COVER STORY

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The assembly election in Telangana is going to be more caste-influenced than ever

50-suhasini Caste pull: N.T. Rama Rao’s granddaughter Suhasini (centre) is expected to consolidate Kamma votes for the TDP

A realtor in Hyderabad, 38-year-old Rami Reddy deals with plots in villages surrounding the city. Till recently, his WhatsApp display picture showed him wearing shades and a white khadi shirt. Now, it is a collage of five images of Congress working president A. Revanth Reddy. According to him, many of his friends in the Reddy community have also put Facebook and WhatsApp display pictures of Revanth, a popular leader who is contesting from Kodangal constituency in Mahabubnagar district. Flaunting your political allegiance on your social networking profile is a trend that is rapidly catching on in Telangana, ahead of the state elections.

Caste is known to be an integral part of Indian politics. In the undivided Andhra Pradesh, the Reddy community had been the backbone of the Congress and many of its leaders went on to become chief ministers of the state. There are Reddys in other political parties, too, but they are identified mostly with the Congress, which is why the party enjoys the support of a majority in the community.

Though top leaders in past elections were chosen or elevated based on their caste, the polarisation was not very evident among the voters, until now. The ground situation has made the upcoming elections very caste-centric. What seems to matter the most is not the candidate or the manifesto, but the caste associated with a particular party.

The Reddys were formerly chieftains and feudatories, and now constitute around 7 per cent of the population. They are known to be influential across business and political fields. Nowadays, it is not just ordinary voters from the Reddy community who are backing the Congress. According to sources, some leaders in the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) are, too.

The coming together of the Congress and The TDP has brought together the Reddys and The Kammas.

The main reason seems to be the alienation of Reddys by the TRS, which is led by another powerful upper caste, the Velamas from Telangana, who are a minority in terms of numbers. TRS president and caretaker chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao belongs to this caste, which forms less than 1 per cent of the population. Velamas were landlords who later transformed into a formidable political force. But until KCR formed the TRS in 2001, they were not identified with any particular party. The general impression now is that the TRS is a party of the Velamas, though many Reddys were ministers in the last cabinet. Reddy leaders often called it “dorala party” (a feudalistic party).

Another reason why the Reddys have decided to throw their weight behind the “grand alliance”—consisting of the Congress, Telugu Desam Party, Communist Party of India and Telangana Jana Samithi—is the leadership. Out of the four parties, three are headed by Reddys—Telangana Congress president Uttam Kumar Reddy, CPI state secretary Chada Venkat Reddy and TJS founder Prof M. Kodandram.

In its first list of 65 candidates, the Congress fielded 23 Reddys. Political analysts feel it was a strategic move. In the 119-seat assembly, Congress has given a total of 35 tickets to Reddys out of the 99 seats it is contesting. The TJS had given four out of its eight tickets (there will be friendly contests between TJS and TDP in some seats) to Reddys, and the CPI one out of three.

“It is a reality that the Reddys have always been associated with the Congress,” said Gudur Narayan Reddy, treasurer, Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee. “At one time, we had more than 70 Reddy MLAs in the united Andhra Pradesh. But, it is not true that they have been given more tickets this time.”

The Congress party has, for the first time, joined hands with the TDP, its rival of more than three decades. The TDP was founded by legendary actor and former chief minister N.T. Rama Rao, who is a Kamma, an agrarian community now known for their entrepreneurial spirit. Over the decades, Kammas have embraced and rallied behind the TDP, which helped the party take on the Congress. The Kammas are one of the wealthiest upper castes in the two Telugu-speaking states. After the formation of Telangana in 2014, their political power was greatly reduced, and was mostly concentrated in and around Hyderabad and in a few districts in south Telangana, as most of the community is in the Andhra region. This time, the TDP has given three tickets out of the 13 to Kamma leaders. But the trump card of the party is NTR’s granddaughter, Suhasini, who will contest from Kukatpally in Greater Hyderabad, which has a large number of Kammas.

“By nominating NTR’s granddaughter, the TDP has suddenly become strong in four constituencies,” said a Kamma leader from a non-TDP party. “TDP supporters are very reliable and they will vote for any candidate of the party without thinking twice. Since an NTR family member is in the fray, I can see Kammas supporting her, cutting across party lines. I have been getting calls from my village to do whatever I can to make her win.” The coming together of the Congress and the TDP has brought together the Reddys and the Kammas for a bigger cause—to defeat the TRS.

Meanwhile, polarisation on caste lines is evident in the other camp, too. A large section of Velamas see the need to support the TRS. Caste groups on WhatsApp are being spammed with messages about the development work done by KCR, and how important it is to get him re-elected. Some have also hailed him as a ‘Velama Warrior’ who has brought glory to the community.

Amid all this, the backward castes have alleged that they have been sidelined by major political parties. “We represent more than 50 per cent of the population, but managed to get just 60 tickets from the ruling party and four from opposition parties,” said Jajula Srinivas Goud, state president, BC Welfare Association. “There are 112 castes in the backward caste category and about 100 castes do not even have representation. The upper castes are low in numbers, but have got more tickets. These leaders should know that Telangana was possible only because of the lower caste members who were on the streets agitating all the time.”