There is a pause in his struggle, for now. On Monday, Mudragada Padmanabham called off his hunger strike demanding reservations for the powerful but poor Kapu caste after the Andhra Pradesh government gave him “assurances”.

Padmanabham, 56, was the most visible leader of the Kapu rally on January 31 which ended in the arson of a train near Tuni in East Godavari. He went on an indefinite fast along with wife Padmavathi soon after on February 5, as other protests broke out to push the Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party government to fulfil its election promise of granting Kapus backward class status and of giving them up to Rs 1,000 crore annually to promote their welfare.

Padmanabham ended the fast on February 8 after representatives of the government told him that they will satisfy “some of his demands” and consider others “positively”.

In many ways, the Kapu agitation echoes the Patidar movement that rocked Gujarat last year. Both the Patels and Kapus are land-owning castes who have begun to embrace education as a means for advancement in the last two decades. Both the demands exploded into news with massive rallies. And yet Padmanabham is no Hardik Patel, the young man who emerged out of obscurity as the Patidar leader before disappearing into Gujarat’s legal system on being charged with sedition.

Padmanabham instead is very much a veteran politician. He has been an MLA four times and MP once. He is known for his volatility, his lack of devoted affiliation with any political party, and also for his frequent assertions in favour of Kapus. Little wonder then that after the January 31 train burning, the police registered over 60 cases, but did not arrest him. The reason: on-going investigation.

Veteran politician

Soon after the violent end of the January 31 rally, Padmanabham retreated to his home in Kirlampudi, a village 50 kilometres from Tuni. Although his stated intent was to maintain a low profile, the house didn’t give that impression. Dozens of political leaders, including several from the YSR Congress Party, and his followers streamed in and out of his sprawling house to pay respects to him.

In that moment of uncertainty, his followers erected a large screen in the veranda to play live news updates from TV channels. Padmanabham, in a white bush-shirt and pants, presided from his large, stark office room. A framed quotation on the wall behind his desk proclaimed, “Try hard to get what you like or you will be forced to like what you get.” The room buzzed with energy as he deftly handled interview requests, distributed tetra packs of fruit juice to visitors and outlined his next course of action. In conversation, he had the practised air of politicians who have long memorised their lines.

“There are the downtrodden in the Kapu community,” he said. “Only a few of us have power. We are only asking the government to fulfil the promises it gave on its own. With our votes, we are the deciding and ruling factor in the government. The government is enjoying these votes, but ignoring the people.”

Padmanabham was perhaps an unconventional choice to lead the Kapu community, given that he hasn’t really been fortunate at the hustings recently. In the past decade, he has lost three straight elections. The last time, when he contested as an Independent in 2014, he was defeated by the YSR Congress Party whose candidate was also a Kapu. Padmanabham wasn’t even able to recover his deposit.

Yet the fact that his call for Kapu Ikya Garjana [United Kapus Roar] on January 31 elicited a massive response reflects the caste solidarity in the state and the Kapus’ dissatisfaction with the Naidu government. And also Padmanabham’s personal magnetism.

What do Kapus want?

Kapus are a socially dominant caste group, particularly in coastal Andhra Pradesh. Since the bifurcation of the state, the proportion of four Kapu sub-castes – Balijas, Kapus, Telagas and Ontaris – has increased to 28% of the state’s population from 19% across the undivided Andhra Pradesh.

Their support is vital to the victory of the Telugu Desam Party, something Andhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu has acknowledged by appointing his home minister from the Kapu community.

Kapus, however, are not pleased with the government. Chandrababu Naidu made two key promises during his campaign in 2014: that all Kapu castes would be included in the Backward Classes list and that the government would allocate Rs 1,000 crore annually for a Kapu Welfare Corporation to supervise the economic uplift of Kapus in the state.

Neither of these has been fulfilled. While the government finally created a welfare corporation for the Kapus in September 2015, it allotted only Rs 100 crore to it, a tenth of the promised funds. After strong protests, the government also constituted the Justice KL Manjunath Commission to enquire into the socio-economic status of the Kapus and to see whether they were qualified for backward class status.

The government’s failures to deliver even 20 months after it election prompted the Kapu call to rally that was answered by at least 4 lakh people.

Pattern of protest

The end of the hunger strike was an expected move from Padmanabham, given that he has led seven such protests in a career spanning three decades.

His first hunger strike, coming after the murder of popular Kapu leader Vangaveeti Mohan Ranga Rao, was in 1989. It lasted seven days. He began his first major agitation for the Kapu cause in 1994. His hunger strike that year coerced Vijayabhaskar Reddy’s Congress government to issue an order including Kapus in the Backward Class category. The order was not renewed after it lapsed.

But hunger strikes are not all. Padmanabham also has an undeniable flair for the dramatic. In 2005, while on a nine-day fast on behalf of farmers losing land for the Polavaram and Pushkara irrigation projects, Padmanabham set a deadline for the government to heed his pleas. In case it failed to meet the deadline, he proclaimed, he would kill himself.

When, at the set time, no government representative arrived, Padmanabham placed a revolver and a double-barrel gun against his head. He extended the deadline by an hour only after a (then) fellow Congress politician convinced him to wait. The letter from the government duly arrived in time.

Kapus turn away

At the rally on January 31, Kapu leaders now claim, they had no idea that Padmanabham planned to call for a rail and rasta roko that would lead eventually to the train’s gutting.

“Even in the meeting, when he called people to block roads and trains, other people on the dais were perplexed,” said Ravikiran Peddireddi, a BJP Information and Technology cell worker from Kakinada and a relative of Deputy Chief Minister Nimmakayala Chinarajappa. “They said, ‘If that’s the case, why are we here?’ […] You have a meeting, you have intellectuals coming from various districts – it is a right platform to put our case forward. [The district leaders] were not aware they would not be allowed to speak. All of a sudden it started, he gave a welcome speech and within a few minutes he said let’s go on to the road and train. That shows a lack of institutionalisation. A one man show leads to many problems.”

This account of events was partly corroborated by Dasari Satyanarayana, a labour rights activist from the fishing community in Kakinada. Satyanarayana was caught in the massive roadblock caused by Kapu agitators and had a ringside view of the rally.

“I am a public witness to the incident where the train was burnt,” he said. “Kapu leaders were scolding Mudragada [Padmanabham] to get to know his plan. They were not calling for bloody action, but he was using filthy language.”

This is not to suggest that Kapu leaders were not aware of Padmanabham’s inclination towards improvisation.

When it became clear that Naidu was not planning to prioritise their demands, Peddireddi said, Kapu leaders came together to decide their plan of action. Chinarajappa, the deputy chief minister, said that he was in talks with Naidu, but nothing seemed to have come of it.

“The Kapu community wanted a face to fight for the caste,” Peddireddi said. “Mudragada was not in active politics, and is known for different politics. Though by heart he is a good person, the Kapu community don’t believe in his intellectual capabilities because in the past he has done many things which a stable person cannot do. But because we needed a face, the leaders said Mudragada [Padmanabham] is ok. Though he has got some drawbacks, we can cover up all that. This was desperation, we need someone. We [Kapu leaders] don’t have charisma.”

So in due course these leaders – including several who are currently staying under the radar since the train burning for fear of arrest – approached Padmanabham and asked him to lead the movement, Peddireddi said. Although Padmanabham was not at first interested, he finally agreed, but only if he was allowed to work on his own terms. Planning for the rally finally took off in November 2015.

Rise, fall and rise

So how did Padmanabham shoot up from the electoral defeats he suffered in the last decade to become a leader able to mobilise lakhs of his own caste group from across the state?

Padmanabham is more than a simple political veteran. He is also known as a canny independent operator who, despite switching parties, manages to secure ministerial positions in both Congress and Telugu Desam Party governments.

His party history is absorbing. He began his career as a Janata Party MLA from Prathipadu in East Godavari, joined the Telugu Desam Party soon after NT Rama Rao founded it in 1982, left for the Congress in 1989 after accusing Rama Rao of casteism, drifted towards the Bharatiya Janata Party in the early 1990s, returned to the TDP as Kakinada MP in 1999, then back to the Congress in 2009, before finally contesting and losing as an Independent candidate in the 2014 elections. Despite this colourful history, Padmanabham is now shy of associating with any one of these parties. He is at pains to stress that he wants this to first be a social and economic movement, not a political one.

“At that time [when he joined politics], politics was polished,” he said. “Now it is marred with liquor and bribes. I don’t want to enter such politics. This is a permanent project for the people. [The train burning] is a conspiracy to dilute our agitation. Why else would the police go away during the meeting?”

So numerically crucial are the Kapus to each party that nobody is willing to blame the violence on the people for whom the rally was called. This might be because in a state where you can tell speakers’ political affiliations by the party they blame for the train burning, assigning blame at all speaks volumes.

Instead, they point to conspiracy theories involving people from rival parties. Chandrababu Naidu, for instance, accused the YSR Congress Party of having a hand in the arson. The YSR Congress, in turn, blamed the Telugu Desam Party. For now, Padmanabham hints that he feels the TDP could have been responsible for planting people at the rally to stir violence. The police have also filed a smaller number of cases against leaders from the YSR Congress Party, Congress and BJP.

‘My last fight’

Padmanabham is naturally aware of the allegations being thrown at him. The police have filed more than 60 cases against him – although they are yet to arrest him.

“This time I have told Kapus not to come here, but to maintain their [hunger] strikes in their own homes,” he said. “They can keep their empty plates in their houses and bang on them. That resonance will be enough to be heard across the state. If they come here, there will be more mud flung on us.”

Telugu news channels have indeed been full of protesters clanging on empty plates for cameras.

“The downtrodden people are still like they were when I entered politics,” he proclaimed. “This is why I’m renouncing my life for the Kapu people. This is my last fight, for backward class reservations and for the people. After this, I have no energy.”