In Telangana, BJP bets high on OBC support and lure of faster growth

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is making a new pitch for Telangana. Contrary to his earlier rhetoric about Hindu-Muslim polarization with the atrocities committed by the Razakars under the Nizam, he bets on capturing the imagination centered on big growth, urban infrastructure, technology and business expansion faster.

He caused a stir with his recent national executive meeting and massive town hall meeting. The BJP is moving to center stage with the support of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the state. In United Andhra Pradesh, the OBCs belonged to the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) while the Congress was mainly supported by Dalits, upper castes and Muslims.

With the bifurcation of the state, the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) had no specific program for OBCs, although most of them are covered and receive benefits under the Rythu Bandhu scheme and other occupation-based schemes. The CBOs are mostly small landowners in the rural hinterland of Telangana.

However, despite the welfare schemes of the TRS, there seems to be momentum towards the BJP among OBCs. It may have something to do with the changing face of rural Telangana and the way the BJP has projected an OBC leadership in Bandi Sanjay and more recently former TRS chief Eatala Rajender.

Rajender was expelled from K. Chandrashekar Rao’s cabinet over land encroachment allegations but returned to the assembly just five months later, winning a heated by-vote contest in Huzurabad. He became a dissenting voice and the face of the OBC leadership in Telangana.

The TRS, however, appears as a party of dominant castes such as the Velamas. Here, KCR’s personal leadership style and alleged arrogance in handling party affairs brings to mind old-fashioned feudal times in the popular imagination.

L to R: Bandi Sanjay, Union Ministers Amit Shah and Piyush Goyal, UP CM Yogi Adityanath, Etela Rajendra and MLA T. Raja Singhat during a town hall meeting, in Hyderabad on July 3, 2022. Photo: PTI

Altered scenario in the rural landscape of Telangana

Two constant sources of revenue for the public treasury have been land and alcohol. The state has actively encouraged the conversion of agricultural land into real estate with the passage of the Telangana Conversion of Agricultural Land Bill, 2020 for non-agricultural purposes.

The protracted agrarian crisis has made it even more lucrative for small farmers, most of whom are OBCs, to sell their land or take it upon themselves to convert farmland into open plots for building villas. There has been a literal windfall and expansion of the rent-seeking economy.

The speculative nature of land and real estate transactions has also considerably transformed living conditions, consumption patterns and patterns of aspirations and expectations. It is literally an overnight transformation that is experienced with heavy investment and the purchase of farmland by big corporations – the shift from subsistence living to conspicuous consumption which includes high-end mobiles , luxury cars, villas and tourism.

Consider, for example, an acre of land within a radius of 100 kilometers around the capital Hyderabad, which costs between Rs 80 lakh and Rs 1 crore. Even a small farmer with two acres of land is ready to earn money. The cost of an acre of land outside the 100 kilometer radius costs between Rs 50 lakh and above.

While agricultural land closer to Hyderabad city is being converted into open real estate plots for residential purposes, construction of villas and also purchased by small industries, land beyond the radius of 100 kilometers is being converted into either farms, in gated communities or simply purchased as a secure investment for future sale. Most of this land is purchased by professionals, business people, city dwellers, people working in the information technology industry, and non-resident Indians (NRIs).

Let us take an example to understand the nature of transformation and its impact on social and political life.

Jangaiyya, who was once a landless laborer from the Mudiraj caste (categorized as OBC), hails from a village about 50 kilometers from Hyderabad. Over the past 15 years, his fortunes have changed. He used to graze cattle and do manual labor related to the farm. He moved to Hyderabad to work as a waiter in a small hotel. Over time he developed contacts with the local businessmen, mainly Marwaris who owned jewelery shops and engaged in the wholesale trade in spices and lintels.

At their insistence, he began to help them by using his local contacts in the village for the purchase of agricultural land. He began earning a commission on the sale and purchase of land. With the construction of the international airport on the outskirts of Hyderabad, land prices have skyrocketed. Jangaiyya himself started selling and buying land. Today, he owns three huge buildings and residential complexes in the nearby town, with a comfortable life.

There are many such cases. During my conversations with some of them, they pointed out that most intermediaries in real estate transactions belong to the OBC community.

For many intermediaries, resorting to muscle, political influence and corrupt government officials, including local police, is routine. Most businessmen who have purchased large plots of land need such physical protection for their properties, which makes some lower caste groups in high demand.

One told how he trained his son in karate to become a black belt holder. There are others like the famous Hyderabad Pehlwan, who has a history of violence, and a famous history leafer who helps run the lands beset by court cases. He can release land and also illegally occupy land.

There are also a large number of cases concerning temple lands – the lands that have been given to the local temple today are occupied by people capable of resorting to violence and are linked to local politicians. These henchmen also double the discipline of labor hired by local industries. Most of the workforce comes from outside, from states like Bihar and Jharkhand.

How the BJP is trying to connect

It may be noted that “Hindu” organizations have also emerged as part of this new political economy. The use of religion in illegal trade and violence provides additional security. Many notorious henchmen shifted their allegiance to local religious and cultural organizations. There is therefore a formidable link between real estate transactions, physical violence and religious symbolism.

It is common to find these sports minions tilak and the organization of religious festivals such as Hanuman Jayanti and Ganesh Chaturthi. Again, aggressive cultural mobilization seems to converge with the necessary aggressiveness in dealing with land deals and para-legal deals.

Today, most small farmers sell land to settle in nearby towns in search of secure income, English education for their children, and health facilities.

An estimated 3.42 lakh acres of farmland within a 100 kilometer radius has been converted into real estate. It is mainly the elders, some small farmers and the landless Dalits who have remained in the villages.

Most want better roads and big developments to reach cities. Grand development, speculative land deals, rapid mobility and rags-to-riches stories are what dominate the narrative of Telangana’s rural hinterland. The poor are supported by state social protection policies, including MNREGA, pension schemes, free rice and rations.

It is to this changing face of rural Telangana that the BJP is trying to appeal by promising even faster growth and faster mobility. With no other imagination in sight, one has to wait and watch how regional parties betting on transactional welfarism and subsistence living respond. We have to see if their caste-based policies can appeal to this shifting imaginary.

However, they seem less motivated than the BJP. Pure energy, scale, speed, big talk and connection to the Union government and its development plans (like building roads and infrastructure) provide an entry point for the BJP . Apart from that, the use of religious symbolism has an instrumental role, beyond religiosity.

Prime Minister Modi’s tempered speech at the recent town hall meeting at Parade Grounds in Hyderabad appears to be an attempt to connect with this underlying imagination. This appears to be a course correction from the high-decibel communal campaign and its failure in Bengal.

Ajay Gudavarthy is Associate Professor at the Center for Policy Studies, JNU.

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