A gamble that is unlikely to pay off
Why K. Chandrasekhar Rao’s role in national politics is difficult to visualise
N. Rahul

By renaming the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) as the Bharat Rashtra Samiti (BRS), Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao aims to take on the BJP and emerge as a national force. This is an ambitious step. It could even be a misadventure, for Mr. Rao has not yet struck a chord with the people of the rest of the country, has disassociated himself from the brand name that catapulted him to power, and seems to lack a national vision. Further, his position even on home ground is shaky, as the TRS recently lost a few bypolls to the BJP. After Karnataka and Puducherry, the BJP sees Telangana as the next best bet for its expansion in the south.

Mr. Rao has not established himself as a leader with national appeal by bringing the Opposition parties together. The TRS had stayed away from the meetings of the Opposition parties to decide on their candidate in the presidential election on the grounds that it cannot share the platform with the Congress. The party extended support to the Opposition candidate, Yashwant Sinha, only in an effort to defeat the BJP and “safeguard” democratic and constitutional values. Earlier, too, Mr. Rao stated that the TRS is not part of the Opposition front. But the Congress’s presence in the Opposition is critical for anti-BJP parties to unite, given its pan-India presence.

Reacting to the development, the president of the Telangana Jana Samiti, M. Kodandaram, once a protégé of Mr. Rao, said the Chief Minister was merely aiming to create anti-BJP sentiment to win the next year’s Assembly elections in Telangana. Mr. Rao did not have plans to become a force to reckon with at the national level, he said.

Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee Campaign Committee Chairman and ex-MP Madhu Yaskhi said Mr. Rao does not inspire confidence as a national leader because he has not proved his credentials. He said Mr. Rao is trying to divide the Opposition for the benefit of the BJP.

In fact, even TRS leaders, cadre and political activists have struggled to accept the change. In an embarassing slip, a minister called the new party “BSP” instead of “BRS” at a public meeting to celebrate Dussehra.

The TRS has no presence in any other State, including in adjoining Andhra Pradesh. In Karnataka, another neighbouring State, Janata Dal (Secular) leader and former Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy said Mr. Rao was not interested in fielding any candidate for the upcoming Assembly election, but would back JD(S) candidates for the 2023 polls.

Mr. Rao’s role in national politics is difficult to visualise given that the TRS has only nine out of 17 MPs from the State. In such a scenario, it may be difficult for him to upstage leaders such as Nitish Kumar, Akhilesh Yadav, Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee to become the most influential Opposition leader.

It would have made a difference if Mr. Rao had bargaining power, in the manner that former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu once did. Today, Mr. Naidu has become irrelevant in the political landscape. He attempted to unite anti-BJP forces ahead of the Lok Sabha elections 2019, but failed miserably. But two decades ago, he played ‘kingmaker’ in two coalition governments at the Centre.

Mr. Rao’s party also lacks development programmes that will appeal to people at the national level. While the Chief Minister has earned credit for increasing the cultivable area many-fold in Telangana, his schemes have not been replicated by other States. On the other hand, Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal’s programmes of free power to households, free education and free ride to women in buses have clearly rattled Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has cautioned people against what he calls a “revadi culture” of offering freebies for votes. The AAP has taken advantage of its ‘Delhi model’ and tried to sell it in other States. The TRS needs such a promise.

Mr. Rao has a massive challenge before him: to retain power in his own State as well as to take on powerful parties in other States in order to create political space for himself. Political observers say Mr. Kejriwal has managed to turn the Gujarat elections into a BJP versus AAP contest. The AAP also managed to win the Punjab election by cashing in on the widespread discontent against the Congress and the Akalis. Whether the BRS can create such an impact remains to be seen, but it has a long way to go.