by Sumit Pande
In August last year, former Telangana health minister Etela Rajender dropped enough hints about his future course of action while addressing party workers in a village in Hazurabad. In an emotional outburst, the founding member of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) said he had not sought ministerial berth as ‘alms’.
“I did not seek it under BC (Backward Classes) quota,” reports quoted Rajender as saying. That the soft-spoken leader was responding to media reports of him being dropped in the cabinet reshuffle was clear. But upping the ante by stoking his caste credentials was perhaps the first sign that he was now looking for life outside the TRS.
Nine months later, Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao dropped his health minister and later expelled him from the party. Rajender has maintained that allegations of land grabbing against him are politically motivated and fabricated.
The disruption in the TRS ranks is being observed very closely by other parties from the sidelines. Political observers asked whether Rajender can do to KCR what the TRS chief did to Chandrababu Naidu.
On that count, the TRS has been too careful to ensure not to hand Rajender a parting gift in the form of an emotive issue; something which can be milked politically, like the Telangana creation issue which helped KCR mount an alternative political front after walking out of Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP).
The TRS clearly did not want Etela to leave the party as a martyr. Or as someone representing a social group which has been wronged. Unlike Mamata Banerjee who gave Suvendu Adhikari a very long rope, KCR acted fast with absolute clarity of mind.
That the TRS is taking this local revolt pretty seriously is evident from the fact that KCR’s son KT Rama Rao and nephew Harish Rao have reportedly been deputed by the chief minister to salvage the situation and consolidate the cadre if the party were to face bypolls in Hazurabad.
Etla’s meeting with JP Nadda in Delhi is an indication that the former minister might join the BJP. So what does Telangana’s first finance minister bring to the table for the party which has thus far found the going tough in southern states except Karnataka?
Telangana has over 50% backward class population, a substantial number for any party to build its support base.
This electorate galvanized around the larger social coalition formed by the TDP to mount a challenge against the Congress which was being seen as a Reddy-dominated party.
After the division of the state, the TDP lost steam in Telangana. Backward Classes, thus, mobilised around the TRS.
The BJP has been the biggest beneficiary of Mandal mobilisation of backward castes in north India. The party has succeeded in only one southern state, Karnataka, by effectively appropriating Lingayat votes, a numerically dominant intermediary caste.
So is the party now trying to build caste mobilisation of BCs to create a threshold political capital which can be used as a building block for a larger coalition?
“In Telangana, we had leaders from all castes and communities. Bandaru Dattatreya is from BC community. Vidyasagar Rao is Vellama, the same caste as the current chief minister. Bangaru Laxman was a Dalit leader. But our problem has been that we have not been in the reckoning in the state. And that has been the biggest impediment for the party,” claims a senior BJP leader from the south.
Will the BJP’s ascension to power in Delhi and elsewhere changes things in Telangana?
KCR that way has been pretty agile in watering down any attempts by the BJP to emerge as a strident alternative. He has never taken a strident position against Prime Minister Narendra Modi or the central leadership. And he has not put down in his signature on joint statements or letters to the PM by opposition leaders on a host of issues.
That way, KCR has modelled his relationship with the Centre much like Naveen Patnaik in neighbouring Odisha, and not Mamata Banerjee.
Etela Rajender’s politics in areas of his influence has clearly been left of the centre. Which is why there was speculation earlier that he may form his own party and then stitch an alliance with the Left and the Congress.
That not happening, the first big challenge for Etela would be to retain Hazurabad, a seat he has represented for four consecutive terms.
Ironically, it is a seat where the BJP has not done really well.
Politics does make strange bedfellows.