In Telangana, Backward Castes, SCs, STs and minorities constitute over 85 percent of the population.
Caste exerts significant influence in Indian electoral politics, permeating every aspect of the democratic process. It profoundly shapes voting patterns, with voters often aligning with candidates from their own caste or those perceived as representing their caste’s interests.
Furthermore, political parties meticulously consider caste equations when selecting candidates, aiming to secure a diverse and representative panel to appeal to various caste groups. In Telangana, Backward Castes, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and minorities constitute over 85 percent of the population. This percentage may have slightly increased due to the growth of Other Backward Classes and Most Backward Classes between the 1931 census and the recent caste survey.
Backward Castes encompass five major numerically strong castes, including Goud, Mudiraj, Yadav, Munnurkapu, and Padamashali, along with Most Backward Castes like Viswabrahmins, Nayee Brahmin, Rajaka, Kummari and Kamari among others. Scheduled Castes comprise Mala, Madiga, and other oppressed castes, while Scheduled Tribes include Lambada and Adivasis like Gond, Koya, and Chenchu.
In his role as chief minister, K Chandrashekar Rao has garnered the support of Backward Castes communities such as Gouds, Yadavs, Munnurkapus, and Padmashalis by appointing members of these communities as ministers and nominating some of them to the Rajya Sabha.
During his first term, KCR tried to reach out to the Most Backward Classes through a Finance Corporation, but struggled to effectively allocate the funds. He had aimed to win the favour of the MBCs through the BC Bandhu scheme, and the appointments of an MLC candidate and the chairman for MBC Corporation.
The chief minister faced challenges in distributing tickets to the OBCs in proportion to their population. KCR declared 23 MLA seats for OBCs out of the 115 candidates announced by his party, Bharat Rashtra Samithi or BRS – sparking agitation among the OBCs. He did not allocate a single MLA ticket to the numerically strong Mudiraj and Kuruma communities, which caused dissatisfaction among these groups.
But in a strategic manoeuvre, KCR announced the Dalita Bandhu scheme just before the Huzurabad by-election in 2021. This initiative was aimed at rallying Dalits to BRS’ (then TRS) side, given that one of KCR’s biggest critics is Manda Krishna Madiga’s Madiga Reservation Porata Samithi and other Dalit organisations. The MRPS’ criticism stemmed from KCR’s failure to fulfil campaign promises such as appointing a Dalit as the chief minister in 2014, and providing three acres of land to Dalit families.
Subsequently, the Telangana legislature passed a resolution to implement 10 percent reservations for Scheduled Tribes and sent it to the union government. The resolution had been pending since the formation of the Telangana state. Additionally, KCR named the newly-constructed Secretariat after BR Ambedkar, erected a 125-foot Ambedkar statue in Hyderabad, and introduced the Girijan Bandhu programme for Scheduled Tribes, a scheme akin to Dalita Bandhu.
The OBC Mudirajs, SC Madigas, and the ST communities – disheartened over not receiving ministerial positions or adequate representation in the administration and nominated roles – have expressed dissent. With the assembly elections closing in, KCR will have to reach out to these communities and persuade them to vote for the party.
Within the Congress, the Reddys still exert influence over key positions, despite some representation from the Backward Castes and Dalits.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the state and his call for unity may support the party, which is grappling with internal leadership disputes. Most of the BRS leaders who joined Congress are from Reddy, Kamma and Velama castes in Khammam, Nalgonda and Mahabubnagar districts. Backward Castes leaders like Ponala Lakshmaiah, Madhu Yaski, Ponnam Prabhakar, and VH Hanumanthrao, among others, have spent considerable time in Delhi demanding more MLA seats and proper representation.
The Congress has struggled to employ social engineering in Telangana, unlike in Karnataka. The party should have taken proactive measures to win over Dalits, particularly from the Madiga castes, and leverage Mallikarjun Kharge’s image in Telangana. Offering over 35-40 seats to Backward Castes could alter the election narrative in Congress’ favour, especially as BRS has only offered 23 seats to the Backward Castes.
The influence of Dr RS Praveen Kumar, a Dalit leader who initiated the Bahujan Chaitanya Yatra, has the potential to disrupt the plans of several political parties. He has pledged to allocate 70% of MLA seats to OBCs, which could further reshape the political landscape.
In contrast, the BJP is heavily relying on the support of the OBCs who constitute over 56 percent of the state’s population. Rajya Sabha MP and BJP OBC Morcha national president Dr K Laxman as well as two of the party’s four Lok Sabha MPs from the state belong to the Munnuru Kapu community, a numerically and socially influential OBC caste.
Etela Rajendra, who resigned from KCR’s cabinet and emerged victorious in the Huzurabad by-election on a BJP ticket, belongs to the numerically significant Mudiraj community. The RSS and affiliated organisations are diligently working at the grassroots level to mobilise various MBC and De-notified Tribes around their specific issues and concerns.
Politics of reservations
In Telangana, KCR is advocating for an expansion of reservations that would encompass SCs, STs, OBCs, and minorities. In 2017, he successfully passed a legislation aimed at increasing reservations for STs and minorities to 10 percent and 12 percent, respectively, consequently elevating the total reserved seats to 62 percent. Although the Bill was forwarded to the union government, it hasn’t been put into action yet.
Presently, the state designates 15% of reservations for SCs, 6 percent for STs, 25 percent for OBCs, and 4 percent for minorities. Notably, OBC reservations in local bodies have already been reduced from 33 percent to 23 percent.
Over the past few weeks, Rahul Gandhi has been vocal about caste census and the under-representation of Backward Castes, Dalits, and tribals in various domains. The Congress Working Committee is in favour of breaking the 50 percent ceiling on reservations. The Congress has also promised to conduct a nationwide caste census if voted to power. However, the issue of the caste census, which is significant for the Backward Castes, is not receiving the same level of attention from Telangana Congress leaders who are currently preoccupied with ticket distribution.
The BJP, on the other hand, is taking a stance against reservations for minorities while pushing for an increase in reservations for other categories.
During public gatherings in Hyderabad, union home minister Amit Shah brought up the topic of increasing reservations for SCs, STs, and OBCs in Telangana, but firmly opposed reservations based on religion, explicitly stating that minority reservations would have an impact on other social categories.
It’s important to highlight that any expansion of reservations in any of these categories that surpasses the 50 percent reservation cap could lead to legal challenges. As a result, the state is poised to face a significant legal test, and the intensity of the reservations debate is expected to be a critical factor in the upcoming assembly elections.
Caste politics in Telangana, as in much of India, is a complex and dynamic arena where social identity and politics are deeply intertwined. The future of this political landscape hinges on the ability of various parties to navigate these complexities and meet the aspirations and needs of the diverse caste groups that define the state's electoral dynamics. As Telangana gears up for Assembly elections, the intensity of the reservations debate will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in shaping the state's political destiny.
G Kiran Kumar is a PhD research scholar in the department of Political Science at the University of Hyderabad. He also serves as a Steering Committee member of the Global South Policy Process Research Network and the national president of the All India OBC Students Association.
This report was republished from The News Minute as part of The News Minute-Newslaundry alliance. It has been lightly edited for style and clarity. Read about our partnership here and become a TNM Member here.