A Conversation With: K.Taraka Rama Rao, Telangana leader




As regional parties grow in prominence in Indian national politics, one of the main parties in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana Rashtra Samithi, or T.R.S., is hoping to gain momentum in its campaign to carve out an independent Telangana state – a large landlocked territory in Andhra Pradesh that the party’s backers say is sidelined by coastal elites.

T.R.S. was founded 12 years ago but came to the fore in December 2009 when its charismatic founder, K.Chandrasekhar Rao, fasted nearly to death for the Telangana cause. The central government offered a deal for a new state in response, though it was subsequently revoked after strong opposition from coastal groups. Since then, suicides by young Telangana activists and protests in 2011 that paralyzed parts of Hyderabad have drawn further national attention to the movement. More recently, a march on Sept. 30 turned violent, though rioting subsided the next day.

In early November, Telangana members of Parliament threatened to resign and disrupt the ruling United Progressive Alliance’s tenuous majority if the U.P.A. didn’t move on the Telangana issue.

K.Taraka Rama Rao, son of the elder Mr.Rao and a top state legislator for T.R.S., went to Delhi in October to renegotiate with the central government for a separate Telangana, though talks failed and more protests are now planned for December. India Ink recently spoke with Mr. Rao, who is expected to take the helm of the party once his father retires, about the rising national role of regional parties and the challenges of creating a new state.

Q.What happened with the negotiations in Delhi?

A. We told Congress a couple of things. In the last three years, there has not been a form of protest that we haven’t used. We said that there can’t be a bigger sacrifice than sacrificing one’s life, and there can’t be a more emotional thing than a fast unto death. Lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of people have come out on to the streets. Hundreds of youth have killed themselves. And on top of all this, we told Congress that we were willing to merge our own party into theirs. But despite these commitments, Congress has gone into a shell once again and they don’t seem to respond.

Q.So you’ve decided to change tactics now?

A.Yes, we are not going to believe Congress anymore. We were keen on a bill [for the creation of Telangana] being introduced during this December’s winter session. Congress told us that after the cabinet reshuffle they would do this as a highest priority: that they’d resolve it, talk to us, call us back for discussions and probably introduce a bill in Parliament as well. But so far they haven’t gotten back to us. Now that they’ve reneged, we’ve decided that we are sailing alone. And now that we’ve tried everything there is to be tried on the street, we would rather mold the voters of Telangana into a formidable political force in the form of T.R.S., gain as many seats as we can in the assembly and Parliament, and thereby ensure that we will win as many privileges as we can for the people. That’s the intent.

Q.Do you intend on working with the opposition, the National Democratic Alliance?

A.No, because the N.D.A. or the U.P.A. only came into being after an election. So we’ll have to see what happens after the next election. The U.P.A. aligned with a lot of regional parties. That’s why they’ve been able to run the country for the past eight years. But they have a razor-thin majority, and if anyone quits supporting the government, an election is imminent. We foresee it happening next year.

Q.Where do you see the role of regional parties today?

A.Today, in India there are no national parties. While Congress and B.J.P. might proclaim themselves as national parties, in the truer sense of the word there is not a single national party in this country which has representation in all 28 states of this country. At best, we are a very small regional party, while the Congress is a larger regional party. In a coalition era, all the regional parties have to flock to N.D.A. or U.P.A., or some other combination tomorrow. We just need to get to that magic figure of 272 seats in Parliament somehow or another. The combinations and permutations are open at this point.

Neither Congress nor B.J.P. can say they have a large state with a lot of representation in hand. The field is one where the regional players are dominating — Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Naveen Patnaik in Orissa, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party sparring in Uttar Pradesh, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, T.R.S. and Y.S. Jagan here. Everywhere you go, you see regional parties. These are the forces that are likely to dominate tomorrow’s agenda. Our focus is to win around 15 M.P.’s next time around and have a decisive role in the formation of the next government.

Q.There’s even been talk that the regional parties may realign themselves, as a third alliance.

A.That is something to be looked at in a post-election scenario. The problem with regional parties is that there’s no unity of purpose. T.R.S. is focused only on Telangana, so anything that happens outside of Telangana is not of much interest to us. In a dialogue with another regional party, there has to be some common agenda, which is unlikely to be found at this juncture.

Q.Telangana was once a hotbed for Naxalism. And there have been allegations by the police that left-wing extremists are closely involved in the Telangana statehood movement today.

A.Sure, because the Telangana issue is so strong that it brings divergent groups onto a common platform. We have the ultra-right-wingers – the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal – and on the other side the ultra-left-wing – the People’s War, the Maoists. It is such an issue that we’re cutting across ideologies and parties and political links. So if the police state that extremists are supporting this movement, I respectfully agree with them. At the same time I’d like to remind them that this is an issue where the entire spectrum is covered.

Q.What is your vision for Telangana after it achieves statehood? Have you looked up the experiences of places like Jharkhand or Chhattisgarh for lessons?

A.You cannot compare Telangana with Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh for two reasons. For one, Telangana is not a small state. It’s bigger than West Bengal, and it will be the 13th largest state in the union. To equate the political instability and problems of a small state to Telangana is unfair. And secondly, the issues being faced by Jharkhand or Chhattisgarh are unique to them.

Q.But in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand we also saw a kind of power vacuum created when they became new states. The pressure to build the new infrastructure might have left an open door for more Maoism. How would you prevent such a vacuum in Telangana?

A.For one, we will not have the same problem of creating infrastructure because we have the capital right here. Hyderabad was the capital city for the Telangana state in the past as well, though it was called Hyderabad state. It is a city with a history of 450-plus years. It has all the facilities that any emerging international city would have. Secondly, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are doing much better than their parent states. Look at any growth indicator. Both the parent states and the new states are doing better than they were as a combined entity — which goes to tell you, these are viable models.