If rule number one in most regional political parties of India is that it’s all in the family, then the rule in political families is that the son always wins over the nephew!
The first example is the Shiv Sena, where nephew Raj Thackeray had to exit the party and form Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in 2006 after it was clear that son Uddhav Thackeray will succeed Bal Thackeray, the late founder of the firebrand political party.
The second example is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the nephew here was late Union Minister Murasoli Maran, who was once the most trusted confidant of his uncle and the late DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi.
But though he was way senior by age and stature, son MK Stalin was the undisputed heir. Maran even threatened to quit active politics in 2001, but reconciled and accepted the inevitable. Today, his sons Dayanidhi and Kalanidhi Maran, owners of the Sun TV network, are only in the periphery of a party which is ruled by Stalin.
As the newly formed state of Telangana heads into its first election as an independent state, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, a firm family enterprise, seems all set to be a third example to prove the nephew versus son rule.
Party supremo and Chief Minister Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao’s (KCR) 42- year-old son Kalvakuntla Taraka Rama Rao (KTR) is rising and Thanneru Harish Rao, KCR’s 46-year-old nephew and long-time confidant, is being overshadowed.
A brief recap of the last few years will help understand how the story of the son and nephew unfolded as the party catapulted to power in 2014.
At the end of the 2009 Assembly polls, the TRS was just a small sub-regional party. One that was a distant third player, with small caste base confined to the Telangana region, in a Congress versus Telugu Desam Party battle for a united Andhra Pradesh.
More importantly, Telangana as a separate state was just an idea then, a political demand that seemed to have no clear future. KCR, who split from the TDP in 2001 to establish the TRS, had limited prospects and had to live in the shadow of the big two. In fact, a separate Telangana wasn’t even a major electoral issue then.
At this time, there was no space for anyone else but the leader KCR in the TRS and his nephew Harish Rao, who first became an MLA from the family bastion of Siddipet in 2004, was the most trusted lieutenant. Harish Rao has been with KCR since the beginning and was instrumental in establishing the party after KCR walked out of the TDP. KCR’s son and daughter were not even involved in active politics.
Suddenly, the death of Congress’s strongman Chief Minister YS Rajashekar Reddy in a helicopter crash, in September 2009, set in motion a series of events that altered the fate of the state. The Congress was in disarray and taking advantage of the political flux KCR re-ignited the Telangana agitation with a fast unto death for a separate state in December 2009.
Journalists who went to meet KCR at the Hyderabad hospital, where he was admitted during his fast, may remember that his daughter Kalvakuntla Kavitha was the one guarding access to her father and this was perhaps the first time she was publicly seen as an aspirant in politics.
It was around this same time that his son KTR began appearing regularly on national television networks as the spokesperson for the party and the Telangana movement. Rama Rao, who was educated in the US and had worked there, had officially entered politics just a few months before the 2009 elections and was elected to the Assembly from the Sircilla constituency.
All this while, nephew Harish Rao was the one organising the party and was closely involved in grassroot mobilisation for the Telangana agitation. In the party strongholds, and amongst the Telangana agitators, it was Harish Rao who was the backbone of the party and KCR’s most trusted lieutenant.
The Congress remained an extremely powerful force at this time and the TRS had enormous ground work to do. Harish Rao, who was an MLA since 2004 and a founder member of the party, was the one implementing plans on the ground. He was also the party’s floor leader in the House.
However, the son and daughter became active in New Delhi, networking with journalists and politicians, from their father’s official residence as a Member of Parliament in Lutyens Delhi. Rama Rao, having studied and lived abroad, had the sophistication to mingle with national journalists and Delhi’s political elite and Kavitha was keenly looking at corporate networking.
First rumours that the son and daughter were in a power struggle against the nephew began gaining momentum as it became clear that the TRS could become a ruling force in a separate Telangana which was carved out of Andhra Pradesh in 2014.
Once the party came to power in Telangana, it became clear that it was a family enterprise and the son and daughter had firmly placed themselves on either side of their father.
Rama Rao was given the IT portfolio and Kavitha contested her first election and became Member of Parliament from the Nizamabad constituency in 2014. It seemed the son had taken stage as the second in line to KCR in Hyderabad and the daughter was his trusted lieutenant in New Delhi.
Harish Rao, who worked with the uncle all through, was given the irrigation, agriculture and legislative affairs portfolios in the state cabinet and seemed to be over shadowed by his cousin. However, he did have his stature within the party and the power equations remained fluid.
In the last five years, KTR has built his stature as the IT minister and Harish Rao as the grassroots man seems to have lost his space as the second in command to KCR. This is also a case where a grassroot organisation politician, essential to win an election, is outsmarted by a sophisticated face once the party is in power.
In the run-up to the 2019 elections, there are already allegations in the party that those close to Harish Rao were denied tickets and that he is being side-lined. Some senior leaders have even quit the party.
In fact, at a public rally, Harish Rao went so far to say that he has wanted to quit politics, but is staying on only because of the love the electorate giving him. In this backdrop, the son and nephew even addressed a joint rally to portray a sense of unity.
These are not new gestures in Indian politics. It is only when there is trouble do politicians come out to state that they are together.
In this son and nephew game, the results of the 2019 elections would be crucial. If the TRS loses then the son would face a blow and the party would need Harish Rao’s organisational abilities to recoup. But if it wins then the son will be on course and reassert himself as the second in command to the father and take control of the party.
(TM Veeraraghav is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal.)