Away from top echelons of power for long, Reddys turn restless in Telangana

In the run up to the Assembly polls, which is more than a year away, the Reddys seem to be gunning for a change in power equations.
A collage of Revanth Reddy and CM KCR
A collage of Revanth Reddy and CM KCR
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Reddys, a land-owning dominant caste, are one of the most powerful groups in the both Telugu speaking Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states. They had political dominance in the undivided Andhra Pradesh, across the caste spectrum, for many decades. Their incessant rivalry with the Kammas, another dominant caste from coastal Andhra, is also quite well-known.

It began when film actor-turned-politician NT Rama Rao (NTR), who hails from the Kamma caste, launched the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in 1982. Within nine months TDP broke the dominance of the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Reddys, which formed the party’s traditional support base. 

Like the infamous rivalry between the Reddys and Kammas, Telangana, after it attained statehood in 2014, witnessed another contest for dominance between the Velamas, a Shudra land-owning dominant caste, and the Reddys. Telangana has a population of 3.5 crore and while there are no accurate figures, Velamas are considered to be a minority (1% to 2%). The Reddys (4% to 5%), with influence in the fields of business and politics, are numerically stronger.  

Though Reddys helmed the undivided Andhra when the Congress was in power, most of them were from Rayalaseema. The only known Reddy from Telangana was Marri Chenna Reddy, who became the Chief Minister twice. Interestingly all the chief ministers elected from the TDP have hailed from the Kamma caste. 

Caste and the CM’s chair

The Congress accommodated Kammas and other landlord castes like Velamas, but no person from the Kamma community was ever made a Chief Minister. The TDP too maintained the caste hierarchy and never chose someone other than  the Kamma caste for the CM’s chair. 

K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR), the current Chief Minister and a Velama patriarch of the ruling TRS, known for its role in the agitation for statehood for Telangana agitation, had proclaimed that he would make a person from the Dalit community, the Chief Mnisiter of the state, a promise that was never kept. The promise, along with the idea of separate statehood, played an important role in catapulting TRS to power. 

In pursuit of ‘Reddy Rajyam’

In 2004, YS Rajashekar Reddy (YSR) brought back the "farmer-friendly" Reddy Rajyam of Congress party by unseating Chandrababu Naidu with his 1,500 km padayatra. Even during the tenure of YSR and after his death, Telangana Reddys continued to play a crucial role in the undivided state. 

The TRS led by K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) when it was launched in 2001 was not a major force but it continued to nurture the Telangana movement and towards the end of the decade political circumstances and mass participation forced the Congress to accord separate statehood. 

In 2014, the residual Andhra got TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu as CM while the newly carved out Telangana got KCR, the stalwart of the separate statehood movement. In Andhra, within the first five years, Naidu was unseated by his rival YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, son of late CM YS Rajasekhara Reddy, under whose shadow the Reddys consolidated by leaving the Congress. 

In the case of Telangana, KCR was re-elected with a thumping majority. The Reddys failed to put up a strong battle as the Congress was weakened despite claiming to be the party which gave Telangana state. A section of Reddy intellectuals from Telangana have observed that it was their caste which was affected due to the formation of a separate state as it alienated them from the political power.  

Out of the 119 Telangana MLAs elected in 2018, nearly one-third are from the Reddy caste. The TRS alone has 36 MLAs from the Reddy caste. They include 6 Congress MLAs out of the 12, who shifted their loyalties towards the party. It would be interesting to note that the TRS has 10 MLAs from the Velama caste, including KCR’s son and nephew.  

Balancing caste equations

According to analysts, KCR’s ability to attract strong Reddy leaders into his party and launch of populist schemes like the Rythu Bandhu (farmer’s investment support scheme for two crops a year), which has hugely benefited the land-holding community, and mega irrigation projects have so far kept them away from political consolidation. Recently, when it was time to decide on Rajya Sabha candidates, KCR offered one, out of the total three seats, to a Reddy. Besides this several nominated posts and chairmanship of government bodies have gone to the Reddys.

The Reddy intelligentsia in the state thought there would be a space for them to enjoy political power at least by 2018, given the history of the region, but KCR returned to power successfully for the second time dashing their hopes.

Reddy caste conclaves

In the run up to the Assembly polls, which is more than a year away, the Reddys seem to be gunning for a change in power equations by hoisting someone from their caste as the CM. The aspiration to see a Reddy as Chief Minister were "expressed overtly" in the Reddy caste congregations, which are being held in the name of seeking the rightful place in welfare schemes to the "poor and neglected Reddys". 

Mass gatherings, gestures and public speeches often loaded with rhetoric play a key role in understanding the political nature and aspirations of a caste, according to observers.

Telangana minister Malla Reddy attacked at Reddy caste meet for praising KCR

Comments made by Revanth Reddy, the state President of the Congress party,  on the "glorious past" of the Reddys and need for them to be in political leadership, and the attack on Telangana Labour Minister Malla Reddy at a recent Reddy conclave after he praised the KCR government are being seen as a reflection of their impatience.

Revanth in a bid to draw the Reddys back into the Congress fold said that even the Kakatiya dynasty has gone down into history when they neglected Reddys.

Being agrarian landlords, Reddys always drew their power from the control they had over other landless backward castes and Dalits in the rural areas. Wherever there is considerable presence of Reddys they have held crucial positions of power whether it be a village Sarpanch, an MLA or an MP.

These conclaves are being organised by community groups like Telangana Reddy Joint Action Committee (TR-JAC) and Reddy Jagruthi, formed in 2016. The official website of Reddy Jagruthi describes them as “a form of action for the thought of having a platform for bringing back the rights which are trampled by the discrimination of constitution and lost rights and for welfare”. They also believe that Reddys are a superior, humane and talented race.  

Buttemgaari Madhava Reddy, the founder President of Reddy Jagruthi, told TNM that they are working for the welfare of the community and are seeking the setting up of a Reddy Corporation, a poll promise by KCR in 2018, with a corpus of Rs 5,000 crore, and pension for farmers, who have completed 60 years. "We are working towards welfare and betterment of the poor and needy among the Reddys, we are not working for political power. With political power only few will be MLAs and one Reddy will be CM, which is not a solution for our problems. All that we want is to be part of state welfare schemes, Reddy Corporation can get us some agricultural subsidies. We may get some funds to send our children abroad for higher education," said Madhava Reddy. Telangana has a Backward Classes Corporation and a Scheduled Caste Corporation, which provides assistance to these communities.  

‘An aspiration to seize power’

Dr Jilukara Srinivas, social activist and founder President of Dravida Bahujana Samithi (DBS) feels that the noises made by dominant Reddy platforms are an indication of their aspiration to seize political power in 2023, when Assembly elections are scheduled to take place. “Their claim of having turned weaker and poor is merely a ploy to push other lower castes, which are dependent on state welfare mechanisms, into a moral defence," he said.

Dr Jilukara feels that irrespective of the investments KCR makes to placate the Reddys, TRS might find it difficult in pull off a hattrick, given the strong possibility of the Reddys consolidating themselves (covertly or overtly) to bring their caste into power through Congress or some other viable venue.

However, organisations like Reddy Jagruthi deny this allegation and say they are merely working for the rights of the community as they are being neglected by successive governments.

Palwai Raghavendra Reddy, senior political commentator and observer based in Hyderabad feels that the clamour from the so-called “non-political” Reddy caste platforms is an indication that the community wants a larger stake in power.

"KCR-led TRS government is facing disaffection of the Reddys. This is similar to disaffection towards them by other castes. A large section seems to have been turned off by KCRs welfarism and wants to accommodate themselves in a political alternative. Perhaps Revanth Reddy wanted to attract the Reddys into the Congress fold, knowing that the community might prefer the BJP and made those statements," said Raghavendra Reddy.

Manikanta Pallikonda, Ambedkarite research scholar and academician says beside the aggressive symbolism, it is also important to track the flow of the capital and shifting economic networks in the state as they could be possible reason why dominant castes like Reddys are feeling that they're threatened and neglected.  The allegations of 'contractors' from Andhra getting major irrigation and infrastructure projects worth thousands of crores can be read in the context of Manikanta's observation.

The Dalit question

While it may be true that the Reddys are uncomfortable under the Velama-led TRS, the turmoil within the caste group could also be seen as a response to the rising political consciousness among the Backward Class(BC) castes and Dalits. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) offering 60% of the Assembly seats to BCs for its Bahujana Rajyam (State ruled by Bahujans) project and the BJP, which is trying to mobilise the BCs around Hindutva is also "promising" them political power. Though KCR had made the promise of elevating a Dalit as Chief Minister, his critics now feel that it was a mere ploy to pull them towards TRS and make the weaker sections rally after him. The alienation created by this broken promise would work against him. 

As per the recent Telangana socio-economic outlook report, agricultural land in the state under cultivation is 59.72 lakh hectares. Out of this, Scheduled Castes own 8.9% and the Scheduled Tribes own 12.4%. Apart from the communities mentioned above, the report assimilates the rest as "others", in which the Reddys, thought to comprise 4% to 5% of the population, hold the lion's share when compared to other land-holding communities and backward caste peasants. This sums up the disproportionate land distribution among the communities in a state, where weaker sections are thought to comprise around 93% of population.

READ: Decoding Telangana CM KCR’s move to launch a national party

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