In Hyderabad, I go straight from the airport to meet KTR (K.T. Rama Rao, Minister of Industry, Commerce, Municipal Administration and Urban Development) and am lucky to find him seated with T. Harish Rao, the Finance Minister and part of the State’s first family.
For those who do not know, KTR is the son of Chief Minister KCR or K. Chandrashekhar Rao while Harish Rao is a nephew. KTR holds forth about the BRS (Bharat Rashtra Samithi) being invincible because of the people’s love for KCR who founded Telangana and the welfare schemes on the ground. He reels out data from the State—from having the highest per capita growth in India to irrigation schemes that turned arid land to lush green.
The political assessment I am given is that if it seems as if there is an upturn in Congress’ fortunes, it is because the BJP has suddenly collapsed. The two men radiate confidence and offer a forewarning that in the future, delimitation will be the big issue dividing north from south. They add that Hindutva does not work in Telangana, so the BJP or “Bakwaas Jhoot Party”, as KTR calls it, is desperate.
Also Read | In Telangana, it’s advantage BRS
The State of Telangana, just 10 years old, with 119 seats in the Assembly and 17 seats in the Lok Sabha, could end up delivering the most significant results in this round of State elections. That is, if the Congress lives up to the buzz it has created on the ground that it could actually defeat the BRS. Many opinion makers in the State have a hard time believing that can happen, but some opinion polls have begun to suggest it could. If so, there are national ramifications far greater than the results from elsewhere.
That is because even if the Congress were to win comfortably in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan, it would still be said that these Hindi belt States will vote very differently in the 2024 Lok Sabha election when Prime Minister Narendra Modi will count.
When it comes to Telangana, however, the ground assessment is that the BJP’s chances have dimmed nationally as the Congress is being seen as the main option for 2024. The narrative began to shift after the Congress victory in Karnataka in May this year, partly due to the strategic and social messaging team that the party now has in place, which first creates a buzz and then attempts to get the party to meet the expectations thus created.
What is also clear in Telangana is that Rahul Gandhi is now a plus factor in the State. Voting day in Telangana is November 30 when elections elsewhere will be over. That will give Rahul Gandhi and the entire Congress team ample time to focus single-mindedly on the State in the last lap.
Should the Congress actually defeat the BRS or come close, it will be seen as a precursor to the 2024 election and the surmise would be that in the Lok Sabha, the Congress may get a chunk of seats from Telangana. After all, undivided Andhra Pradesh was a Congress stronghold during the reign of Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, who won a second consecutive term as Chief Minister in 2009 before his sudden death in a mysterious helicopter crash. The State also gave the largest contingent of Congress MPs to the UPA government led by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
It was in the YSR era that huge welfare benefits along with a certain cronyism behind allotments and policy decisions became a template. It is a matter of speculation whether the State would have been divided had YSR lived. But from the perspective of the Congress, the decision to create Telangana turned out to be a disastrous one as it lost its base in both States (Jagan Mohan Reddy, son of YSR, is the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh).
- When it comes to Telangana, the ground assessment is that the BJP’s chances have dimmed nationally as the Congress is being seen as the main option for 2024.
- After all, undivided Andhra Pradesh was a Congress stronghold during the reign of Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, who won a second consecutive term as Chief Minister in 2009.
- Although the Congress is nationally taking up the issue of caste census, it is not foregrounding this in Telangana, as the Reddys are in the forefront of the campaign.
Reemerging green shoots
Now, suddenly, the old Congress roots are reemerging as green shoots in Telangana. The foundation could be stable because the Congress revival appears to be led by a social group that has traditionally yielded clout in these parts—the Reddys. The State Congress president and MP Revanth Reddy is energetically leading the campaign for the party he joined in 2017 after leaving the TDP (Telugu Desam Party).
It is also interesting to note that although the Congress is nationally taking up the issue of caste census, it is not foregrounding this in Telangana, as the Reddys are in the forefront of the campaign. Yet, should the situation demand, the Congress also has a prominent Dalit leader in Mallu Bhatti Vikramarka—so it is not just interesting times in Telangana but within the reborn State Congress unit.
The BRS has also given as many as 39 seats to the Reddys, highlighting the clout that particular caste groups have across India.
KCR is from the Velama caste, numerically small, but he prevailed by mobilising all caste groups during the movement for Telangana and subsequently by invoking a regional sentiment along with some very generous welfare schemes.
An interesting aspect of what is unfolding is also what can be called the post-welfare politics of discontent. Some people resent others getting benefits while those who get benefits see it as their right and not something they need to be grateful for. Therefore, efficient welfarism is not a guarantee of re-election in some southern States as even the opposition, in this case the Congress, has made generous promises. On the basis of its success in Karnataka, the party has issued a guarantee card of promises.
Other questions hang in the air. Why did Prime Minister Modi claim that KCR wanted to join the NDA after the Hyderabad Municipal Corporation election (in which the BJP did well) but that he (the Prime Minister) turned him down? One reason is that the Prime Minister is harking back to a time, in 2020, when the BJP showed potential in the State.
The second reason on offer is that the Prime Minister was highlighting a rift with the BRS, which the Congress accuses of being hand in glove with the BJP. One can speculate that Modi was doing this because of reports that the Congress is doing relatively well on the ground and the BJP would rather see the BRS prevail since the party is not part of the INDIA bloc.
The AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi, four-term MP from Hyderabad, has seven MLAs from the city and an understanding with the BRS. The Congress would want to break his bastions in the old city, as it would be an achievement to snatch minority votes from a formidable Muslim candidate, but it is an uphill task. There could, however, be some shifts in Muslim votes as the Congress is now an option.
One of the thumb rules of politics is that when there is a party that dominates a State, its interest is best served by dividing the opposition vote. The problem for the BRS is the slide in the BJP’s projected vote share and the rise in the Congress’. It would actually suit KCR to see a triangular contest in the State. While the BJP will fight to the end, its momentum in the south appears to have stalled.
Saba Naqvi is a Delhi-based journalist and author of four books who writes on politics and identity issues.