It is difficult to explain how Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) digested RS Praveen Kumar’s popularity while he was still a serving IPS officer on special duty, as the head of the string of residential schools for SC/ST children run by the government. For somebody who wouldn't tolerate the emergence of a second-rung leadership in his government or party, KCR stood by, as Praveen’s popularity grew to the point where it appeared certain that he would quit his government job and jump into politics.
Perhaps it was because he did not want to antagonise the Dalit-Adivasi population of the state, which has become significantly politicised in recent years. Or perhaps he hoped that Praveen would choose the TRS if he ever entered politics.
Praveen Kumar while taking formal membership of BSP at grand public meeting.
Whatever the reasons were for KCR to be cautious with this officer, he couldn’t have been prepared for things as they stand today. In July this year, Praveen quit the services to take over the reigns of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the state and he wasted no time in making it known that the TRS was his enemy number One.
The former cop is now planning to go on a state-wide yatra starting on January 15 – BSP supremo Mayawati’s birthday – to consolidate his support. According to the sources in the party, the phase wise yatra will establish contact with at least three crore people; that’s more than half of the state population. It will be the first test of whether the man’s popularity will pass the muster of electoral politics.
The rise of Praveen Kumar
When KCR reinstated him to the education project seven years ago after the formation of Telangana, Praveen became head of the chain of 400 residential schools run by the department for about 2 lakh Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe children. The radical changes he brought about in the institutions propelled him to a sort of cult-hero status, enjoyed only by celebrities or politicians with massive campaign budgets and not a bureaucrat on a government salary.
The officer’s birthday, for instance, became a significant event in the calendar of thousands of Dalits and Adivasis, who celebrated it as a public festival in districts across the state. What’s more, Praveen Kumar, popularly known as RSP, would not only attend these events but also deliver fiery anti-caste speeches invoking icons such as A mbedkar, Phule and Periyar. Not exactly KCR’s cup of tea, but he never censured the officer, at least not publicly.
Praveen Kumar interacting with the students of Osmania University
Perhaps the most openly political act Praveen did when he was an officer was setting up the Swaeros self respect movement in 2013, an Ambedkarite organisation with the stated aim of helping Dalit-Adivasi and other marginalized sections students become more aspirational. “Sw '' stands for state welfare and “aero” suggests the sky's the limit.
Praveen impact in KCR’s appointments?
From the moment he joined the BSP, Praveen has constantly attacked KCR and his government and described its policies as “anti-bahujan”. One of his key criticisms is that KCR has not given adequate representation to SC, ST and OBC communities in his government and party.
While the CM has not directly responded to Praveen, political observers point out that he has not remained inactive either. Since August, Dalit officers have been appointed to key positions. On August 16, just 10 days after Praveen’s entry into politics, Rahul Bojja, son of the late Ambedkarite activist and lawyer Bojja Tharakam, was appointed as Secretary to oversee the much-publicised Dalitha Bandhu scheme directly from the Chief Minister’s Office. A few days after that, he appointed two officers to important posts: IPS officer Anil Kumar was appointed as the state Chief of Intelligence, and Stephen Ravindra as Commissioner of Police Cyberabad. The appointments were widely reportedly as 'more Dalit officers' being given opportunities, and Praveen Kumar called out the language there. "Is anyone donating these positions to us?" he asked on Twitter.
Praveen Kumar visits residential area of Dalits
Recently, TRS also elevated three Dalit student leaders who had led the protests for statehood at the Osmania university in 2013-14: Manne Krishank, Erolla Srinivas and Sai Chand. They have been accommodated with nominated posts, even as Praveen was alleging that politicians including MLAs and Ministers from the weaker sections are being neglected and humiliated in KCR's rule.
The TRS has started openly embracing Dr BR Ambedker in public events now more than ever. The Dalit icon’s face is now a common feature in TRS publicity material and the slogan ‘Jai Bhim’, invoking Ambedkar, was uttered by KCR, no less, during the launch of the Dalit Bandhu scheme.
Writer and political critic Dr Jilukara Srinivas says, “The major reason behind TRS tilting towards Dalit sections is a response to the growing Bahujan political consolidation, due to Praveen. BSP had always had a minimal vote base until the 2000s from the weaker sections, in many segments where TRS contested it managed to draw these voters into its fold during and after the separate Telangana movement. Now KCR has foresaw the possibility of returning those votes to BSP in the wake of growing frustration against his government."
Backing from the SWAEROs
The popularity of Praveen Kumar is backed by the numbers in Swaeros. Today, the Swaero network has as many as 19 organisations – including NGOs, study circles and student unions – with over five lakh active members from different walks of life. The larger-than-life birthday celebrations of Praveen Kumar were largely the efforts of this federation of organisations under the ‘Swaero’ umbrella. This network, which grew right under KCR’S nose, forms the basic foundation of Praveen’s influence, and by extension, the BSP’s new organisational structure in Telangana.
Prabhakar Chouti, governing body member of Swaero network, followed Praveen into the BSP along with dozens of his comrades from the Swaero Students Union (SSU). He said, “Swaero Students Union (SSU) has resolved to support RS Praveen Kumar in his battle for Bahujana Rajyam. We believe political power for Bahujans can bring massive changes in the lives of weaker sections including in the field of education.”
Praveen Kumar waves hands in his debut political meeting
U Mohan Swaero, who also joined the BSP said, "Praveen Kumar joined a party which strives to work for the ideology of Bahujan leaders like Phule, Manyavar Kanshiram and Dr BR Ambedkar. The change has already begun as he is working like an activist on the ground."
The obvious question now is whether Praveen Kumar’s entry will translate into votes for the BSP which did not manage a single seat in the 2018 elections to the 119 member Assembly. While the next elections are still far, all eyes are on the yatra planned by the BSP in January. Called the Bahujana Rajyadikara Sankalpa Yatra, which loosely translates to a yatra for Bahujan political power, the program will seek to expand the support base of Praveen Kumar beyond just SCs and STs to include larger sections of backward classes and minorities as well.
BJP and its allies, given their ideological positions, have always had a problem with Praveen Kumar's work as the Secretary of social welfare institutions. Hindu right wing groups alleged that he was 'promoting anti-national activities' and turning welfare institutions into 'religious conversion centres' by brainwashing students.
Months before he exited from the service, BJP and other right wing groups objected to his presence at a Swaero congregation in March where ‘Buddha Vandanam’, or the vows taken by Dr BR Ambedkar on the historic day of his conversion to Buddhism on October 15, 1956, were recited; they dubbed it an anti-Hindu event. Later, their attack on him was met with fierce opposition from parents coming from weaker sections.
Praveen Kumar with his party state president Manda Prabhakar at a rally
However, BJP seems to have chosen to retreat from making any comments on Praveen currently. They are trying to confine Praveen to Dalit communities alone following his formal entry into the politics. Observers see this as a rather calculated move, as Praveen is no longer merely a bureaucrat but a politician with a growing base.
A brunt for the Congress?
Praveen Kumar interacts with women farmers
As for the Congress, party leaders are still smarting from the snub from Praveen when he rejected their open offer to join them and instead chose the BSP. The party responded to the move rather hastily with a string of events to consolidate support among Dalits and Adivasis. Party Chief Revanth Reddy not only launched the Dalitha Girijana Dandora but also announced that the party would include Dalit Christians in the Scheduled Caste list.