In political and public meetings seeking separate statehood for Telangana, Podusthunna Podhu Meeda, a folk song by renowned folk artist Gaddar was always played, almost becoming an anthem for the movement. The Dhoom Dham movement formed by folk singer Rasmayi Balakrishna is a cultural organisation that gave life to the statehood agitation through its protest songs. Folk songs took messages of the movement to villages and towns and shaped the opinions of millions. They galvanised public sentiment and kept the movement alive. From propagating the cultural identity of Telangana to becoming vehicles of protests, folk singers fueled the agitation for statehood. In 2014, right after the formation of Telangana, the state’s first Chief Minister, K Chandrashekhar Rao (KCR), announced that folk singers who performed under the cultural umbrella of Dhoom Dham will receive a monthly salary. He started an organisation called the Samskruthika Sarathi (Charioteers of culture), and through that announced government schemes for over 600 singers who contributed to the cause. The formation of this organisation was not a minor incident, but should be viewed as a chapter that highlights KCR’s political acumen. By co-opting around 638 singers who traditionally sang anti-establishment songs, KCR ensured that the movement does not turn against his government, that there would be no songs against him..KCR’s rise as the face of Telangana has seen similar tactics – of co-opting, defaming, and intimidating his critics as well as those who fought for the same cause as him. From a politician who till the early 2000s was against the formation of Telangana, he became the most prominent figure of the movement, all in a matter of 14 years. And as he bowed out as the Chief Minister after the recent Assembly elections, he still remains the most recognisable face of the state. How did KCR, who was a latecomer to the statehood movement, become almost synonymous with the separate statehood movement? And from there, how did he quell opposition, particularly from those who had been co-passengers with him in the agitation for statehood?Those who have worked closely with KCR say that before he became the all-powerful Chief Minister, he was a crafty politician who rarely spoke harshly with anybody. Before forming the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), KCR was with the Congress first and then the Telugu Desam Party (TDP).KCR began his political journey as a youth Congress leader. “In 1978, he had gone to Delhi to protest the arrest of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. From there, he became close to many Congress leaders,” said a contemporary of KCR, who was with him throughout the Telangana statehood movement.In 1983, KCR joined the TDP and held ministries in both NT Rama Rao and Chandrababu Naidu’s cabinets. He was an ardent follower of current TDP chief Naidu and served as minister in his cabinet from 1996 to 1999-2000. Naidu was opposed to the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh and when KCR was in the TDP, he was too. At Naidu’s behest, KCR had attempted to scuttle the demand for Telangana many times, according to those who were in the thick of things then.On the floor of the Andhra Pradesh Assembly, KCR had called the Telangana movement the business of unemployed people and had alleged that there has been no injustice to the people of the Telangana region. After a cabinet reshuffle in 1999-2000, KCR was not given a ministry. Naidu instead made him the Deputy Speaker of the Assembly and KCR used his position to disallow discussion on Telangana on the floor of the house..Rebel to Ruler: How KCR got involved in Telangana movement While there was an undercurrent of the demand for separate statehood, the movement itself was intermittent. But intellectuals, writers, folk singers, and poets kept the sentiment alive over decades. In 1952, the agitation started as a teachers’ movement in Warangal, primarily to safeguard jobs for native Telangana people in Hyderabad. In 1969, it was sparked by a student movement and went on to become a mass movement with the slogan ‘jai Telangana’. It turned violent when a mob tried to set the jeep of a sub-inspector on fire in January 1969.In the mid-90s, when HD Deve Gowda was the Prime Minister, he announced the formation of Uttaranchal (later renamed Uttarakhand in 2007) carved out of Uttar Pradesh. And this revitalised the Telangana movement once again.Students from Kakatiya University and Osmania University revived and sustained the agitation and a large number of student members from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), were mobilised. And this influenced the Bharatiya Jana Party’s (BJP) strategy in Andhra Pradesh.For a long time, the movement for Telangana was left-driven. In fact, the 1944-46 rebellion, one of the first for a separate state, was led by the Communists and peasants against the aristocracy and the land-owning doras (feudal lords). The issues of caste, class, and regional inequalities formed the core of the movement. But over the years, for political and partially ideological reasons, even the right-wing got involved in the movement..In 1997, the BJP passed a resolution seeking a separate Telangana state. Senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj addressed a massive rally organised by the ABVP at Nizam College grounds in Hyderabad and demanded that the Congress give justice to the people of Telangana and avoid the suicide of students in favour of the state. Spurred by this, Congress leaders from the region petitioned the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi to declare Telangana a separate state. Forty Congress MLAs submitted a memorandum to Sonia Gandhi.But the ruling TDP and CM Naidu had little regard for the movement, a senior journalist recalled, adding that Naidu thought there was no need to pay heed to the demands for Telangana.Around the year 2000, proponents of the Telangana movement were looking for a political leader, driven and popular enough to exert pressure and coerce the political class. In KCR, they found an ambitious politician, aggrieved with his position in the TDP, and willing to grab the opportunity to revive his political career. Although KCR’s stance had been against Telangana, his birthplace Siddipet was in the Telangana region.A frustrated KCR found the Telangana cause his Hail Mary, a chance for a political comeback. His break came due to a crisis that Naidu faced. In 2000, a 14.5% power tariff hike by the Naidu government caused a major uproar in the state. The opposition – Congress as well as left parties – along with farmer groups staged massive protests and clashed with the police. The protests soon turned violent and resulted in the death of three protesters while over 250 people, including police personnel, were injured.KCR who was still in the TDP wrote a letter to Naidu sharply criticising the power tariff hike. He specifically wrote that the hike highlighted the inequalities between the Telangana region and the rest of Andhra once again as it impacted farmers in Telangana the most. During a book release in 2016, KCR – who by then was the CM of Telangana – referred to this incident and said that the idea of fighting for a separate state started from there. He said that he then decided that the fight for Telangana “cannot be a street fight but a state fight”.In October 2000, KCR met Professor Jayashankar, an academic who had taken part in the Telangana struggle from as early as 1952. Conversations around KCR becoming the political face of the movement began. In a month from then, three new states – Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand – were carved out. This gave a huge impetus to the movement and convinced KCR that what had been mostly an ideological struggle till then could become a reality.Professor Jayashankar and Inna Reddy were among the first people to approach KCR with the idea of starting a new political party for Telangana. Prof Jayashankar is considered the ideological father of the movement, who during his time as the vice chancellor of Kakatiya University is said to have influenced generations of students who went on to take the movement forward. Inna Reddy was an activist and did not have the reach or influence KCR did. He later went on to start an armed struggle for statehood. They planned to leverage KCR’s disgruntlement to further the movement. Meanwhile, Ale Narendra, an RSS man who was a BJP MLA and a strong advocate for a separate state, also steered KCR towards the Telangana movement. He was acquainted with KCR and regular conversations between them on formulating a political roadmap helped KCR get clarity..A new party for the fight for Telangana On April 27, 2001, KCR launched TRS at the residence of Konda Laxman Bapuji, a freedom fighter and one of the first activists who fought for separate statehood for Telangana. A former Congress minister, Konda Laxman resigned for the cause of Telangana and had played a crucial role in the 1969 agitation. So as a symbolic gesture, KCR chose Konda Laxman’s residence in Hyderabad, Jala Drushyam, to announce the formation of TRS.In the first public rally after launching TRS, KCR’s ability to draw large crowds and mesmerise them with his oratory skills was on display. On May 17, 2001, he held a massive rally in Hyderabad named ‘Simha Garjana’ (lion’s roar) and promised the crowd that he will make Telangana a reality without shedding a single drop of blood. He told them that he will create political compulsions to pave the way for the state; politics is the only way, he declared. With this, he brought many fence-sitters, who had till then been sceptical about the methods of the activists, into the fold.A skilled orator, KCR used the hundreds of hours of conversations with intellectuals and writers to formulate a strong and convincing argument in favour of a separate state. He used data to highlight the economic inequality between Telangana and Seemandhra (coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions). He used anecdotes to show injustice and partisanship. He spoke in the Telangana dialect, using local, relatable slang to endear himself. And he mainstreamed the cause of Telangana like nobody before him had managed to.The slogan central to the movement – ‘Nidhulu, Neelu, Niyamakalu’ meaning funds, water, and jobs – was widely used but popularised by KCR. In the Singareni coal mines in Khammam district, labourers often used the slogan ‘Boggubai, Bombai or Dubai’ to say that in search of jobs, they had to either travel to Mumbai or Dubai or remain a labourer. KCR took this colloquial slogan to spread the message that jobs are taken away by people from Seemandhra and if people wanted jobs, then separate statehood was imperative. This caught on among the working class, especially in northern Telangana.The struggle for separate statehood had many movements running parallel, led by different groups. While Prof Jayashankar, who was the most credible face at the time, had the support of left groups, Dalit organisations, trade unions, and even many ultra left elements (including Naxal and Maoist leaders), many RSS and other Sangh Parivar leaders too had taken part in protests. Prof Jayashankar’s backing won KCR the endorsement of all the groups who trusted him. The ideological right also found a reasonable voice in KCR (his association with the likes of RSS leader Ale Narendra helped this greatly). So KCR managed to win the support of the extreme left, the right, and everyone in between..In addition, KCR managed to bring funds into the movement from lobbies that were against the dominant castes of Andhra Pradesh. Till then, the Kammas had been loyal to the TDP while the Reddys had thrown their weight behind the Congress, more so after YS Rajasekhara Reddy took over as state Congress President in 1998. KCR managed to get other caste groups, including Velamas (the land-owning community to which he belongs), to financially bet on the movement. He also managed to bring in a few Reddy business houses with business interests in the Telangana region.KCR had a way of connecting with people, ingratiating himself with them, and also making them believe that he meant business, that he was a horse worth betting on. One way he left an impression was by remembering names of people that he had interacted with even for a few minutes and also recalling the details of the conversation. His knowledge of the minute details of the region, particularly the central and north part of Telangana, helped him form a closer bond with people.He was a visionary who told the people of the region that if the state was bifurcated, then not only will public sector jobs be given to them but ‘outsiders’ from Andhra Pradesh who secured most of the private sector jobs in the upcoming IT sector will be sent back. The Seemandhra region had a large number of engineering colleges and universities and most of the jobs in Hyderabad were secured by people from there. KCR used this to contrast the educational background of students from universities like Osmania and Kakatiya to show that they were more invested in subjects like humanities and lost out on a good salary because of people from Seemandhra. And he promised to remedy this.After the formation of TRS, KCR formed an alliance with the Congress party which had assured that their government would grant statehood to Telangana. KCR served as a Union Minister in the Manmohan Singh cabinet as well, but broke away from the Congress in 2006..Culmination of the struggle Meanwhile, a parallel movement of teachers, students, and activists under the banner of the Telangana Joint Action Committee (TJAC), headed by Prof Kodandaram, worked as a pressure group. Kodandaram was a professor in Osmania University (OU), which was the epicentre of the Telangana protests. A former OU student leader said that during this time, most students distrusted KCR and remained sceptical of his motives despite his declarations. “We had seen many political leaders who had resigned from the Congress in protest only to rejoin the party. Though KCR’s public stance was for Telangana, in action he did not show commitment,” the student leader said. In November 2009, KCR started a fast-unto-death demanding statehood. He broke the fast after 11 days after an assurance from the UPA government that the process for the formation of Telangana will be started. “After all his grandstanding, he broke the fast with just an assurance, nothing concrete. So many activists and students had been fasting for far longer. We are not saying he should have fasted until death like he had claimed, but this was yet another symbolic gesture that his commitment was more for publicity,” the former student leader said. KCR broke his fast in Khammam jail but later initiated it after the UPA government backtracked.Prof Kodandaram was the undisputed leader of the movement while KCR was the political face. Kodandaram told TNM that when TJAC launched the non-cooperative movement in 2011, KCR was against it. In February, responding to a call given by TJAC, around three lakh government employees refused to do any work even as they turned up at their offices. Their demand was that the bill for bifurcation of Andhra had to be tabled in the Parliament. This protest lasted over 16 days, resulting in immense loss of revenue to the state and Union governments. In March 2011, when a call was given by TJAC for a march across the state, people from all walks of life – teachers, traders, students, and government employees to farmers and intellectuals – responded. The march was expected to see a convergence of around a million people and hence called the ‘million march’.“KCR was against the million march and tried to persuade us against going ahead. He kept insisting that it could lead to a law and order issue that could backfire on the movement, but we were determined to go ahead,” Prof Kodandaram said. Another activist privy to the conversations at that time said that KCR, while wanting to stage protests for Telangana, was always cautious to take on the political disposition and unwilling to support disruptions. “We suspected that he would crack a deal with those in power if it helped his own cause and that is why he wanted to maintain civil relations,” the activist added.But the million march was a huge movement, one that KCR could not stay away from. “Students then were against KCR and his party joining the march,” Prof Kodandaram said.The untimely death of Andhra Pradesh CM YS Rajashkhar Reddy in 2009 had created a vacuum in the Andhra Congress and the Congress high command was more compliant to the idea of forming a separate state, to retain power in at least some parts of the state. This and the sustained agitations ensured the formation of Telangana state on June 2, 2014..Asserting dominance Attaining statehood for Telangana was a result of efforts of millions of people over decades. KCR emerged as the most dominant person in the movement. For this to continue, those who had been with him on the journey had to be either co-opted or discredited. Given that intellectuals involved in the movement had been, by nature, anti-establishment, it would not have been long before they turned against KCR who had now formed the government. Much like the case of the folk singers from the Dhoom Dham movement, others too were given positions within the government.Pidamarthi Ravi, a student leader who had participated in the statehood agitation, joined the TRS and was made the chairman of Scheduled Castes Corporation. He was a legislator for two terms and in 2023, feeling sidelined in the BRS, he joined the Congress.Ghanta Chakrapani, a well-known journalist and a news reader with the All India Radio, played a key role in shaping public opinion in favour of Telangana. Through his articles and books, he made a vociferous case for a separate state and influenced the thinking of thousands of students at Kakatiya University and the Dr BR Ambedkar Open University where he taught. He was appointed by KCR as the first chairman of the Telangana State Public Service Commission (TSPSC).Another journalist closely involved in the movement, Allam Narayana, was appointed the first chairman of the newly formed Telangana Press Academy.Balka Suman, a student leader at Osmania University, had actively participated in the struggle for Telangana and had the ability to mobilise thousands of students. His father, Balka Suresh, was a TRS party member. In 2010, KCR appointed Suman the president of his party’s student wing. He was elected Member of Parliament in 2014, and in 2018, he won the Assembly elections from the Chennur constituency. He also served as the ruling party’s chief whip in the Assembly.Dasapathi Srinivas, a singer and lyricist, played an instrumental role in the cultural awakening of the rural masses of Telangana and in driving them towards the movement. Along with KCR and another lyricist, Warangal Srinivas, Dasapathi had written many songs, not just providing a cultural vehicle for the movement but by incorporating strong criticism against the Congress which was in power till 2014, he was instrumental in bringing the TRS to power. He was accommodated in the CMO by KCR as his Officer on Special Duty (OSD) and later nominated as a Member of the Legislative Party.Nandini Sidda Reddy, an influential teacher and writer who wrote hundreds of poems and movie songs that advocated for separate statehood, was appointed the first chairman of the Telangana Sahitya Akademi. He was also a member of the Telugu language textbooks review committee in 2014.Srinivas Goud, a political activist and a co-chairman of TJAC, was appointed Minister of Prohibition & Excise, Sports & Youth Services, Tourism & Culture and Archaeology in KCR’s cabinet.The biggest challenge for KCR came in the form of Prof Kodandaram who refused to dissolve the TJAC or join the TRS. In an interview to TNM, Prof Kodandaram said that KCR had approached him several times after 2014, urging him to dissolve TJAC citing that the purpose of statehood had been achieved. “But we wanted to act as watchdogs, we wanted to make sure that KCR and anyone else who forms the government sticks to the ideals on which the state was formed,” Kodandaram said. “This was also as per the instructions of Prof Jayashankar, but KCR did not want any opposition, any accountability,” he added.Kodandaram and a handful of others who remained in TJAC maintained that they would act as a pressure group and not support TRS or any other party politically. In addition to this, Kodandaram took up cudgels against the KCR government on behalf of several protesting groups – teachers, labour unions, and students..KCR government’s failure on key parameters KCR had on many occasions declared that if his party came to power he would appoint a Dalit leader as the CM. But when TRS did win the 2014 Assembly elections, he backtracked. His social location had been antithetical to the narrative of victimhood of Telangana. But so far, the backing he had from Prof Jayashankar had shielded him from this criticism. But Jayashakar’s death in June 2011 meant that KCR was exposed to criticism.After coming to power in 2014, ensuring a debilitated opposition in the state Assembly was easier. Both in 2014 and in 2018, after winning the elections and forming the government with comfortable majorities, TRS managed to attract MLAs from opposition parties like the Congress, TDP, and YSRCP.KCR’s governance revolved around welfarism and through the nine years in power, he announced many flagship projects with the aim of remedying inequities. For example, with farmers facing a severe water crisis, KCR announced a slew of schemes like Rythu Bandhu through which farmers received financial support of Rs 5,000 per acre and Rythu Bima, a life insurance of Rs 50,000 to families of farmers who lost their lives due to any reason.His government’s ambitious Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project over the Godavari river aimed to provide water for drinking and irrigation purposes to 20 out of the state’s 31 districts. The project hoped to provide relief to farmers and residents of districts that often faced drought.Telangana was created out of 10 districts from the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. Since 2014, those 10 districts have been further bifurcated and a total of 31 districts have been created, decentralising administration. Since TRS came to power, communal clashes, especially in the sensitive areas of Hyderabad, have reduced drastically.But on many key parameters, KCR’s government retracted from many ideals that formed the core of the movement. This allegation is levelled not just by the opposition but also by many co-passengers who had fought for the state along with KCR. During the agitation, KCR had often projected the bifurcation as a solution to most issues faced by the people of the region, but after the dream of Telangana was realised, the KCR government’s performance left much to be desired.Youngsters who participated in the movement often complained about how they had to move to Hyderabad to get access to quality education. The state expenditure on education was reduced from 10.89% in 2014-15 to 6.57% in 2023. Unemployment too has been a big issue in the state after nine years of TRS rule. Telangana’s literacy rate at 72.8% is lower than the national average of 77.7%While BRS claimed that since coming to power, they have filled 1.6 lakh government job vacancies, most of those have been in the police department, with 93.3% of the positions filled while departments like University Common Board (0%), Medical and Health Services Recruitment Board (14.3%), and the Telangana Residential Educational Institutions Recruitment Board (20.9%) have seen far less appointments.Cancellation of Group-1 preliminary exams and question paper leaks of exams conducted by the TSPSC led to multiple delays in public sector recruitments while job notifications issued by TSPSC in 2022 did not materialise. All this meant that many educated youth were left without jobs. And a majority of the private jobs created were in the IT sector and in Hyderabad, again defeating the demand for equitable development.Unemployment was a significant factor in the 2023 Assembly elections and there was palpable anger against KCR’s government on the ground. In 2021, Boda Sunil Naik, an unemployed tribal youth, died by suicide and blamed the state government for delaying job notifications. During the elections, Sirisha, a 25-year-old unemployed woman, contested as an independent candidate from Kollapur to put the spotlight on unemployment..Stifling dissent The biggest disenchantment for people, however, was how KCR handled dissent and criticism. For a party that was formed as a sign of protest, that was sustained by protests, and came to power because of agitations, the TRS came down heavily on protests of any form. “KCR often said that now that the state has been formed there is no need for people to continue protests,” a former associate of KCR, now in TJAC, said.“It was a government that emerged from a people’s movement and we had expected KCR to maintain some semblance of democracy, but he was not even accessible. Not even to those who participated in the movement. He did not even meet civil society members and human rights activists for any dialogue,” Professor PL Vishweshwar Rao, vice president of TJAC, alleged.In February 2023, renowned balladeer Gummadi Vittal Rao, known as Gaddar, tried to meet KCR at the CM’s official residence, Pragathi Bhavan, but he was not allowed inside the gates. Gaddar was often called the voice of the Telangana movement and was a central figure of the cause for decades. Over the years, he had a falling out with KCR and when he wanted an appointment to give a memorandum to the CM, he was denied permission to enter the CMO though he waited for over three hours. “The watchman at the gate offered his chair to Gaddar to sit because he was 77 at the time and could not stand for too long. Gaddar waited hoping that eventually the message would reach KCR and maybe he will meet him at least for a couple of minutes, but when that did not happen he finally gave up and returned,” a friend of Gaddar told TNM. Gaddar passed away just a few months after this, in August 2023.Even those who held important portfolios in KCR’s cabinet were not allowed access to him on many occasions. An insider narrated a story of how Eatala Rajender tried to meet KCR many times but was denied entry into Pragathi Bhavan. Between the months of January and March 2021, when the pandemic was raging, Eatala, who was the then health minister, had sought to meet the Chief Minister. But KCR, who had been upset at reports of Eatala planning a coup within the TRS, did not meet him. “Eatala requested the CMO to get KCR to meet him for at least 10 minutes so people get the impression that the health minister still enjoys the CM’s confidence but he was not given an audience,” the insider said.Eatala was one of the senior leaders of the party who had come up from the Telangana movement and a Backward Class (BC) leader from the Mudiraj community. In May 2021, he was sacked as minister and he later quit the party to join the BJP. His resignation necessitated a bye-election to his constituency of Huzurabad, which became a battle of prestige for him and KCR. The TRS government announced a welfare scheme to give Rs 10 lakh to one member of every Dalit family to become self-reliant. The Dalita Bandhu scheme was believed to be KCR’s step to retain Dalit voters and also counter Eatala in the bye-election.Eatala was one of the last significant political leaders from the Telangana movement to leave the party.The KCR government’s inclination to restrain and suppress dissent in any form, politically or ideologically, led to many points of confrontation with those who had fought for statehood. From banning protests in places like the Osmania University campus and Dharna Chowk, locations that had been synonymous with the struggle for Telangana, KCR’s reputation as an autocratic leader grew.Although TJAC lost the sway it had, with Kodandaram no longer enjoying backing, the group continued to supplement the opposition voices which seemed timid in the state Assembly.KCR then used Telangana Writers’ Forum, one of the groups that had been in existence for over a decade, as a proxy to retaliate against TJAC intellectually. But it did not manage to serve its purpose.“State machinery, including police and intelligence, was commonly used against us when we planned protests against KCR or his family,” Kodandaram alleged. “Our calls were tapped and a counter-action would be planned in advance. On other occasions, brutal police force, illegal detentions, and house arrests were used to ensure that we do not stage massive protests against the government,” he added. Kodandaram cites examples of how when KCR or his family members visited any district, TJAC members who were activists during the agitation would be detained a day in advance to avoid any protests.Kodandaram also started his own political party, Telangana Jana Samithi, in 2018 but it did not make a dent electorally. Ahead of the 2023 Assembly elections, Kodandaram announced his support for the Congress party, which went on to win the elections.A journalist who has observed KCR for decades now said that he is a combination of two men who were instrumental in shaping the politics of Andhra Pradesh – Chandrababu Naidu and YS Rajashkehar Reddy. From Naidu, who was a mentor, KCR learnt how to manipulate both his party colleagues and voters. And from YSR, a political rival, KCR learnt how to grow politically, even if it meant estranging people close to him. And with the combination of both skill sets, KCR managed to come to power and hold on to it for almost a decade.While KCR’s party has been voted out of power in Telangana, he continues to be a powerful figure in the state politics and with his national ambitions, he cannot be written off ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in 2024.