In 2016, at an event marking the launch of Mission Bhagiratha – a flagship project of his government to supply piped drinking water to every Telangana household, Telangana CM K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) shared the stage with PM Narendra Modi. Welcoming the PM in his Assembly constituency of Gajwel, Rao heaped praises on the PM, calling him "Bharat desh ke atyant lokpriya neta (one of the most popular leaders of India)."
Stating that Modi was running a "100% corruption-free government", Rao said, "The credit for running the corruption-free government goes to Modi. I have not seen such a government in my 40 years of political life. This will go down in history."
From 2014 until recently, KCR and his party Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), consistently adopted a fence-sitter policy, breaking ranks with the opposition and voting in favour of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Parliament. Dubbed as the BJP's B-team or an unofficial ally more reliable than official allies, TRS and its leader had no qualms in siding with the saffron party on crucial matters even when most other opposition parties were taking on BJP.
For instance, during the first COVID-19 lockdown, when most opposition parties derided PM Modi's call of lighting candles, banging thaalis and clapping as a "feel good, photo-op moment," KCR was vocal in his support for the PM. The Telangana CM had even issued a stern warning to those trolling the PM.
Calling for police action against those trolling Modi, KCR was quoted as saying, "There is a limit for everything. He is the Prime Minister of India. We should respect him. The messages that are posted on social media against Modi are disgusting. Can't they show minimum courtesy towards a PM? What's wrong with PM asking people to clap at 5 pm? It's a gesture to show India's unity and resolve to fight against corona. I, too, will clap at 5 pm along with my family members at Pragathi Bhavan. I ask the DGP to investigate and catch the culprits trolling Modi."
More recently, when the PM and his government were facing flak from all quarters for going ahead with the Central Vista project even as the nation was in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, KCR was quick to offer support.
In a letter to the PM, Rao stated that the new Central Vista project would symbolise self-esteem, prestige and national pride of a resurgent, confident and strong India. The Telangana CM had his reasons for supporting Modi's pet project, even at the risk of drawing the ire of other opposition parties. He has been facing stern criticism for proposing to build a new state secretariat worth over Rs 500 crores in the place of the old one.
Earlier, TRS leaders would often target local BJP leaders. Still, when it came to PM Modi and BJP's central leadership, the party adopted a cautious approach, exercising restraint and refraining from making any comments criticising them. However, in the last few months, TRS leaders, including KCR, have made headlines for consistently making scathing attacks on the ruling party and the PM.
KCR AND TRS TURNING UP THE HEAT ON THE BJP
KCR, who once lauded Modi for providing "100% corruption-free governance," is now alleging corruption has gone through the roof during the Modi years. In a press conference held in February, he threatened BJP to the people's court and the Supreme court over the Rafale scam.
Interestingly, when the Rafale scam first made headlines in September 2016, the Telangana CM was busy praising Modi. Corruption is not the only issue on which KCR has targeted Modi and BJP recently.
Taking a potshot at Modi's brand of governance and the much-hyped Gujarat model, he dubbed it "upar sherwani, andar pareshani [all style, no substance]". In the run-up to the Assembly elections in five states, attacking Modi's dressing style and election rallies, KCR said, "If it is election time, he has to grow a beard and appear like Rabindranath Tagore… If it is Tamil Nadu, he must wear a lungi. If it is a Punjab election, he will wear a pagdi (turban). In Manipur, it will be a Manipuri cap."
In the past few months, KCR has rarely missed an opportunity to take on BJP. The Telangana CM has hit out at the ruling party over various issues: BJP's communal pitch, the Karnataka Hijab controversy, Modi's foreign policy, politicisation of surgical strikes, jobs and economic crisis, the mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis, etc. But the biggest face-off between the TRS and BJP recently has been over the procurement of paddy.
Over the last few years, the rise in irrigation projects in the state, welfare schemes for farmers and greater availability of power supply have led to a remarkable rise in paddy production. In September 2021, KCR cautioned farmers against cultivating paddy and advised them to diversify by cultivating other crops. An official press release from the CMO had stated that farmers opting for paddy in the next season would be "suicidal" as the Union government had categorically announced its decision not to procure a single tonne of boiled rice.
A report in the Indian Express claimed that initially, the Union government had promised to procure 65 lakh tonnes of paddy, but after procuring 45 lakh tonnes of the crop, it refused to procure more, claiming that there were enough stocks.
The Telangana government wanted the Union government to procure the entire stock of 75 lakh tonnes. In this crossfire between the state and the Union government, farmers struggled to get buyers for their crops. Farmers have always been crucial to KCR and his party's prospects. With their discontent rising over the issue, the Telangana CM had to take on BJP and the Union government.
In November 2021, KCR wrote to the PM complaining about the arbitrary policies of the Food Corporation of India (FCI). In the same month, he held a protest in the state capital asking the Modi government to adopt a "One Nation, One Procurement" policy. An HT report quoted the CM on the issue, "The Centre is procuring 100% paddy from Punjab to appease the agitating farmers there. Why is it not doing it in Telangana? Moreover, the Centre has refused to buy even a single kg of rice from Telangana during the Rabi season and got a written commitment from us to this effect."
But the issue died down then as the focus shifted to the state Assembly polls. When the results went BJP's way, and with no solution to the problem, TRS decided to revive the issue again. In April, KCR took the fight over paddy procurement to Delhi and held a much-publicised dharna in the state capital along with his entire cabinet.
The Telangana CM made a series of scathing attacks against the Prime Minister and his government. Rao accused the Union government of adopting a step-motherly attitude towards Telangana. He alleged that the Union Food Minister Piyush Goyal had spoken in "an insulting tone" with his ministers in a meeting to discuss the issue.
KCR's TRS, which bailed out BJP on several occasions since it came to power in 2014, even protested in the parliament and staged a walkout. Earlier this year, in February, TRS MPs moved a privilege motion against PM Modi over remarks on the passage of the Telangana formation bill. When the Union government refused to budge on the paddy issue, the KCR government announced that it had decided to procure paddy from the state's farmers. While the paddy procurement issue may have subsided, the face-off between the TRS and BJP is likely to intensify and continue soon.
While KCR has been reluctant to take on BJP on issues like GST dues, state-centre relations and federalism in the past, unlike other non-BJP CMs, he has shown more than enough signs of ditching the fence-sitter attitude and revising his views on these issues. Addressing the state Assembly in March, KCR derided BJP's much-hyped "Double Engine" model as "Trouble Engine" and accused the ruling party of damaging the federal setup.
The official acknowledgement of the party's shift in strategy came at the party's plenary held a few weeks ago. In his inaugural address, KCR said, "What India requires is not a political front or political realignments with the sole agenda of pulling down BJP from the Centre. We don't require a political agenda but an alternative people's agenda that can lead the country toward progress and development. Any new experiment should be based on this philosophy."
A series of resolutions passed at the plenary targeted the BJP government on various issues and hinted at TRS going national to dislodge the Modi government.
NO OTHER OPTION FOR KCR AND TRS
What has forced TRS and KCR to change their strategy and take on BJP? The simple answer is the slow but steady rise in stocks of BJP in Telangana. For a long time, Congress was the main opposition to TRS. While the grand old party is probably still the number two party in the state, the gains made by BJP cannot be ignored. Rao is wary of BJP gaining ground at the expense of Congress in the state, a phenomenon that has been seen in many other states in recent times.
When KCR first came to power in 2014, BJP was barely a force to reckon with in the state. In the last Assembly elections held in 2018, BJP performed poorly as it won just one seat, lost deposit in 103 seats (out of 117) and garnered a measly vote share of 7%.
But since then, BJP has been on the rise in Telangana. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, BJP tripled its vote share by capturing almost 20% of the votes polled and winning four seats. More importantly, KCR's daughter Kalvakuntla Kavitha was defeated by BJP candidate Dharmapuri Aravind, a known KCR baiter. Then, in November 2020, BJP shocked everyone by wresting the Dubbak seat in the by-elections.
In December, BJP performed impressively in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation Polls (GHMC), proving that the Dubbak by-poll victory was no fluke. BJP's tally went up from four to 48 as TRS fell from 99 to 56 in the 150-member GHMC. The last straw for KCR was probably the Huzurabad by-polls, where despite going all guns blazing, TRS lost to BJP. These electoral setbacks seemed to have convinced the TRS supremo that BJP can no longer be ignored as it might emerge as the principal opposition to TRS in the 2023 polls.
The Telangana CM, an astute politician, realises that playing footsie with BJP or adopting a fence-sitter approach is no longer an option for him and his party. With BJP breathing down its neck, TRS has to take on the saffron party. Buoyed by its performance in the recent Assembly polls and given its insatiable desire for electoral expansion, it is very likely that BJP will leave no stone unturned to displace TRS in Telangana.
Taking on BJP is also in sync with KCR's national ambitions as it raises his stocks among the non-BJP parties. But there is no doubt that securing his home turf is KCR's priority. In other words, the reason behind KCR's sudden outburst against Modi/BJP (and KCR's priority) is 2023 (Assembly elections) and not 2024 (General elections). This explains why KCR stated that he was not interested in forming political fronts at the TRS plenary. It is a startling statement to be made by someone who claims that dislodging the BJP government is his goal.
The statement seems more baffling when one looks at KCR's history of putting together fronts/alliances. But there is a reason behind KCR suddenly ditching the idea of a front to take on BJP. Non-BJP leaders like Sharad Pawar, MK Stalin and even political strategist Prashant Kishor have shot down the idea of a political front sans the Congress to take on BJP in 2024. It is also worth noting that recently, TRS signed a deal with Prashant Kishor for the 2023 Assembly polls.
If KCR commits to joining a front to take on BJP in 2024, it would effectively mean TRS is joining hands with Congress. Such a move may hurt the prospects of TRS in the 2023 Assembly polls as it can result in the transfer of anti-Congress votes to BJP and also make BJP the sole claimant of the anti-incumbency vote. KCR realises that with BJP on the rise in Telangana and the Congress still pretty much present, he is now fighting two national parties in the state. As stated earlier, KCR's priority is to secure his home turf; hence, it is not surprising to see him suddenly ditch the idea of political fronts.
A good showing in the 2023 Assembly polls and KCR's national ambitions are closely linked. An impressive showing in the state polls will boost his status. Unlike an ageing Pawar, KCR has age on his side, and unlike Mamta Banerjee or Stalin, he is fluent in Hindi (and Urdu). On the flip side, KCR's history of u-turns and flip flops might harm his chances. How serious KCR is about "throwing BJP in the Bay of Bengal" will be known soon by the stance his party adopts in the Presidential polls. Thus, the first litmus test for KCR's "new TRS" will be the Presidential polls.
The author is a freelancer based in Bombay and an alumnus of Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College. His interests vary from politics, psephology, and journalism to regional Indian cinema. He tweets @Omkarismunlimit