[From The Hindu Newspaper]
All of 37, Kalvakuntla Taraka Ramarao, or KTR as he is known among party cadres, is already the face of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. He left a well-paid job in a shipping corporation in the U.S. in 2006 to join the Telangana agitation spearheaded by his father, K. Chandrashekhar Rao. He successfully contested the Andhra Pradesh Assembly polls in 2009 from Sircilla constituency, infamous for the large-scale suicides of powerloom weavers in the past decade. Suave and articulate, he shares his views on the electoral prospects of his party in the elections, both to the Lok Sabha and the first to be held in the recently created Telangana State, prospective post-poll alliances and the regional party’s national aspirations. Excerpts from an interview with The Hindu Centre’s Saptarshi Bhattacharya in Hyderabad on March 26, 2014:
First of all, congratulations. You achieved what you set out to achieve. The bifurcation is a reality today. But now, you have broken away from a friend [the Indian National Congress] with whom you had continued so far and both of you are going to be rivals.
Thanks. We [the Congress] were never really friends. It was in 2004 when we had allied with them officially. We have never been friends as such. We parted ways in 2006 when my father [K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR)] quit the UPA [United Progressive Alliance], where he was a Union Cabinet Minister. He came out and then resigned as a Member of Parliament as well. Since then, we have never been friends. The question of parting with somebody does not arise when we were not even friends to begin with We explored the possibilities of working together. But that could not come about because for any relationship to go through there has to be three things: mutual respect, mutual trust and mutual dependency. In our case, between the Congress and us, I think that was lacking. Therefore, the synergies that were supposed to come through with this relationship, obviously we could not see them coming through in any way. So, we figured it would be better to go alone.
There was a talk of a merger of your party with the Congress as well, after Telangana came through.
We have always maintained that once the Bill is passed in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, we would explore the possibilities of working together. We had always maintained that what form it would manifest in is something that would be decided at a later date. And even today, I stand by the same statement and I once again reiterate that we have explored the possibilities of working together with them. But unfortunately, it just didn’t work out. Therefore, the question of a merger or pre-poll alliance could not be culminated into a logical fashion only because the Congress party was highhanded in its attitude, the Congress party was arrogant in its approach and the Congress party, I can even say, was callous. When you are looking for a friend, you better behave.
The announcement of you going it alone in the polls came a few days after your family met Sonia Gandhi after the bifurcation. What transpired in that meeting?
Well, the fact that it was a family affair, as in we all went as a family, met her and thanked her, was simply because it was a personal gesture. It was a gesture of Mr. KCR’s entire family going there and thanking her. Because, this man, when he set out on a mission to get Telangana about 13 years back, everybody thought that it was mission impossible. But now that it has become a reality, we wanted to thank the people who made it happen. And Sonia Gandhi was obviously instrumental in making this dream come true. We wanted to go and thank her at a very personal level. Yes, we did thank her and then left. That was about it. There wasn’t any political inference to it. Beyond that, I don’t want you or anybody to read more into it.
Why did the merger talks really fail? Did you somewhere along the way fear that the TRS after the bifurcation would become irrelevant?
You will see who will become relevant and who will become irrelevant. There are two things here: for any relationship to work, the three ingredients in my view are respect, trust and dependency, mutual that is. In our case, what had happened is that while we were in talks with them on how to work together in the form of a merger or a pre-poll alliance, they had started poaching on our MLAs and MPs. They started talking to our MLAs and MPs behind our back, which is absolutely uncalled for. In fact, that is very much in bad taste. Therefore, that left a bad taste in the relationship and definitely led to a strain. Also, when you are asking somebody to merge in your party, you also should realise that the other party has lots of workers, lots of leaders. They also need to be accommodative. That equation also has to gel. Unfortunately, we could not see that there was that element at all, of accommodative spirit. Therefore, that could not go through.
One interesting aspect of elections these days, starting from way back in 1996, is the increasing relevance of regional parties in different States. The Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) has positioned itself as a regional party in Telangana. Do you have a larger vision in mind to push TRS into the political map of India?
I may sound a little contemptuous; I may sound a little condescending as well. But the fact remains that there are no national parties in this country. Even the Congress and the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party], technically they could be national parties, even the BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party] is a national party, the Samajwadi Party is a national party. The fact remains that they are bigger regional parties, we are smaller regional parties. That’s all that is to it. So, to slot or to label anybody as a regional party or a national party at this point of time in Indian politics is a misnomer. I would say that even the Congress is a larger regional party. That’s all there is to it. Even the Congress cannot boast of a presence in 28 States. It hardly has any presence in Tamil Nadu, hardly has any presence in a lot of bigger States like West Bengal. Therefore, to say that the Congress is a national party or the BJP is a national party is a misnomer. Let’s get out of that misconception first. Secondly, yes, it is the era of regional parties. And this is the reason why every psephologist in this country, every political scientist in this country needs to dig deeper into it. My take on it is very clear. Regional parties are closer to reality, closer to people’s aspirations, closer to the ground realities. Therefore, regional parties have definitely taken a higher place in people’s minds when it comes to voting patterns or their choice of parties. I don’t see it as a surprise at all. In fact, when there was this rumour that the TRS would merge with the Congress, there was heavy resistance from cross sections of people. The reason is that people want a voice to represent them. People believe that a regional party can represent them better. The examples that you quoted are only a few. West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, UP, any big State that you look at definitely has very strong regional parties there. And the reason is that since 1996, it has been a coalition era. Since 1996 till now, 18 long years, we have seen that every regional party, which was part of the ruling coalition in Delhi, was able to extract its pound of flesh. That is exactly what people want – the regional parties to represent them more than the so-called technical national parties. Therefore, I don’t see it as a surprise at all that the people wanted us to remain as a separate entity and we have gone by their mood and demand.
Let’s focus a little on the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Bill. I understand that much of it has not gone in your favour in terms of getting anything more than simply redrawing of the boundaries, in terms of benefits, resource sharing etc. Is that the reason too for the fall out between you and the Congress?
That’s definitely one of the prime reasons. In fact, the problem here is that even before the Congress party took a decision and resolved in its Working Committee to create Telangana, they had not taken us into confidence. Even in course of the six months that ensued, they had not taken us into confidence on any step, be it with regard to the preparation of the Bill, or be it with regard to the setting up of a Group of Ministers (GoM), or the terms of reference of the GoM. They have never taken us into confidence at any level. That’s one main objection.
Second, we have been repeatedly requesting, through multiple forums, be it through the GoM or the Prime Minister’s Office or through the President of India, that the Government of India [should] safeguard the interests of the people of Telangana. But unfortunately, on several counts they have not heeded us. I can reel out a whole lot of them but currently I will recall only a few. Firstly, the Telangana agitation is based on neglect and injustice in employment and also in terms of utilisation of resources readily available in Telangana. In terms of employment, in government employment especially, we had demanded specifically that during the apportionment, the process of bifurcation, we wanted employees to be distributed based on their nativity, not based on population. Unfortunately, they didn’t heed our advice. Same is the case with pensioners. Also with regard to Hyderabad, we wanted the Government of Telangana to enjoy absolute rights over its capital as in the case of 28 other States in the country. Even that was not heeded. So, I can reel out a number of reasons. We made several other demands but nothing was really taken into account. This goes to show that the Congress did not really want any sort of advice, any sort of inputs from a so-called prospective friend. Where was the question of trust there?
You are going to the people riding on this sentiment of Telangana being created and you claiming the credit for it. But the question will definitely emerge is what have you, as a friendly party, if not a friend, of the Congress, achieved for the people of Telangana?
Firstly, anybody who claims credit for it has to realise that credit is not something that can be bought in the supermarket. Ultimately the credit for achieving Telangana is something that the people will confer. And who the people will give that to is something that will be answered in the days to come. In the election, I am sure that they will definitely answer that question because essentially that is the question that is being put to test in this election. Definitely, the people will also be facing another question, a very important question in fact, and that is who has the vision, the wherewithal, and the capacity to rebuild the newly created Telangana. These are the questions that we are taking to the people, not just mere sentiment that Telangana has been created because of our efforts. We will also ask the people some pertinent questions on the future of Telangana and in whose hands they think it should be secure and should be able to prosper in a much better fashion. The fact remains that we have never claimed to be a friendly party to the Congress. We were exploring the possibility of working together. Unfortunately, that did not come through for all the reasons I have just mentioned. Now the fact remains that as a party which is not subordinate to anybody but to the people of Telangana, we have decided to go it alone in the polls. Now let the people decide who their choice is.
There is also this contentious issue in the Bill about law and order in Hyderabad resting with the Governor of the two States. What exactly is the Constitutional infirmity of such an arrangement?
I think it has already been challenged in a court of law. I think it has been challenged in Supreme Court by some people. Let the court decide. Since it is sub-judice, I don’t think I would comment more on that. The TRS’ take is very simple. The central government does not have the right to infringe on the democratic rights of the Telengana government. They cannot take away a State subject, which is law and order. It is a State subject, it remains a State subject throughout the country. You cannot simply infringe on the State government’s rights. It’s a question of State vs. Centre relations. Now that’s where [the] Sarkaria Commission and other recommendations come into play. We have requested the union government to withdraw it from the Bill. Even our friend from the Majlis [All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen], Mr. [Asaduddin] Owaisi, has also requested them to do the same. But unfortunately they have not heeded our advice.
The Congress has stepped up its efforts to claim credit for the formation of Telangana. We have here two political parties battling each other, supposed to have been friendly in the past but who have fallen out, and both claiming credit for Telangana. Where do we see the fight going?
I don’t see that there is a fight at all. In fact, I see it as a clear choice for people. I see it as a choice between those that have fought hard for Telangana versus those that have used Telangana as a pawn in their politically opportunistic game. It’s a clear choice between somebody who has staked everything for the past 13 years to deliver on commitment versus somebody who gave a promise 10 years back and then it took them 10 long years and 1,000-plus lives before they could actually make up their mind and commit to Telangana. So, the choice is simple, if you ask me. I don’t see a fight at all.
You are going it alone. How come you are so confident that you wouldn’t require an alliance? These days, we have seen that alliances do matter, especially after fractured mandates became the order of the day.
Our party’s mission, Mr. KCR’s mission was to achieve Telangana, which is already accomplished. Whatever happens from now on is left to the people. We are going to the polls with utmost respect and confidence in the people of Telangana and their ability to make a clear choice. Therefore, we are staking everything. If they give us a chance and elect us as the first government of the newly formed state of Telangana, we will administer it to their liking, to fulfil all the promises and commitments that we gave to them. If they do not give us the power, if they do not put us in the Treasury benches, we will sit in the opposition and ensure that the people’s agenda is implemented by a government whichever it is that comes into place. The choice is simple. We are very clear in our mind. There is clarity of thought in us and there’s clarity of purpose in us. I don’t see it as a problem at all. For those parties that have neither clarity of thought nor clarity of purpose, they should have a problem.
Organisationally if you look at Telangana, the Congress is perhaps on a much stronger wicket than a party like yours which has been formed only about 13 years ago. What would be your strategy while competing with a party that is an old war-horse from the organisational standpoint?
Well, if it all depended on the party’s age, I think then N.T. Rama Rao would not have succeeded in this State. There are several others who are set to succeed now and they are not even three, four, five years old. The age of a party has nothing to do with its political prospects or electoral success. These are two absolutely separate, mutually exclusive issues. Therefore, in my opinion, as I said, it’s a new State, it’s a new beginning. People want a new form of governance. They have seen the Congress party in the last 10 years. They have seen the Congress party do nothing in Delhi, nothing in Hyderabad. So, I am sure the people have already made up their minds. It is just a matter of casting their vote.
Looking at electoral issues, the sentiment of formation of Telangana is a major political landmark that people will keep in mind while voting. You spoke about the vision for Telangana. What are the other issues, which impact people directly, that you are going to take to them?
First, one has to understand that during the process in the last 13 years of this struggle, we have made several promises to the people on several accounts. We said that the farmers of this State, the farmers of this region have been neglected. Now the task is cut out for us if we get a chance to govern. We have to ensure that the irrigation projects that have been pending in Telangana for the last four, five-plus decades have to be completed at a furious pace.
Second, one has to remember that Telangana will be a surplus State fiscally. Therefore, there is a lot of room to aim at accelerated progress on several accounts. Telangana will be a power deficit State. So there is this huge challenge for us to go in and build several power projects and come out with several options, exploring different options—hydel, thermal, wind, solar—whatever options that are available in this part of the country. We have to explore all of them and get to a state in the next five years where we will be self-sufficient if not surplus. Then there are several other challenges.
There is this huge hope among the student community and the youth of this State that they would get employment opportunities suitable to their educational qualifications. So, all these are challenges that have to be met. We know for a fact that we have an insurmountable task cut out for us. And all of these will definitely also factor in when somebody is casting their vote. Our manifesto will elucidate on what we are likely to promise in each and every count.
About the Chief Ministerial ambitions of Mr. K. Chandrasekhar Rao, he had once mentioned that he would like to see a Dalit become the Chief Minister of the newly formed state of Telangana. Does he still stick by it?
As I said, let us get a chance to form the government. Then we will decide. If you are agreeing that we are actually the frontrunner and are actually going to form the government, hypothetically speaking, since you asked this question, I will answer it hypothetically as well. I’ll say we will leave it to the date when Telangana Rashtra Samithi will get 60-plus seats in the Assembly here. Then we will sit together as a party and decide it.
What happens if you fall a little short of that and the Congress also runs you close. Is there a possibility of a later tie-up?
We will cross the bridge when we get to it.
So no commitments as of now?
No commitments at all.
Four members of your family have got tickets…
No, nothing has been decided on the fourth member of the family.
All right, three as of now. Are we seeing the rise of another dynasty?
This whole question has been asked numerous times of us. My stand on this is very clear. We are not living in autocracy where one gets imposed by the autocrat and the monarch. This is a democracy. People have every right to vote us out if they don’t like us. The people of this country have conferred electoral defeat on Indira Gandhi, N.T. Rama Rao. We are not bigger than those personalities. The fact remains that in a democracy everybody has a right to contest. If I am somebody’s son or somebody’s daughter, that should not hold me back from wanting to contest and wanting to get into public life. If the people decide to cast the vote for myself or my sister or my cousin or my father, I don’t think anybody should question it as long as the people have elected me. I am not getting into Parliament through the back door. I am actually going to the people, seeking their vote, their mandate. If I get it, that’s democracy and that’s how it works.
The BJP has portrayed Narendra Modi as the Prime Ministerial candidate. Ever since, the BJP has claimed that there is a Modi wave all across the country. We have seen the TDP warming up to the BJP and forming an alliance, the Lok Satta Party warming up. We have seen several such regional parties trying to cling on to the BJP. Did it never occur to you that as a regional party, the TRS could have its national ambitions well served if it keeps its options open with the BJP?
I think the key word is keeping options open. And that’s exactly what we are doing. By going independent, we are keeping our options open so that no matter who comes to governance in Delhi, we will definitely support the Central government because that will be for the future Telangana State. So, if it is a UPA government again, we could support them. If it is an NDA government, we could support them. If it is a Third Front government, we could support them as well. But, if we go in for a pre-poll alliance at this time, we will be locking our options. Therefore, it makes absolute sense to me that we should stay independent, we should go into the polls alone and whatever mandate it is, let the people give it and eventually we can keep all our options open.
Does it not alarm you about the alleged communal agenda of the BJP, the extra baggage that Mr. Modi comes with in the context of the 2002 riots?
At this point of time, I think there is no single party in this country that can say that I have a clean slate. Everybody has some baggage or the other. While you talk of Modi’s 2002 riots, people talk about the Congress’ 1984 riots. Therefore, let’s balance it out and let’s face it. This country is not a bipolar country anymore, where the choice is essentially between the Congress and the BJP. There are several other options. And as I said, there are no national parties in this country, no matter what they claim. In fact, it is a confederation of States. This is a country which is headed towards a situation where every regional party is likely to have a role, is likely to have a say in the union government as well. That is where the TRS sees a vital role for itself in the union government. No matter who is the leading partner in the coalition, the TRS will play a stellar role and we will ensure that our State gets its due share. We have been neglected in spite of giving 30-plus MPs for two consecutive terms. The State of Andhra Pradesh did not gain enough from the central government.
So, secularism is not on your menu at all.
I don’t see it as a zero-sum game and a clear choice between black and white. It is not like that anymore. As I said, every party has its own baggage; every party has its own skeletons in the cupboard. Let’s not get to a point where you can call one communal and the other absolutely secular. There is no such thing. I think it is a grey area and every party is trying to grope in the dark, every party is trying to put a label on the other. Let us not go into that territory. All we care about at this point of time is what is good for Telangana, what will be good for Telangana and we will do that. We, at this point of time, don’t want to label somebody as untouchable or label somebody as anti-secular, communal whatever.
Do you consider the TRS as a secular political party?
See the definition of secularism in this country is a little hazy. But I can tell you one thing for sure: TRS represents the cross-section of Telangana which includes all castes, all communities, and all religions. Therefore, if that is the definition of secularism, we are a secular party.
(Saptarshi Bhattacharya is a former Chief Sub-Editor and a former Chief Reporter of The New Indian Express. He has been a journalist for the past 15 years. His areas of interests include environment and forest conservation, international affairs with respect to East Asia, and political affairs in India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular.)