toll on the party organisation. For the first time, signs of the leadership losing grips over the party are showing up. Internal bickerings are raging uncontrollably in the districts of Ranga Reddy, Mahabub Nagar, Khammam, Mahabubabad, Adilabad, etc, where the fight to control the party machinery by MLAs and MPs has made headlines.
The party’s strange predicament is that any drastic step to curb the warring local leaders will push one of the contenders either to reviving the Congress or boosting the emergent BJP. After a long gap, alternatives in the form of the BJP and the Congress are visible on the horizon for TRS dissidents.
There is speculation that former minister Jupalli Krishna Rao, an important leader, would join the Congress soon. According to Koride Mahesh, a senior journalist and commentator on Telangana affairs, it was the prime reason for KCR to not attempt a cabinet reshuffle.
“Cabinet reshuffle opens flood gates to dissidence. At the present juncture, when the BJP is presenting itself as a viable alternative in the state, creating too many dissidents is bound to portray the party in an unfavourable light,” Koride said.
Why KCR’s plan is a non-starter
According to Urmilesh, a political commentator and former executive editor of Rajya Sabha TV, KCR has been facing a credibility crisis. “In spite of his virulent campaign against the BJP’s Hindutva policies and Modi’s government, KCR can’t become a champion of anti-BJP secular politics. For a long time, he had collaborated with the BJP. He is one of those who do not hesitate to join hands with Modi if it suits them. So, traditional anti-BJP parties like the Left, DMK, RJD, AAP, JMM, etc. can’t accept him as a credible partner,” Urmilesh told The Federal from New Delhi.
There is no North-South angle in it, he added. “The North has accepted Southern leaders when they are credible. Northern parties are not worried about KCR’s Hindi fluency. NTR and Chandrababu Naidu were the most popular leaders in North India despite their Hindi language problems. For KCR, it is his credibility that has become a stumbling block,” Urmilesh said.
All about timing
Prof K Srinivasulu, an eminent political analyst from Osmania University, has a different reason for KCR’s predicament — that it’s all about the timing. A congenial time period worked in favour of NTR and Chandrababu in the late 1980s, and this is absent now for the TRS supremo.
“The post-emergency period witnessed many peasant movements in India, which produced a crop of farmers’ leaders across India and all were staunch anti-Congress in their ideology. And all of them were popular as regional leaders. The regional parties under their control enjoyed a historical necessity. This single-minded ideology and peasant background worked as a glue to bring them together in the form of NF and UF to take on the mighty Congress led by Indira Gandhi.
“With the advent of Modi now, a new political culture — one-nation, one-party, one-tax, one-leader, one-language etc — is trying to devour the nation, upsetting the regional-national political balance. So, regional parties and their leaders are set to lose the status they enjoyed in the previous decades. The emergence of a national leader from these parties is a bit difficult now,” said Srinivasulu, summarising the circumstances that are holding KCR from becoming a national leader like Modi.
But the delusional party cadre and leaders love to chant ‘PM–KCR’ whenever the TRS supremo refers to national politics, at any public meeting. They are under the impression that KCR, who is fluent in Hindi, Urdu and English, is the right man to steer the nation through the present economic and political crises.