OPINION: Son of the Soil Vs Outsiders in Telangana

Suresh Dharur

KCR-NCBThe outcome of the Assembly elections in Telangana, India’s youngest state, is bound to have an impact on the national politics ahead of the 2019 general elections. It is here that the opposition unity will be put to test. For the first time, the Congress and the Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the long-time bitter rivals, have come together to form an alliance “Praja Kutami” (People’s Front), along with CPI and Telangana Jana Samithi headed by academician-turned-politician Prof M Kodandaram. Ever since the formation of TDP in 1982, the regional party had fought against Congress in all the elections in the combined Andhra Pradesh.

However, the coming together of the two parties, shedding decades of rivalry, with a single point agenda of defeating the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao is the most significant feature of this election. It has trappings similar to a national narrative of “Modi versus others.” As a result, the outcome of the Telangana battle would lay the blueprint for the 2019 election strategies. The performance of the four-party alliance will indicate whether the disparate parties can offer enough ammunition to dislodge formidable incumbents; be it KCR in Telangana or Modi in Delhi.

If the “Praja Kutami” fails to prevent KCR from returning to power, it would be a huge setback for the efforts to forge a Mahagatbandhan at the national level to take on the NDA. For Chandrababu Naidu, who is playing a key role in building an anti-BJP front at national level, the Telangana poll battle offers a litmus test.      

In a way, the Telangana narrative is more like a dress rehearsal for the next year’s general elections. For KCR, the popular leader who is seen as the architect of the Telangana statehood movement, the victory will be a vindication for his government’s strong focus on development and welfare. He has dissolved the Assembly, eight months ahead of the completion of its term, and sought fresh public mandate on development plank.

Arithmetics versus Chemistry

The opposition alliance is banking on the combined vote strength of the Congress and TDP and hoping that the transfer of votes would happen at the ground level following the alliance. The Congress and TDP had a vote share of 25 percent and 15 percent respectively in the 2014 elections while the TRS, with a vote share of 34 percent, secured 63 seats, just above the required magic number of 60 in the 119-member Assembly. The Congress and TDP had won 21 and 15 seats respectively. However, the TDP was then in alliance with the BJP which won 5 seats. The BJP is now contesting the elections on its own.

The opposition calculation now is that the combined vote share would help defeat the ruling party.  However, the TRS is banking on the charisma and personal appeal of KCR and a string of welfare schemes, touching upon virtually every section of the society, and cash dole outs to romp home to victory. The ruling party has dismissed the argument that the combined vote share of the Congress and TDP could upset its applecart. It has invoked “Telangana pride” to strike an emotional chord with the voters and has been targeting the Congress for “importing” Chandrababu Naidu from Andhra Pradesh though he had opposed creation of separate Telangana and was now obstructing the irrigation projects in the new state.

The TRS’ poll campaign is focused on the twin themes of continuity in welfare and development and “son-of-the-soil versus enemies of Telangana”. The voters are being asked to choose between the forces of development and those who want to “bring back the hegemony of Andhra rulers and mortgage the interests of Telangana in the streets of Amaravati (Andhra capital) and Delhi.”

High stake battle

That the Telangana poll battle involves high political stakes was evident from the star-studded campaign with the parties roping in the bigwigs for electioneering. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the state twice and addressed a string of election rallies while the BJP president Amit Shah visited thrice to participate in several public meetings. Congress president Rahul Gandhi also visited the state twice to address rallies.         

The Congress has attacked KCR, calling him a “proxy of Modi”, describing his style of governance as similar to that of the Prime Minister. The BJP leaders, on their part, sought to paint both the Congress and TRS with the same brush and dubbed them as two sides of the same coin.

Since 2014, the TDP has suffered a steady erosion of its base in Telangana with 12 of its 15 MLAs crossing over to TRS. It has come to be projected as “Andhra Party”. By striking an unlikely alliance with Congress, it wants to stay relevant in the state. Its lack of political heft was evident by the fact that it is contesting just 13 seats this time.

- Suresh Dharur, Senior Journalist