Telangana BJP struggles with leadership crisis and ideological incongruity

Influx of defectors, infighting, and lack of agenda-setting plague the party’s prospects in Telangana.

Published : Jul 03, 2023 15:28 IST - 8 MINS READ

Nizamabad MP Arvind Dharmapuri (left), Karimnagar MP Bandi Sanjay Kumar (centre left), and Goshamahal MLA T. Raja Singh (centre right) on their way for the route march ahead of RSS Vijay Sankalp Shibir in Hyderabad, 2019.

Nizamabad MP Arvind Dharmapuri (left), Karimnagar MP Bandi Sanjay Kumar (centre left), and Goshamahal MLA T. Raja Singh (centre right) on their way for the route march ahead of RSS Vijay Sankalp Shibir in Hyderabad, 2019. | Photo Credit: Twitter/Suresh Kochattil

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Telangana finds itself embroiled in a simmering cauldron of controversies. Speculations about infighting and potential leadership changes have been swirling around for months, intensifying after the Karnataka election results. The party’s management of the situation has become a media nightmare, compounded by the airing of disappointments by several BJP leaders on social media.

The latest buzz revolves around rumours of the BJP central command considering the replacement of the incumbent State president, Bandi Sanjay Kumar, in a bid to prevent disgruntled leaders from exiting the party.

The conflict between two BJP leaders, Eatela Rajender and Bandi Sanjay Kumar, erupted in May as they vied for leadership in the upcoming elections against the ruling Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS). Over time, more dissident leaders expressed their dissatisfaction with their positions in the party, claiming to have been sidelined. The most recent addition to this group is reportedly BJP’s Dubbak MLA, M. Raghunandan Rao.

Political observers note that several of these leaders who defected from other parties are now searching for better political prospects outside the BJP, considering the party’s weakened public image.

“BJP will come third,” commented veteran journalist and author K. Ramachandra Murthy, about the upcoming elections in Telangana. According to Murthy, the Congress is putting up a strong fight after its victory in Karnataka. The infighting within the Congress appears to have been contained, at least for now. 

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Just a few months ago, the BJP was seen as better positioned than the Congress to become the principal opposition to BRS in Telangana. However, the underlying issues have worsened since the Karnataka election results.

The BJP is grappling with various challenges, including its failure to assimilate outsiders, fractured unity among veteran members, a lack of foresight in utilising the expertise of newer leaders, the limited impact of Hindutva ideology in Telangana, the disposition of the current leadership, ongoing election campaigns, and the absence of an effective agenda against BRS.

N.V. Subhash, an official spokesperson of Telangana BJP, initially dismissed the notion of infighting within the party. However, he acknowledged that some “newcomers” in the party’s ranks felt “uncomfortable” and were responsible for “media leaks”. Subhash emphasised that attempts to sabotage the party’s prospects would be met with decisive action.

Assimilation troubles

Eatala Rajender, a former minister from the BRS cabinet, joined the BJP in 2021 after being embroiled in a land grab scandal and subsequently resigning from the party. Rajender, a leader from Telangana’s Mudiraj (OBC community), found a better fit in the BJP, aligning with the party’s efforts to establish a stronger support base among the BCs of the State. He won the Huzurabad by-election and retained his MLA seat.

Karimnagar MP and president of the BJP’s Telangana State unit, Bandi Sanjay Kumar (left) has a long history with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and has risen through the ranks of the BJP.

Karimnagar MP and president of the BJP’s Telangana State unit, Bandi Sanjay Kumar (left) has a long history with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and has risen through the ranks of the BJP. | Photo Credit: Twitter/Bandi Sanjay Kumar

Bandi Sanjay Kumar, on the other hand, has a long history with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and has risen through the ranks of the BJP. In 2019, he secured the Karimnagar MP seat and has served as the party president for Telangana since 2020.

Differences between Rajender and Sanjay Kumar arose early on. After joining the BJP, Rajender expected a more prominent role, and rumours of him being sidelined in favour of Sanjay Kumar have persisted. 

Rajender’s primary agenda in joining the BJP has always been to defeat Chief Minister Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao’s BRS. While the BJP shares the same target, Rajender emphasises Telangana sentiment and developmental issues. Despite his ideological differences with the party and his past as a leftist student leader, Rajender insists that the BJP is “not communal.”

When asked about this ideological incongruity in an interview with Frontline, Rajender evaded a direct response. “Setting aside the leftist and rightist tags, I believe in being committed to people’s issues and solving their problems. I prioritise the people and winning their love,” he said.

Analysts point out that several BJP entrants from non-RSS backgrounds face similar challenges. They joined the party to fight against Chief Minister Rao but lacked ideological alignment with the BJP’s Hindutva project.

“Rajender cannot be a rabid reactionary. That is not his interest at all. One can’t expect him to become a Hindutva icon in Telangana,” remarked Prof. K. Nageshwar, a political analyst, former MLC, and journalism professor at Osmania University.

In contrast, Bandi Sanjay remains committed to the Hindutva ideology, advocating for issues such as “love jihad”, mosque excavations, abolishing reservations for Muslims, religious conversions, Hindu safety, and the concept of Rama Rajya. He enjoys the support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah. While he does oppose Chief Minister Rao, his anti-KCR stance is not as pronounced as his assertions of Hindutva ideology.

Did defectors get a raw deal?

Establishing a joining committee to facilitate defections from other parties may not be the most conventional approach, but it is one the BJP took to bolster its prospects in Telangana. Led by Eatala Rajender, the committee has seen limited success. Rajender remains the most prominent leader to have joined the BJP in recent years, having served as the Finance Minister in the first term of BRS and later as the Health Minister.

Rajender’s camp believes that he was caught in a no-win situation. While he himself feels uncomfortable with the association, his stature within the party remains in question. Despite attempting to pressure party seniors, Rajender has had limited success so far.

Critics argue that the BJP has struggled to assimilate individuals who come from outside the party. They cite missed opportunities in utilising Rajender’s capacities in different areas, such as addressing land and finance issues. Nagam Janardhan Reddy, a former BJP leader in Telangana, is also mentioned as someone with valuable expertise in water statistics that the party failed to leverage. In this regard, the BJP appears to be clueless, according to Harathi Vageeshan, a political science professor at Hyderabad’s NALSAR University of Law.

Rajender shared with Frontline that the party has an understanding of the capabilities of leaders in the State and what responsibilities can be assigned to them. Most parties operate in a similar manner, progressing when such a deep understanding exists. However, he refrained from commenting on the rumoured ultimatum issued to the central command, which suggested that time was running out for the party to change its approach and leadership in Telangana.

Analysts and political scientists believe that Rajender still has the option to distance himself from the BJP. However, he has insisted that he will not do so.

“The Congress would be a better fit for him. He will lose his constituency if he contests as a BJP candidate. Last time he won because the Congress had conceded in by-elections,” remarked veteran journalist Ramachandra Murthy.

Others, such as Komatireddy Raj Gopal Reddy, are reportedly on the verge of leaving the BJP. Raj Gopal, a former Congress MLA, joined the BJP, contested from Munugode, and lost in the byelection. He has expressed his dissatisfaction publicly and is said to be considering a return to the Congress with the lobbying efforts of his brother, Komatireddy Venkat Reddy.

To address discontent and accommodate loyalists, the Telangana State executive of the BJP expanded from 80 to 205 members on June 13. However, this move has not been well-received by some leaders who feel marginalised in minor roles, leading to renewed disappointment.

Regarding the possibility of a leadership change in BJP Telangana, party spokesperson Subhash stated that newcomers would not be given the reins. The party is still evaluating potential developments. “Many leaders have sacrificed their entire lives for the party’s benefit. The party will give the reins to those who have RSS and BJP backgrounds,” he stated.

“Once they join, they are karyakartas. Even if some bigwig from other parties joins, they have to sit as a karyakarta,” Subhash emphasised.

Currently, most recent joiners to the BJP in Telangana hold positions of little significance.

Is there a leadership crisis?

While infighting is a common occurrence in most parties, particularly during elections, the conflict within the BJP Telangana goes beyond a simple power struggle between two leaders. It is not a clean vertical split, as Bandi Sanjay’s positioning comes at a cost, and dissatisfaction among the old-timers persists.

“It’s not just the new entrants; even among BJP leaders, there are a lot of groups and infighting. The influx of new leaders has only accentuated the issue,” explained Nageshwar.

While not causing irreparable damage, the Karnataka election results and public disputes among top leaders have undoubtedly hindered the BJP’s ability to attract more members. Two former BRS leaders, former Khammam MP Ponguleti Srinivas Reddy and former BRS Minister Jupally Krishna Rao, recently joined the Congress. The high drama surrounding their party affiliation appears to have been finally resolved following the election results in the neighbouring State.

Also Read | With Bharat Rashtra Samithi, KCR sets his sights on national ambitions

Most political scientists believe that a leadership crisis and a lack of agenda-setting affect the BJP’s chances in Telangana. Unlike in other States, the BJP has not focussed on organisational structure or developed a legitimate counter to BRS. Some argue that BRS played a shrewd role in containing the BJP after years of camaraderie against the Congress.

“BJP Telangana needs leaders like Bandaru Dattatreya or Laxman from their earlier years who can be communal but also maintain balance when necessary,” suggested Vageeshan.

“A tangible, visible leadership exists in the BJP in Telangana. However, the party’s electoral and political agenda is insufficient to gain legitimacy or the support base of the people. There was an initial attraction, but it will not sustain due to the lack of a substantial material policy and political agenda,” explained E. Venkatesu, a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hyderabad.

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