A few years ago the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) concluded a successful campaign to create India’s latest state, Telengana. The party then reaped immediate benefits by romping home to victory and control of the state.
But now, dissolving the state assembly to call for early polls could prove to be a millstone around the TRS neck.
Every election in India between now and May 2019 will be critical for prime minister Narendra Modi, who is fighting hard to hold power for another five years. Telengana, like other southern Indian states, will be key to him achieving a second term.
Telangana is one of the five Indian states heading to the polls almost seven months ahead of the rest of the country, and the ruling TRS, which called for the early polls, is not finding things as easy as it might have hoped for.
When TRS leader and state chief minister K Chandrasekhara Rao dissolved the assembly, he thundered, “We (will win) more than 100 seats,” (out of a total of 119), adding that his “friendly ally”, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) will win another ten.
But as the Indian winter grows colder, his party looks unsure of a clear victory, and a most unlikely of alliances, between a former fighter pilot, a professor of political science, and a revolutionary poet and balladeer is now giving the TRS sleepless nights.
Early polls: Advantage or Liability?
Rao assumed that, by suddenly dissolving the party, he was catching the opposition unaware. However the Congress party was ready and had been preparing for early elections for months, say insiders.
Another Rao move, declaring party candidates in over 100 seats in a single day, has turned out to be a liability, sparking internal rebellion and putting pressure on declared candidates to spend money.
Most significantly, Rao counted on a divided opposition to help him sail through. In theory it was a sound calculation, as two of his opposition parties, the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will never form an alliance.
But in practice it failed, because the Congress party has successfully portrayed the TRS as a secret partner of the BJP, a move that has had powerful ramifications among the many Muslim voters in the state.
Telangana was formed in 2014 after a 13-year struggle led by the TRS to have it cut from the erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh. Thus, it emerged as India’s 29th state.
Though Telangana was granted existence by the federal government then led by the Congress party, it was the TRS which then won a simple majority in the state assembly.
Things were even worse for the BJP, which paid a hefty political price in what was left of Andhra Pradesh. The state lost its capital city Hyderabad to Telengana, and the BJP was completely routed. The party did form an alliance with Andhra’s regional supremo N Chandrababu Naidu, but since then Naidu has ditched the BJP in favor of an alliance with the Congress party for the 2019 general polls.
Nearly four-and-a-half years later, Telangana is gearing up for another showdown where people will decide whether the TRS deserves another term, or if a Congress-led coalition should be given a chance.
Alliance: Numbers or Chemistry
The Congress party, like all Indian political parties, faces having to choose between forging an alliance and making it work on the ground. The Congress party was in a vulnerable position after the crushing defeat in Telangana, and in the national elections of 2014 when it was reduced to a pulp by the meteoric rise of the BJP.
A retired Indian Air Force officer, who as a fighter pilot flew missions in MiG 21s and 23s, however, was up for the battle. Forced to retire after a near-fatal air accident left him unfit for combat duty, he took on a divided house and the ambitious but unpopular leaders of his party and over a few short years has shaped them into a combative unit.
When the soft-spoken Uttam Kumar Reddy took charge of Congress as state president, nobody gave him a chance against the charismatic Rao. But with an alliance comprising professor Muddasani Kodandaram’s newly formed Telangana Jana Samithi (TJS) and poet-singer-revolutionary Gummadi Vittal Rao, known popularly as ‘Gaddar’, they seem ready to rock the TRS ‘car’, the official election symbol of the TRS.
During the 13-year campaign for a Telangana state, Rao had depended and worked together with Professor Kodandaram, the elderly political science teacher, who was very popular among the students and intellectual elite. But after gained power, Rao sidelined Kodandaram, causing anger across campuses in the state, threatening the youth vote.
Gaddar, a nearly 70-year-old balladeer, is known for his passionate, fiery songs which give him emotional appeal in the rural areas. He is also angry with Rao, who never acknowledged him.
Added to this was the arrival of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), led by Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu, which jumped into the fray in an alliance with the Congress party.
Issues and Promises
The Congress party points out that the TRS government betrayed the people, and has not fulfilled its election promises such as a two-bedroom house for all, three-acre lands for the marginalized communities, a provision to augment reservations to tribals and Muslims, and safe drinking water for all. Instead, it points out how things have become family rule, or a rule of four, referring to how Rao, his son, his daughter and his nephew have usurped power.
“Instead of a fair government which would bring dignity, prosperity, justice and happiness for all, Rao and his family (have) plundered all resources. He did not create any jobs for the educated youth, disrespected women by not having even a single woman cabinet member and have with their actions against farmers and Dalits, created a dictatorial regime in the state. People will end the reign of terror on December 7,” said Reddy, who has promised to waive loans of farmers of up to Rs 2 million and raise the purchase prices of crops. He has also promised to increase jobs in government and private sectors and provide unemployment allowances. On top of all this, he promises to provide funds for people to build their own homes and to revive healthcare for the poor.
His campaign, now backed by the emotional power of poet Gaddar and strategic support from professor Muddasani Kodandaram, gives Congress its best chance to win a state in southern India.
The TRS, relying on the charisma of its chief minister and his son, K T Rama Rao, will now hope they do not rue the decision to go for early elections, when the votes are counted on December 11.