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

Anti-incumbency is such an integral factor in any Indian election that incumbent parties are all too aware that, after years in power, their party’s vote share is almost sure to fall.

A drop in vote share will be even more pronounced for any party which has not built a strong caste or social base over the decades, but which benefits from a sudden spurt in its popular vote due to extraneous reasons. Such fortuitous circumstances are tough, if not impossible, to repeat, leaving defeat a virtual certainty.

If these two, commonly-recognized factors in Indian elections have any impact today, then incumbent Chief Minister of Telangana K Chandrashekar Rao, popularly known as KCR, may have gambled rashly.

This is because assembly polls in 2014, while held for a united Andhra Pradesh, were influenced by the decision to divide the state and form Telangana, India’s newest state. This announcement made for a dream election for KCR and his party the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS).

In districts that formed Telangana, their vote shares soared to 34.5% from less than half that number in the previous 2009 poll.

2014 was a “wave” election in the midst of chaos in the Congress party and massive, nationwide anti-Congress sentiment. Though the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was responsible for dividing Andhra Pradesh, KCR and his TRS party emerged as champions of the new state. This allowed a small, sub-regional party to evolve into a ruling force.

However, despite a huge jump in its vote share, the TRS party secured just 62 assembly seats in the 119 member house, while the Congress party succeeded in becoming the second largest party with a 24.3% vote share.

Given this, even a small drop in TRS vote share, irrespective of the formidable alliance that has emerged in the state between Congress-Telugu Desam Party and Telangana Jana Samiti, could mean troubled waters for the TRS.

The burning question is, as India’s youngest state heads to the polls for the first time as an independent state, have KCR and the TRS re-written the social and electoral dynamics of Telangana?

Understanding the TRS vote base might provide an answer.

Until 2014, TRS as a political party was a weak player confined to a small region of a united Andhra Pradesh. Having quit the Telugu Desam Party to launch the TRS party in 2001, KCR had relied on a small, backward caste vote base and a Telangana party identity as his political mainstay.

He had an alliance with the Congress party, led by the late YS Rajashekar Reddy, in the 2004 assembly polls and contested just 56 of the 119 seats that make Telangana today. In a united Andhra Pradesh, KCR could muster only a 6.6% vote share, securing just 26 seats.

In 2009, the Congress party broke its alliance with the TRS and the party contested an assembly poll for the first time on its own. It came back with only a 4% vote share in a united Andhra Pradesh, which is estimated to account for 10% of the popular vote in the districts that form Telangana today.

Congress was the dominant party and its caste base was led by the Reddy forward caste. The party also had support from a conglomeration of backward castes like the ‘Kapu’, ‘Goud’ and the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe minority vote.

KCR personally belongs to the forward ‘Vellama’ caste, which is opposed to the Reddy, and his support was confined to a small section of the backward castes.

However, in 2014, a large chunk of the Congress’s backward and Scheduled Caste vote shifted to the TRS as it was no longer a small sub-regional force, but a potential ruling force in a new state.

The TDP, which had occupied the space of being the primary anti-Congress force in the state, had lost enormous ground as it did not support the decision to form a separate Telangana. This further led to a consolidation of voters behind the TRS as the principle regional party.

These two primary factors led to the sudden spurt in TRS voter support in 2014. However, five years later, KCR believes that his welfare schemes and populist measures have solidified his party’s vote base. This was the primary reason behind the confidence he had in gambling on an early poll.

What is more, the Telangana election race has crystallized into a two-way battle between Congress and the TRS. This means that even residual anti-Congress voters and castes will solidify behind the TRS. These two factors, the TRS calculates, may actually bolster its 2014 vote share.

Despite the absence of electoral evidence to prove their theory, the party feels that the social dynamics in Telangana have changed since it was part of a united Andhra Pradhesh.

On the other hand, in 2014 the combined vote share of the alliance partners led by Congress was over 40% and this by itself is nearly 6% higher than the best results enjoyed by the TRS party. The Congress party’s alliance will waltz their way to victory if they hold onto that vote.

This is why the arithmetic behind TRS calculations is not clear, and why electoral logic and arithmetic may suggest that the TRS is in troubled waters unless Telangana has changed markedly.

Congress leaders admit that KCR’s personality gives him enormous appeal and that there is no other leader in the state to challenge his charisma. But is this charisma enough to re-write electoral logic? Despite their show of confidence, some TRS leaders quietly admit that there is a fear that the gamble may backfire.

On the other hand, despite having strong alliance arithmetic, Congress leaders are not sure of getting to the half way mark on their own, and are therefore quietly open to a “Karnataka type” coalition government with the TDP.

In the end, the election is one of chemistry versus arithmetic, one that could establish whether old views and calculations have any place in an independent Telangana.