Before his surprising victory from Karimnagar in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Bandi Sanjay Kumar was not a familiar name outside the district. The BJP leader was a municipal corporator in the city and had been trying to take his political career forward.
He contested the 2014 and 2018 Telangana Assembly election results but lost to the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS). In an encouraging sign, he finished second ahead of the Congress in both the polls. But the resolute 50-year-old Telangana BJP chief hit the ground running after the 2018 loss, said party members close to him, and started holding meetings with people on the go in the district. His hard work paid off and, riding on a pro-Narendra Modi wave, Kumar defeated the TRS’s B Vinod in the general elections. “I do not like to spend time in offices, or just sitting somewhere and talking. I am comfortable when I am among people, listening to them and discussing their issues,” said Kumar.
Ahead of the state elections next year, and to protest against the “TRS government’s failures”, Kumar launched a statewide Praja Sangram Yatra on August 28 last year and completed the first phase on October 3. He started the “padayatra (foot march)” from Charminar in Hyderabad and walked 440 km, addressing 35 public meetings and several small gatherings. In total, he covered 19 Assembly and six parliamentary constituencies in eight districts, including Hyderabad, Ranga Reddy, Vikarabad, Sangareddy, Medak, Kamareddy, Sircilla, and Siddipet.
He started the second phase on April 14 from the Gadwal Assembly constituency amid an intense heatwave and generated a lot more interest and drew crowds. The BJP leader walked 337 km, covering the districts of Jogulamba-Gadwal, Narayanpet, Mahbubnagar, Nagarkurnool, and Ranga Reddy. The second phase concluded on May 14 with a public meeting addressed by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Tukkuguda on the outskirts of Hyderabad. At the meeting, Shah hit out at the TRS government and challenged Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, popularly known as KCR, to opt for an early election. He also showered praises on Kumar at the meeting. The same day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called up the state BJP chief to congratulate him on the success of the “payatra”.
“The time was right because of the paddy procurement crisis, protests for government jobs, and the TRS’s friction with the Centre,” said a district BJP leader who accompanied Kumar on the march. “The second phase of the yatra drew a lot more attention from people. There was a huge response to his spontaneous small meetings of people in the villages. He did not give speeches, he just listened.”
Pointing out that Kumar was from a very humble background and lives a simple life, BJP spokesperson Kishna Sagar Rao, who is also from Karimnagar, said, “You have to appreciate his resolve for the second phase of his yatra without a break because the heat is unbearable. He walked for one month and the people also came out to meet him. By all means, it was very successful.”
At a recent public gathering in Karimnagar, Kumar drew a parallel between his foot march and former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Rajashekar Reddy’s “padayatra” before he swept to power in 2004. The BJP leader said his focus was on assuring people of “Neellu ( water), Nidhanalu (funds), and Niyamakalu (jobs)”, and accused the TRS of failing to deliver on these three fronts.
“I plan to cover the remaining parts of the state in the next two phases leading up to the elections,” Kumar told The Indian Express. “I am establishing local connections and reaching out to people in distress. There is a lot of anger and discontent among the people in the hinterland. The TRS has not fulfilled many of its promises like government jobs, drinking water supply, or rural development. It is time to dislodge the TRS government and for BJP to take over and ensure that the people of Telangana are given what they deserve. In many villages, there is no regular drinking water supply. Dalit families still remain landless. Government loans are available to only a few. Thousands of people have been left out of many welfare schemes, including old-age pension.”
Beginnings in ABVP
Kumar joined the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), which is affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in Karimnagar during his student days and went on to become the organisation’s city president. He rose through the ranks to become the ABVP’s national secretary and accompanied BJP leader LK Advani for several days during his 1996 rath yatra. He became the municipal corporator twice and came into focus for his pro-Hindu speeches. On March 11, 2020, the BJP appointed him the president of the Telangana unit. He is known to intersperse his speeches with calls for “surgical strikes” on appeasement politics, poverty, and the TRS.
“After the 2018 elections, in which the party fared badly, the BJP which felt that some of the seniors were too soft, was looking for someone with a big Hindu appeal and after his surprise win in Karimnagar in May 2019, he was elevated. The party, however, weighed the pros and cons for nearly 10 months before appointing him,” said a BJP insider.
The state BJP chief’s friends in the Karimnagar unit said his ripostes and quips were similar to KCR, like whom he dresses only in white.
With senior leaders such as Shah and Nadda backing him, the party is banking on Kumar to lead the party in the Assembly elections. But some state BJP leaders are not sure of Kumar’s leadership qualities. They said Kumar prefers to go it alone and while he is not averse to hobnobbing with other party leaders, he remains reserved.
“The party should put in more effort to groom two or three leaders in Telangana. When they walk the streets, people should see leaders and we have to build that kind of leadership at the Assembly level… two or three notable leaders who can fight and win elections,” said Rao.
Under the state BJP chief’s leadership, the party won two Assembly by-polls after taking over as president and his aggressive stance against the state government during the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation elections in December 2020 helped the party spring a surprise and win 48 of 150 seats .