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By-elections and Telangana Agitation

First published by the author in the Economic and Political Weekly  august 14, 2010 vol xlv no 33 13by the same author.


The recent by-elections in the

12 assembly constituencies of

Telangana indicate that the

separate statehood demand has

come to dominate the political

discourse of the region. Social

classes and groups seem to have

left older political affiliations and

coalesced around candidates who

stand unequivocally for separate

statehood. The dominant political

parties – the Congress and the

Telugu Desam – have paid heavily

by not taking a clear stand and

trying to play both sides.

The overwhelming performance of

the Telangana Rashtra Samiti

(TRS) in the recent by-elections

held in the Telangana region of Andhra

Pradesh (AP), caused by the resignation

of the TRS legislators in support of the

separate Telangana demand, is not much

of a surprise for anyone familiar with the

dynamics of the ground situation. The

miserable performance of the Congress

and the Telugu Desam (TDP) could be

seen as symptomatic of the deeper crisis

these parties are undergoing in the

region. Their response to the electoral

outcome has only further highlighted the

confusion within them on the Telangana

issue, as they have sought to attribute

their defeat to their inability to take

their points of view on Telangana to the

people and to the popular sympathy for

TRS candidates. This has only given further

credence to the TRS’ claim that its

victory is a clear popular mandate for

the Telangana state demand and therefore

should be treated as a referendum on

the issue. It is no exaggeration to say that

this election could become an important

turning point in the Telangana movement

by influencing the dynamics of party

politics decisively. Given this, it would be

instructive to understand the complex

processes at work that this election symptomatically


The Union Home Minister, P Chidambaram’s

announcement of the decision

of the Government of India to initiate the

process of formation of the state of Telangana

in December 2009 in response to the

fast by the TRS leader K Chandrasekhar

Rao (KCR) and the mass mobilisation, cutting

across party and political lines that

happened in support of the demand, was

seen to put an end to the long impasse on the

issue. The unexpected and swift reaction

from the coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema

regions opposing this announcement

initiated a new phase in the politics of

Telangana state demand. The electrifying

speed with which the members of the

state assembly and Parliament from these

regions, cutting across party lines, put in

their resignations and the galvanising of

support from students and employees led

to a series of protests. In the last decade

the separate Telangana state demand has

been articulated widely, public support

mobilised and it became an important

electoral issue influencing outcomes in

the Telangana region in both the 2004

and 2009 elections. Therefore, this orchestrated

reaction came as a shock because

there had not been a history of any

such articulation in the other two regions

of Andhra Pradesh which could indicate

such an opposition, on such a scale.

It may be recollected that the TRS’ alliance

with the Congress in 2004 and the

TDP in 2009 was based on the professed

support to the Telangana demand by these

latter two parties. Both these parties

committed themselves to the Telangana

demand in their election manifestos.

There has not been any significant opposition

to this demand either from the

political elite or any other section of civil

society in the other two regions of the

state. In fact, the dalit and civil rights

groups in coastal Andhra have been

consistent and vocal in their support to

separate Telangana, with the view that

this would significantly reduce the dominance

of the two powerful castes of the

Reddys and Kammas, and thereby facilitate

the democratisation of the political

system. The absence of any internal opposition

in these parties to their stand on

support to the Telangana demand gives

credence to the view that the recent

mobilisation against Chidambaram’s announcement,

in the name of the so-called

Samaikya (unified) Andhra, is the creation

of the political-cum-business class of

the coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema

regions. The consequent popular mobilisation

appears to be the result of the

alleged pumping-in of huge money and

inciting a sense of insecurity among the

students and unemployed, who look towards

Hyderabad as a source of employment.

Given the logic of uneven regional 

development that characterises the state

and the concentrated development of Hyderabad

city since the mid-1990s, resulting

in its emergence as a major source of

employment, the sense of anxiety among

the youth of other regions is quite understandable.

This was used to ignite the anti-

Telangana sentiment in the Andhra region.

However, the volte-face of the political

elite of Andhra and Rayalaseema in the

immediate aftermath of the announcement

by the central government has to be seen as

a clear negation of the consensus that has

evolved with all the political parties, with

the exception of the Communist Party of

India (Marxist) and the Majlis-e-Ittehadul

Muslimeen, taking an official stand in

favour of a separate state for Telangana.

The Government of India’s decision to

reopen the issue by citing “changed circumstances”

necessitating an extensive

dialogue on the Telangana statehood issue,

is perceived in this region as a move to,

again, put the issue on a back-burner. This

had ignited passions in the Telangana region

with students, writers, artists, employees,

businessmen, farmers, occupational communities

and almost every section of the

society coming on to the streets, starting a

prolonged agitation.

Telangana Agitation

Crucial to this agitation is the formation of

joint action committees (JACs) down to

the village level. Given the sharp political

polarisation that has characterised the

state’s politics after the emergence of the

TDP, it has become almost impossible to

view any issue in AP villages on terms

other than party lines. Despite such intense

politicisation, it is alarming to note that

the general trust in political leadership

and parties has been very low. The affiliation

to political parties, it would not be

far from true to suggest, has been largely

instrumentalist – driven by narrow selfinterest

rather than commitment to any

ideology. In view of this, the experiment

with the JAC format, with non-party

public personalities in the lead, has been

seen as a way out of political polarisation

and the resultant fragmentation. JACs

have emerged in almost every village in

Telangana. They are usually headed by a

prominent local non-party individual, like

a teacher or lawyer, and the political party

leaders have remained in the rear. With the

intensification of the movement, participation

took varied forms with people

joining as castes, as community and as

occupational groups. For example, one

day local weavers would participate in the

dheeksha shibirams with their loom on

display, followed by carpenters, Muslims,

so on. A new form of solidarity was seen

evolving on the Telangana demand, based

on community identities and cutting

across political differences and party affiliations.

The fact that almost all the traditional

occupations are in crisis in the

post-liberalisation period is projected as

the result of the unjust unified state of

AP and the consequence of the rule of

non-Telangana leaders like Chandrababu

Naidu. Through an interesting discursive

mapping, the social and economic crisis in

the region and the tragedies of everyday

life are brought forth and tuned into support

to the Telangana issue. The impact of

cultural groups with left wing ideological

persuasions on the politico-cultural figuration

of the Telangana demand has also

been unmistakable.

Political parties have been divided on

regional lines, resulting in sharp vitriolic

exchanges by politicians within and

across parties. A political JAC, based on

the separate state demand was formed to

bring all the parties together and reduce

the possibility of mutual recriminations.

Except the communists, all parties joined

it. Quite understandably, this political

JAC, which was formed on the initiative

of the TRS, came to be seen as dominated

by it. Differences soon emerged in the

political JAC with the intensification of

the movement at the grass roots and the

TRS’ proactive role in setting the agenda

became irksome for the others. With the

suicides of students and youth increasing,

and students in the state university campuses

becoming restless, the TRS conjured

up its old trick of resignation and got it

approved in the political JAC. Under the

force of circumstances, all the members

of the legislative assembly (MLAs) from

Telangana sent their resignations to the

assembly speaker. This was obviously meant

to push the leadership of the Congress and

the TDP into a crisis so that they would be

forced to initiate steps within their respective

parties in favour of state formation.

However, when the time to get the approval

of their resignation approached the

Congress and TDP MLAs gradually slipped

off under the threat of their high command.

The MLAs of the TRS, along with

the sole BJP MLA and a TDP MLA (who, for

technical reasons, would have anyway

lost his membership), got the speaker to

accept their resignations. The TRS, which

has developed resignations as a weapon of

protest and propaganda, could not succeed

in bringing the Congress and TDP

members in Telangana into its strategic

fold. It was thus left on its own in the field.

TRS Victory

The TRS’ experience with resignation as a

political tactic has been quite mixed.

In 2006, when KCR resigned as Member

of Parliament (MP) from Karimnagar and

re-contested, he won the seat with a

thumping majority of 2.15 lakh votes. This

happened despite the no-holds-barred

campaign of the Congress under then

Chief Minister, Y S Rajasekhara Reddy.

KCR was seen to be successful in not

only focusing national attention to the

Telangana demand but also in pushing

the two major parties into crisis by

demonstrating the strong popular aspiration

for Telangana. He tried to repeat

the same again in 2007 by getting the 16

TRS MLAs to resign. In the consequent

by-election, only 10 incumbent TRS MLAs

got re-elected, while four lost their seats

to the Congress and two to the TDP. In

the by-election held in 2008 following

KCR’s second resignation as MP, he won

with a meagre margin of only 15,000 odd

votes. Voter fatigue and popular resentment

at the TRS’ electoral gimmicks was

quite evident.

The electoral fray, it may be noted, has

never been a strong forte of the TRS. This

is because the electoral field in the state is

shared by the Congress and the TDP with

their strong vote base and organisational

structure. The TRS, despite its claim of

being a movement-oriented party, has

never concentrated on popular mobilisation,

except as part of electoral politics. It is no

exaggeration to say that the TRS’ electoral

performance in 2004 and, subsequently,

in 2009 was largely a result of its alliance

with the Congress and the TDP, respectively.

In fact, during the last decade there has

been an autonomous mobilisation for the

Telangana cause by non-party individuals,

as well as by social and cultural organisations.

Their relationship with the TRS has

never been cosy or easy. They have looked

down upon the TRS for its emphasis on

lobbying and electoral politics as the principal

strategy, for its treatment of Telangana

as a geographic entity devoid of any

social vision and, of course, the narrow

upper caste social base of the Velama and

Reddy elite which dominates the TRS.

There is no evidence of these serious lacunae

and lapses being addressed, let alone

rectified, by the TRS leadership. For these

reasons, the TRS could not evolve into a

strong and autonomous political force that

could contest elections on its own. However,

in the sharply polarised and keenly

contested electoral arena, the TRS has

established itself as a player which could

upset the fortunes of other dominant parties

like the Congress and the TDP. This

explains their eagerness to ally with the

TRS in past elections.

Radical Realignment

The developments following Chidambaram’s

announcement in December 2009,

with regard to the formation of Telangana

state, have radically altered the political

equations and social alignments in this region.

What is critical to this change is the

emergence of the Telangana demand as

the sole issue of the region’s politics. It is

demonstrative of the depth of popular

support to the demand for a separate

Telangana that neither the chief minister

(CM) who is from the Congress nor the TDP

chief went to campaign for their candidates

in the by-elections. While the CM

shied away from the campaign, the TDP

supremo attempted to go on a tour to the

Babli dam in the neighbouring Maharashtra

(the construction of which is said to

adversely affect the irrigation needs of

northern Telangana) with his MLAs and

MPs, a week before the by-election, in an

attempt to foreground his party’s commitment

to the interests of Telangana. Though

the TDP’s move won them top level media

coverage for days before the polling, it

could not win them any votes despite

the arrests and alleged manhandling by

Maharashtra’s police. This is for the first

time that the TRS, contesting on its own,

could win all the 11 seats it contested and

that too with huge margins. The BJP, whose

MLA had also resigned on the Telangana

issue, won the only seat it contested, while

the TDP MLA from Sircilla contested, and

won, on the TRS ticket. The diffidence of

the Congress and TDP with regard to these

by-elections is proved to be right by the

fact that the TDP lost its deposit in all the

constituencies, while the ruling Congress

lost its deposit in four.

The most important development, that

has had a demoralising effect on the Congress,

is the defeat of D Srinivas, president

of the AP Congress Committee, from the

Nizamabad (urban) constituency, at the

hands of a relatively unknown BJP candidate.

Nizamabad (urban) has a large presence

of Muslim voters who have traditionally

been Congress supporters. What contributed

significantly to the BJP victory

in the 2009 election was the split of the

Muslim vote by the Praja Rajyam Party.

The defeat of the high profile Srinivas in

this election – when there was a concentrated

attention of men and resources by

the Congress Party, liberal promises to the

constituency, specially to the Muslim community,

and an alleged tacit understanding

with the TDP (which initially announced

an influential Muslim candidate

only to replace him with a lesser known

Hindu candidate) – has come as a rude

shock to the ruling party in AP. The electoral

outcome in Nizamabad illustrates

well the dominant popular mood this time.

The Muslim voters of Nizamabad, who

have been consciously anti-BJP all through,

seem to have voted in this election as a referendum

over the Telangana issue. The

TRS, as well as the students, employees

and cultural groups campaigning for the

BJP candidate sought to project the vote

to him as support for the Telangana cause

and said that the defeat of the Congress

president would emphatically demonstrate

the popular aspiration for Telangana.

The Message

This electoral outcome assumes significance

for two reasons. One is that it has

sent a clear message about the popular

mood in Telangana where political polarisation

over support for a separate state has

decimated the electoral prospects of the

two main political parties which have

been dominant in the region till recently.

Two, largely because of circumstances,

the social forces which have previously

been critical of and even ideologically

antithetical to the TRS have found it necessary

to gather around the TRS despite its

serious social and ideological limitations.

These changes would have serious implications

for the dominant parties as

their dilly-dallying and dubious approach

towards the issue of Telanaga statehood

has the potential to cause enormous damage

to their support bases in the region.

They are perceived to have, despite their official

stand in favour of a separate Telangana

state, played both sides opportunistically.

For instance, the TDP and Congress,

instead of submitting one representation

to the Srikrishna Committee constituted

by the centre to study the separate Telangana

demand, have allowed their leaders

from the three regions of AP to go their

own way and submit varied representations.

If these parties do not stop their

equivocation now and come out with clear

positions, it is no exaggeration to say that

their fortunes in Telangana could be

forfeited in the future.