Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao has a son and a nephew (apart, of course, from an ambitious daughter) in politics. So he easily lends himself to a Bal Thackeray parallel. Like the late Shiv Sena leader, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti boss tapped into a regional identity and stoked it into a mass movement with earthy turns of phrase and an audacious political vocabulary. And, to complete the Thackeray parallel, there have been murmurs lately of ill-health.

Given that the son and the nephew are men of contrasting capabilities, the question as to which of the two will eventually be Chandrasekhar Rao’s successor has always appealed to political analysts in Hyderabad.

The son, KT Rama Rao, is a suave former marketing executive who returned from the US to enter politics at a time when his father had become the unchallenged leader of the separate Telangana state movement. Now with the state in existence and the party in power, Rama Rao is the information technology minister in his father’s cabinet. He gets to be in the company of the corporate class whose investment he woos. Once thought to be a Rahul Gandhi type, Rama Rao has developed a taste for hard politics and is the chief articulator of the party to the national media.

Skillful networker

The nephew, Harish Rao, in contrast, joined his uncle when the separate state agitation was still only a gleam in Chandrasekhar Rao’s eyes. He worked at the grassroots level to build up the movement, taking part in many skirmishes inside and outside the legislature. He is famous for winning elections by large margins and is reputed to be a skilful networker within and beyond the party.

The question of a successor to Chandrasekhar Rao springs up periodically whenever rumours arise of unnamed illnesses suffered by the TRS boss, a reformed chain smoker. Nothing earth-shaking has ever emerged from these ailments, but empires have been staked, and lost, on these conjectures. Back in 2013, Congress leaders implacably opposed to the division of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh fed their High Command stories that the TRS boss was irreparably sick, and so a decision on bifurcation could wait. The Congress dilly-dallied on the question until it had lost hearts and minds on both sides of the divide and now lies in a punch-drunk state.

Power being a great tonic, speculation about Chandrasekhar Rao’s rumoured illnesses has been less frequent since the formation of Telangana state in June 2014. But the succession question raised its head again on April 24, when Harish Rao was found seated in the back rows at the TRS’s all-important plenary session, clearly upstaged by his cousin Rama Rao. In the great Soviet-era journalistic tradition of interpreting the Red Square pecking order, the media jumped up to ask why the nephew wasn’t upfront? Was this the succession smoke signal at last?

More straws were clutched at in the next three days: Harish Rao’s name was not found in any of the arrangement committees set up to organize a mammoth public meeting on April 27, which was given top billing because it was to be the first since the TRS came to power. Festoonery put up around the venue, Secunderabad’s capacious Parade Ground, did not feature Harish Rao in any prominence. One eveninger, distributed free at the venue, summarised its curtain-raiser to the show with the headline "Harish back-benched".

In his speech at the public meeting, K Chandrasekhar Rao tried to nip the speculation in the bud, while betraying no signs of an illness. Clearly, he did not want the narrative to go in the direction of a war of succession. His government is in the throes of a honeymoon period, buoyed by a groundswell of popular optimism in the new state. A battle for succession would put an end to the good times.

Strong signals

To give no further grist to the media mill, the seating order was changed for the meeting, with Harish Rao seated fourth from the chief minister, separated only by three party elders, while Rama Rao squeezed in seventh, between two lesser ministers (see the photo above).

More pointedly, Chandrasekhar Rao singled out his nephew for the work he has been doing as irrigation minister, spearheading the TRS government’s pet scheme, Mission Kakatiya, an initiative to rebuild the state’s ancient village tanks and lakes. “He’s working like a knife,” the chief minister said, “toiling day and night.”

Well, that’s that for now, but it still does not amount to a departure from the Bal Thackeray story. In the great tradition of Indian politics, legacy always passes to progeny. Despite all of Raj Thackeray’s street cred in the Shiv Sena and his likeness to Balasaheb, the legacy went to the son, Uddhav. Closer home in the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu chose to groom his son Lokesh rather than let his party fall to the charms of NTR Junior, a dashing film star and a grandson of the legendary party founder NT Rama Rao. And when the Congress contested the YS Rajasekhara Reddy legacy with his son Jagan Mohan Reddy, it came a cropper. There’s time yet, but there’s every likelihood that Telangana’s Bal Thackeray will obey the father’s instinct rather than the uncle’s.