Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao (left) and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, in March this year. Photo: AFP/The Times of India
Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao (left) and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, in March this year. Photo: AFP/The Times of India

On Friday, 67% of the eligible voters in Telangana, the youngest state in India, placed votes across 119 constituencies to choose their government for the first time as a separate state.

Across 32,574 polling stations in the state, the fate of 1,821 candidates is yet to be decided.

Over 50,000 security personnel and 150,000 polling personnel were deployed across Telangana, including in the 13 Maoist-affected constituencies where polling ended an hour earlier at 4.00 pm. Voter turnout in the 13 seats was around 56%.

Back in September, no one would have guessed that India’s new southern state of Telangana would be joining Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram and Madhya Pradesh in the list of states going to the polls towards the end of the year.

Some speculate that, in dissolving the state assembly six months early, Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) wanted to seek a fresh mandate unfettered by the divisive issues of 2019. At the time, it was widely considered to be a masterstroke.

It meant he was able to fight Telangana elections independently of the general elections. Also, if he could fortify the popularity of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) party on the back of the many welfare schemes announced during his term, he might even get himself a better seat in Delhi’s power circle, depending on how next year’s general elections turn out.

As it is, the results from the assembly election will have a huge impact on the outcome of the 2019 general elections in India. If KCR wins another term in Telangana then his relevance in terms of forming a possible government alliance in 2019 will increase.

Advantage lost

But as Telangana prepared for its first elections, it became apparent that the feverish enthusiasm of 2014 that brought KCR to power with a clear majority of 63 (which over the course of four years and several defections was bolstered to 90) was on the wane.

Several non-political leaders of the Telangana movement, who had worked with KCR for years to achieve the dream of a separate Telangana, turned against him.

They claimed KCR had shut out civil society organisations from the decision-making process and was running the party and state like an autocrat.

His dissenters included popular balladeers and social activists like Gaddar and Vimalakka. Gaddar, a known Maoist-sympathizer who had never voted before, had toyed with the idea of competing against KCR in his constituency of Gajwel. Eventually he chose not to do so, but he did meet with Congress party President Rahul Gandhi and endorsed Congress and the Prajakutami or the People’s Front. This was probably the biggest upheaval that KCR might not have anticipated.

The four-way alliance between the Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee, Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Communist Party of India (CPI) and the newly-formed Telangana Jana Samithi (TJS) [Congress-TDP-TJS-CPI], rose to present a formidable challenge. In particular the TJS, under M Kodandaram, Chairman of the Telangana Joint Action Committee, was in many ways KCR’s counterpart in the opposition, one who could lay equal claim to the struggle for Telangana.

Considering that the Congress party and TDP together accounted for over 44% of the vote share in 2014, the Prajakutami presented a realistic option for those who were not keen to re-elect KCR.

But much of the early momentum that the coalition had gathered was lost towards the end of campaigning due to drawn-out talks on seat-sharing. Ultimately, with none of the parties in the mood for compromise, a few alliance candidates had to settle for a “friendly contest” between the partners in constituencies like Khanapur, Dubbaka, Asifabad and Warangal (East).

Exit polls project a TRS victory

While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) are relatively small players in the state – with 5 and 7 seats respectively in 2014 – they are strong where it matters, in Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana.

The BJP did not take the state for granted and made some big gestures before the elections such as organizing the pre-2019 Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJP’s youth wing) conference in Hyderabad. This brought together hundreds of its youth leaders from across the country.

Together, BJP President Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi covered 22,000 kilometers within the state and addressed 13 rallies in the course of the campaign. Both parties contributed in equal measure to the acrimonious, high-decibel contest, with TRS ministers like Harish Rao predicting nothing less than doom for Telangana if TDP-Congress came to power.

The campaign has shown that, while for many voters the buck stops with KCR, a few local leaders remain strong.

Congress party’s Revanth Reddy, a popular leader and a venerable Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Kodangal town in the state, was taken into preventive custody at 3 am on December 3 ahead of KCR’s rally after he had called for its boycott.

That was not the first time TRS was accused of taking advantage of government machinery.

Last week the Chief Electoral Officer had asked the Telangana Secretariat to explain why public relations officers (PROs) working with caretaker ministers were found to be involved in posting party programs on social media and various WhatsApp groups.

On polling day, there were allegations that TRS workers, in the guise of election agents, were turning away voters who were not TRS supporters.

When the Election Commission’s ban on publishing exit polls, which had been in effect from 7 am on November 12 to 5.30 pm on December 7, came to an end on Friday, all projections showed TRS ahead in the race, albeit with widely differing margins.

According to Times Now-CNX exit poll survey, the ruling TRS is expected to win 66 seats, Congress party 37, BJP seven and others to take nine seats.

Republic Jan Ki Baat survey said the TRS may secure 50 to 65 seats while Congress party and its allies are set to bag between 38 and 52 seats. It foresaw AIMIM and the BJP winning no seats in the elections.

The India Today-Axis exit polls give TRS a resounding 79 to 91 seats, Congress 21 to 33, BJP one to three and AIMIM four to seven.