This is a story a BJP leader told me. Sometime in the 1990s, when Bandaru Dattatreya was an MP, he was told that a bicycle was stolen from the BJP office in Hyderabad. He didn't mind that an MP was being asked to intervene in something so small, and immediately called up the local police station and put in a word to find the bicycle and catch the thief on priority.
A day later, a lady called up the very accessible Dattatreya and told him the police had picked up her son and was beating him up and if he could help save him from the police treatment. Dattatreya called up the cop and asked him to let go the boy.
"Sir, he stole your bicycle only," replied the officer in charge at the police station.
It is this willingness to lend a helping hand without thinking through it that seems to have landed Dattatreya in a spot of bother. In August 2015, Susheel Kumar and his Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) colleagues got a senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) functionary to call Dattatreya to forward their memorandum to Union human resources development (HRD) minister Smriti Irani with a covering note.
Eager to please Nagpur, Dattatreya - who also is from a RSS background - got his "peshi" to do the needful. The mindless "cut-and-paste" job presumably by a PA to the minister meant the terms used by the ABVP became Dattatreya's words, thanks to his signature, put carelessly and irresponsibly.
To the outside world, it was Dattatreya who was saying that ABVP's rival in campus politics, the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) had reduced the Hyderabad University to "a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics". A smart minister would have ensured he was only pointing to what the ABVP was saying. Instead, Dattatreya took the ABVP allegation as the gospel truth and lip-synced to those lines.
Sources in the BJP tell me that after Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his deep sorrow at Rohith Vemula's demise, Dattratreya is very worried. Lutyens' grapevine pointing to an imminent cabinet reshuffle has only added to his anxiety, though let it be pointed out that if Dattatreya is dropped, Telangana would go unrepresented in the Union council of ministers. Today's development in which the university vice chancellor Professor Appa Rao has gone on leave, will mean Dattatreya having bowled a no-ball could be next in line for a free hit.
That the BJP leadership does not seem to have thought twice before asking Rao to go on leave is a pointer that the party is feeling the heat. Appa Rao had got the top job with strong backing from the RSS.
In fact, initially when his name was proposed, BJP leaders in Telangana reported to the party leadership that "he is not our man" and recommended two commerce professors for the post.
But the HRD ministry was keen on a science man. The ABVP in Hyderabad backed him, calling Rao "student-friendly". The RSS then took over and pushed his case aggressively in Delhi. That he is a Kamma by caste (to which Union minister Venkaiah Naidu and Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu and most of the TDP leadership belong) also helped his cause. Ironically, he hails from Guntur, the same district, that Vemula belonged to.
Incidentally, Appa Rao's replacement is Professor Vipin Srivastava, who as chairman of the executive council sub-committee, recommended the expulsion of the five research scholars in December. Will the protesting students see him as a red rag?
Most observers on the campus see this crisis as a battle for one-upmanship between the ASA and the ABVP on the Hyderabad University campus. Dattatreya should never have intervened in the manner he did and he has no one to blame but himself that he has suffered collateral damage in the bargain.
As a result of Dattatreya's intervention, the university's hotch-potch investigation and the HRD ministry's over-enthusiasm to elicit a reply on Dattatreya's letter, the ASA has gained the upper hand and is calling the shots.
The HRD ministry has already met three of the demands: revocation of expulsion of the research scholars, putting the V-C out of the picture, and giving an ex-gratia of Rs 8 lakh, though the student body had asked for Rs 50 lakh.
Vemula's suicide that has been milked for a week now by political groups operating both in public view and behind the scenes, has most certainly pushed the BJP on to the back foot.
Realising its potential for damage to dent the BJP, money is also being pumped in to keep the agitation going. It is no longer about a Dalit cause but a political battle that is being fought over a tragedy. The sooner the BJP is able to contain the damage, the better it will be for the party.
Professor Appa Rao told me he will spend his leave period working on an India-UK collaborative research project on biological nitrogen Fixation.
This is a process in which nitrogen gas from the atmosphere is incorporated into the tissue of certain plants. It is essential for agriculture and the manufacture of fertilizer. In the world of chemicals and plants, Professor Rao may find time to ponder over how he got his student-teacher-administration formula so terribly wrong.