India Matters: A 'caste-ing' couch in Andhra Pradesh

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Congress leader and Andhra Pradesh Tourism Minister Vatti Vasant Kumar with fellow party leader and Union Tourism Minister Chiranjeevi

Hyderabad:  Something that has not happened even once in nearly six decades is happening now in Andhra Pradesh.

No, not just the bifurcation of the state, but a virtual inversion of the traditional caste pyramid during election time.

The reasons are compelling because nothing is more important than numbers during election time. In Telangana, 90 per cent of the electorate comprises Backward Classes (BC), Other Backward Classes (OBC), Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and minorities in the new state. As opposed to this, in Seemandhra, the residuary state of Andhra Pradesh, 30 per cent of the electorate belongs to the forward caste.

The sheer numbers have forced political parties to promise a drastic change in the political power matrix to bring the backward communities at least two steps forward. The pressure on the political parties is huge, as though people expect a social revolution to be delivered by the political leadership.

Gangadhar Yadav, a banking professional, explains, "The TRS says we got Telangana, Congress says 'Amma' (Sonia Gandhi) gave Telangana. People must be told what Telangana has been created for. It is for ameliorating the BCs and SC/STs.''

That is why social justice has become the byword in political circles here.

That is why Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) chief K Chandrasekhar Rao announced that a Dalit would be the first chief minister of Telangana.

KCR, however, went back on his word and subsequently said people, in fact, wanted him to be the first chief minister.

"I was the vanguard of the movement. I will be the vanguard to reconstruct the state, so why not,'' he asks, almost defiantly.

KCR is a Velama, a member of a forward community that accounts for less than two per cent of the population.

Social activist and writer Kancha Ilaiah reasons that TRS leaders realised that if the issue of social justice is addressed, power will come to them.

"That is the calculation on which TRS and KCR announced that a Dalit will be made the chief minister,'' he says.

Poking fun at KCR's turnaround, Union minister Jairam Ramesh said the Congress would make a Dalit the chief minister.

Political observers say the comment probably created more panic within the Congress as it has been traditionally dominated by the Reddys, another forward caste.

Not to be outdone, Chandrababu Naidu has promised the chief minister's chair to a representative of the Backward Classes that comprise 56 per cent of the population.

Critics accuse Naidu of practicing double standards over the issue.

Political analyst and MLC Nageswar says, "Naidu realises his chips are down in Telangana but he wants to be the chief minister of Seemandhra, so he won't announce a backward class chief minister there".

The Congress realises that Backward Classes account for a numerical majority of up to 56 per cent.

So they have named as PCC president Ponnala Laxmaiah, a leader from Backward Classes, Uttam Kumar Reddy as the working president, Dalit leader Damodar Raja Narasimha as the campaign committee chief and minority leader Shabbir Ali as co-chairman of the campaign committee.

The attempt obviously is to put together a rainbow leadership in the state which has something for every caste that matters.

The irony is that all major political parties in Andhra Pradesh have so far been identified with the upper castes. The Congress is identified with the Reddys, the Telugu Desam with the Kammas and the TRS with the Velamas.

The YSR Congress is thought to have taken away the Reddy community's votes from the Congress.

Meanwhile, the chief of the BJP's Telangana unit is a Reddy and the one in Seemandhra is a Kamma.

In fact, in the 58-year-long history of Andhra Pradesh, the chief minister's chair, barring a couple of years, has always been occupied by a member of one of the two dominant castes -- Reddys and Kammas -- which jointly account for hardly 10 per cent of the population.

Former chief secretary K Madhav Rao believes that this is a case of gross historical injustice.

"Their population is less than 10 per cent. So, 90 per cent of the people should not become the chief minister? This has to change, not on somebody's promise or charity, but as a system, to exclude any forward caste who has had a turn on the chief minister's chair," he says.

Renowned poet and activist Balladeer Gadar says all political parties are using the social justice card to play vote-bank politics.

"If a Dalit is made the chief minister by a Reddy party, he will not be a representative of the Dalit community but a 'chamcha' (sycophant) of the Reddy. Or a Kamma or Velama. One says 'make a Dalit the chief minister', another says 'we will make'. If they are 'making' and he is 'becoming', he is not a real representative.''

The cynicism expressed by Gadar is replaced by optimism among individuals from Backward Classes who hope to benefit from the sudden focus on their communities.

Dr Muralidhar Yadav, a professor at an engineering college and a member of one of the most backward class communities, says for the Telugu Desam Party, it is the need of the hour and for the Backward Classes, this is a social ladder.

"This society is meant for upper castes. They are ruling. Everything is in their hands: the administration, the politics. We are only workers, even in the political class,'' he says.

Dr Yadav is convinced that political power is the key to upward mobility.

"If I want to put up an industry, I need political force. I want better placement as IPS/IAS, we need political force. For everything, you need political force.''

The Backward Classes comprise a numerical majority, but it is not a homogenous group as it encompasses at least 130 different communities. With growing political awareness, there is increased realisation about being marginalised in the mainstream.

Gujja Krishna, president of the State Praja Sangam, points out that though Backward Classes comprise 56 per cent of population, their representation in several spheres is poor.

"In the state legislature, we don't have more than 15 per cent representation. As employees of the state government, we don't have more than seven per cent representation. There is no Backward Classes department among the 70 central departments. Of the 28 governors, none is from the Backward Classes. Of the 25 Supreme Court judges, none is from the Backward Classes. So Backward Classes are suppressed nationwide.''

R Krishnaiah, who has lead a movement of the Backward Classes for over 40 years in the state, believes that getting the chief minister's chair will be the answer to several ills, if not all.

"Backward classes are saying we don't want buffaloes, we don't want subsidies, we want power, meaning the chief minister's chair. Since independence, no political party gave anything to the Backward Classes. When the chief minister is a member of the backward Classes, the due share in education, jobs and other fields will be provided. Every activity will be in favor of the Backward Classes," he says.

Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi says that the new state has provided a lot of opportunity for several backward communities to assert their political identity. But his biggest fear is that a political vacuum will turn into a fertile ground for radical Hindutva forces.

So Mr Owaisi wants to plan and consolidate by bringing together Dalits and Muslims.

His party, which has traditionally fielded only Muslim candidates and held sway only in Hyderabad, will field both a Dalit and an OBC in the Lok Sabha elections. It will make an electoral foray into the districts as well.

"In a separate Telangana, 'doralu' or 'peddalu' (zamindari domination by upper classes) kind of politics won't survive. That is why Muslims and Christians feel they should come together. In the long run, we have to ensure that Telangana does not become a cauldron of communalism," he says.

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