With his focus on welfare schemes, K. Chandrashekar Rao holds a commanding lead in Telangana

While the Congress aims to capitalise on anti-incumbency and unfulfilled promises, the BJP is a distant third.

Published : Nov 27, 2023 17:41 IST - 12 MINS READ

Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao visiting Sri Konaipally Venkateshwara Swamy Temple in Siddipet on November 4. 

Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao visiting Sri Konaipally Venkateshwara Swamy Temple in Siddipet on November 4.  | Photo Credit: PTI

The slogan Neellu, Nidhulu, Niyamakalu (“water, funds, jobs”), which served as the basis for Telangana’s formation in 2014, continues to dominate the electoral discourse in 2023. Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) leader K. Chandrashekar Rao, or KCR, is hoping to win a third consecutive term as Chief Minister riding on his welfare schemes. A resurgent Congress hopes to leverage the perceived anti-incumbency against the BRS over undelivered promises and issues such as unemployment. “Ten years after achieving statehood, these fundamental needs continue to persist. The BRS has failed miserably on all fronts in the past decade. The State’s wealth has not been equitably distributed; employment opportunities remain scarce; and irrigation projects have been implemented poorly,” said Mallu Bhatti Vikramarka, Congress Legislature Party leader, who went on a 100-day padayatra early this year to know the pulse of the people.

The BRS is contesting in all the 119 seats in the November 30 election. Beneficiaries of its welfare schemes are strong votaries of the party. The welfare schemes cover almost all sections of society. There is Aasara pension for senior citizens, widows, single women, weavers, toddy tappers, beedi workers, AIDS patients, filaria patients, and others; Rythu Bandhu (crop investment support) and Rythu Bima insurance schemes for farmers; double bedroom houses to the eligible (2.91 lakh houses officially recorded as sanctioned); the KCR Nutrition Kit for pregnant women; Kalyana Lakshmi/Shaadi Mubarak scheme for marriage support; and Dalit Bandhu and BC Bandhu financial assistance for Dalits and Backward Class families.

Some caste groups allege that they have been left out of the schemes. Harathi Vageeshan, a political science professor at Hyderabad’s NALSAR University of Law, said that competitive welfarism had created a wedge between beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries. According to him, the BRS should have used its second term for value-addition and to create employment opportunities, but what has happened instead is the disruption of “productive processes” and the underdevelopment of capacity building, except in the case of the service sector.

Also Read | ‘BRS has looted the people of Telangana’: Mallu Bhatti Vikramarka

The discomfort and tension among the BRS’ campaigners was evident in the past two months. In an attempt at course correction, KCR’s son K.T. Rama Rao held exclusive meetings with job aspirants to reassure them of their concerns about unemployment. Refuting opposition claims, Rama Rao reeled off statistics: as many as 1,60,083 vacancies had been filled since 2014 in Telangana and selection for another 42,652 people was under way.

In the context of development projects, the sagging of the Medigadda (Lakshmi) barrage of the Kaleshwaram project could not have come at a worse time for the BRS. Congress leaders’ visit to the barrage, followed by a damning report from a Central panel, pushed the BRS on the defensive. Rama Rao made it clear that the construction company, L&T, would do the repairs at its own cost and not taxpayer money. However, allegations of inflated project costs and corruption continue to persist.

‘People’s rule’ vis-a-vis ‘family rule’

The Congress campaign revolves around KCR’s inaccessibility, unilateral decision-making, and centralised governance style. It has promised to bring about Prajala Palana (people’s rule) instead of KCR’s Dorala Palana (feudal rule). The BJP, too, accuses the BRS of Parivarvaad (family rule).

In his usual style, KCR brushed aside the allegations, maintaining that the BRS can provide a stable government, which the Congress cannot guarantee. BRS leaders have labelled the jibes against them hypocritical and point to the nepotism prevalent in the opposition camp. According to several voters Frontline spoke to, in at least four constituencies in Hyderabad, it is not a big enough concern to vote out the BRS.

The BRS stepped up its campaign in the last two weeks before the election. KCR made an aggressive campaign against the election promises made by the Congress and questioned the feasibility of the Congress manifesto, claiming that its scope exceeded the State’s financial capability. He was also quick to point out the shortcomings in fulfilling the promises made by the Congress-led government in Karnataka.

The Congress’ six guarantees include the Mahalakshmi scheme for women (Rs.2,500 a month, gas cylinders for Rs.500 a month, and free travel in RTC buses); Rythu Bharosa (Rs.15,000 per acre to all farmers, including tenant farmers, a group previously excluded by the BRS); Gruha Jyothi (free electricity); Indiramma Indlu (house sites for the eligible); Yuva Vikasam (schemes for the youth); and Cheyutha (Rs.4,000 monthly pension for senior citizens and an insurance scheme).

Congress party supporters with a mock ATM machine named “Kaleshwaram ATM” at Gandhi Bhavan in Hyderabad to highlight the alleged corruption in the Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project. 

Congress party supporters with a mock ATM machine named “Kaleshwaram ATM” at Gandhi Bhavan in Hyderabad to highlight the alleged corruption in the Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project.  | Photo Credit: NAGARA GOPAL

But the Congress has a difficult task at hand considering the mountain it has to climb in terms of the vote share of the party and that of the BRS in the 2018 election. And there is also the feedback from the ground. In Kalwakurthy constituency, Venkatamma, a tenant farmer who owns an acre of land, expressed mixed sentiments. “Surely he [KCR] has not given me what I have been asking for [compensation for her husband’s death by suicide]. But he has provided things I didn’t ask for, like widow pension, and benefits under the Rythu Bandhu scheme. And, maybe I could get Dalit Bandhu in the next term,” she said.

The BRS got a shot in the arm with the Election Commission, on November 24, approving the disbursement of the Rythu Bandhu incentive (Rs.7,300 crore in the accounts of over 65 lakh farmers). The Congress had filed a complaint with the ECI citing the Model Code of Conduct.

Also Read | ‘Rahul Gandhi suffers from political amnesia’: Asaduddin Owaisi

The BRS has also benefited from Congress president and Malkajgiri MP A. Revanth Reddy’s assertions in interviews that three hours of power supply is enough for Telangana farmers. At every public meeting called Praja Ashirvada Sabha, KCR detailed the perils of taking that stance. He also targeted the Congress’ announcement to scrap the Dharani portal (integrated land records management system), saying that people who depended on it would lose benefits like Rythu Bandhu.

Battle of perception

However, the Congress, by most accounts, may be winning the perception battle, and this has become the BRS’ biggest cause of worry. Revanth Reddy’s success since taking over as State Congress president in 2021 is in getting the Congress in the State to believe in itself, and that has helped the party position itself as the leading contender, displacing the BJP, against the BRS. Reddy joined the Congress in 2017 after leaving the Telugu Desam Party, and is among over half a dozen claimants to the chief ministerial post if the party wins.

According to the writer and political analyst Telkapally Ravi, Revanth Reddy may be an emerging contender to power in Telangana but needs more time to match up to KCR. Reddy is not seen as someone who would take everyone along with him. This was evident during the candidate selection, where several recommendations by seniors were reportedly set aside to favour his and strategist Sunil Kanugolu’s choices.

In October, Ponnala Lakshmaiah, former president of the State Congress unit and veteran Backward Class leader, quit the party and joined the BRS, blaming Reddy for the humiliation meted out to him in the candidate selection process. Senior leaders such as N. Uttam Kumar Reddy and Mallu Bhatti Vikramarka have had limited role in recent campaigns. Observers say that several other seniors have been confined to their constituencies.

The Congress has seen a series of defections since candidate selection. Several Congress leaders from Adilabad district, including the District Congress Committee president, resigned in protest against being sidelined in favour of Kandi Srinivas Reddy, an RSS supporter who had defected from the BJP to the Congress in May this year. One of the main concerns is how such defector-candidates will impact the Muslim vote.

Critics accuse all parties of engaging in opportunistic politics. The Congress, for instance, set aside its “one family-one ticket” principle, announced in the Udaipur Declaration, to accommodate former BRS leader Mynampally Hanumanth Rao and his son.

However, several factors have boosted the Congress’ prospects. Veteran journalist and author K. Ramachandra Murthy believes that the Congress’ aggressive campaigning of the past two months has made a dent on the BRS’ credibility. The Congress also takes part of the credit in the formation of a separate State of Telangana. But voter reaction on this has been mixed. The improvement in Rahul Gandhi’s image had also helped the party in the State, said Murthy.

Civil society group

The Congress also has the support of the civil society group Jaago Telangana, inspired by the Eddelu Karnataka (Wake Up Karnataka) movement. Besides, political parties that are not in the fray have come under the aegis of the Telangana State Democratic Forum (TSDF) to defeat the BJP and the BRS. Akunuri Murali, a former IAS officer who is one of its organisers, said the TSDF’s bus yatra to create voter awareness and sensitise them on the major issues, had covered over 50 constituencies where its members addressed 40 meetings. They hope to cover the rest of the constituencies before the campaigning ends. Murali told Frontline that their team had noticed a lot of disconnect between the people and the BRS.

Also Read | Telangana’s Dignity Housing Project: A long-awaited dream realised, amidst lingering issues

Y.S. Sharmila of the YSR Telangana Party stepped out of the race to support the Congress, much against her party’s disapproval. While the Congress managed to keep the Communist Party of India by its side by giving the Kothagudem seat to CPI State secretary Kunamaneni Sambasiva Rao, seat-sharing talks with the CPI(M) failed. The CPI(M), which is contesting in 19 seats, has a considerable vote share in at least 10 pockets where the Congress is a strong contender.

The Bahujan Samaj Party, led by former IPS officer R.S. Praveen Kumar, is contesting in 107 seats. Observers say the party has fielded fairly strong candidates in over 10 constituencies and will gain between 10,000 and 15,000 votes.

BJP’s campaign promises

After a period of relative quiet, the BJP has returned to the campaign trail, but falls short of making bold claims about coming to power in the State. The Telangana BJP’s issues have not considerably improved with the appointment of Union Minister G. Kishan Reddy in place of Bandi Sanjay Kumar as president of the State unit. Eatala Rajender, its head of election management, still seems out of step.

The party has fielded 111 candidates; the rest are from the JanaSena Party. The BJP did try to repose confidence in Rajender by fielding him from Gajwel (against KCR). Even a few months ago, the BJP proclaimed that the party would dethrone KCR. Eventually, some of their leaders have settled into a more pragmatic expectation of being a strong opposition.

After months of infighting and attempts to assuage it with a leadership change, and subsequent dormancy, the BJP’s first significant move was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement on October 1, instituting the National Turmeric Board. Telangana is the largest producer of turmeric, after Maharashtra, in the country. However, the party’s cadre were disappointed when the official gazette did not notify Nizamabad as the headquarters, as promised during the 2019 general election.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah during a roadshow at Serilingampally constituency  in Ranga Reddy district on November 24.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah during a roadshow at Serilingampally constituency in Ranga Reddy district on November 24. | Photo Credit: PTI

On October 4, the Union Cabinet also approved the Sammakka Sarakka Central Tribal University in Mulugu. The university was part of the commitment made by the Central government as part of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 2014, but faced challenges in land allocation. The Prime Minister’s announcement of the university, named after a mother-daughter duo, Sammakka-Sarakka, revered by the tribal community, has not had a great impact as many believe that it was long overdue.

Meanwhile, the BRS’ muted criticism of the BJP aided the speculation that the two parties have come to a tacit understanding. The BJP announced its final list of contestants only on November 10, giving it less than three weeks for campaigning. The campaigns of the BRS and the Congress got under way months ago.

The BJP, however, has tried to boost its prospects with a mix of welfare measures and job guarantees in its manifesto: additional input assistance to small and marginal farmers, fertilizer subsidy, four free cylinders a year for women, and regular recruitment for government jobs. Its unfulfilled promises, such as the reopening of the Nizam Sugar Factory, have resurfaced in the manifesto. The party has also made another vague promise about turning Nizamabad into “Turmeric City”.

The BJP’s campaign has become the stage for the usual communal tropes: abolishing the 4 per cent Muslim reservation in Telangana, and free visits to the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Its manifesto also promises to implement the Uniform Civil Code in the State.

The party has promised to install an OBC Chief Minister if elected. On November 24, Modi initiated the process of forming a committee to investigate the long-pending demand for sub-categorisation of the Madiga community within the Scheduled Castes. Political observers believe that while it may not swing the election in its favour, the Madiga Reservation Porata Samithi’s support for the BJP will dent the prospects of other parties. Madigas outnumber Malas in several constituencies.

Political analysts believe that the BJP will give a tough fight in at least 10 constituencies falling in the erstwhile Adilabad district, Karimnagar, and Nizamabad, and influence the results in a fourth of the 119 seats. In southern Telangana, the BJP has a considerable presence in the erstwhile Mahabubnagar district.

The BRS continues to enjoy the support of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). Speaking to Frontline, its president Asaduddin Owaisi said his continuing support to the BRS was to ensure that both national parties were kept at bay. The party currently has seven MLAs (all in Hyderabad) and has fielded candidates in nine constituencies.

The AIMIM has fielded Mohammed Rashed Farazuddin, a municipal corporator, against former MP and cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin of the Congress in Jubilee Hills. The Congress believes this is to help Maganti Gopinath, the incumbent BRS MLA, by dividing Muslim votes. Given the Congress’ increasing sway over Muslim voters, some analysts predict fewer seats for the AIMIM this time. But analysts and veteran journalists also believe the situation on the ground may not match the hype surrounding the Congress. They say the BRS will still manage a comfortable majority or, at its worst, still scrape through to form a government.

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