Turnaround in Telangana is the one story that stands out in the assembly elections in five states. While much of the ‘national’ media’s focus has been on the BJP vs Congress contest in the three Hindi-heartland states, the clearest verdict may come from a multi-cornered contest in this southern state. It will have much greater implications for national politics too.
Until about two years ago, the Congress in Telangana was down in the dumps. After its humiliating defeat in 2018 (just 28 per cent vote share and 19 seats in the 119-member assembly), followed by its third-position finish behind the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the party was staring at the same fate that it has met in Andhra Pradesh. Electoral history affirms that Congress has rarely recovered in any state after such a drubbing. The BJP was the rising star in the state, given its stunningly good outings in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and the 2020 Greater Hyderabad Municipal elections. Serious plans were afoot to make Telangana the next West Bengal with similar, if not better, results for the BJP.
That is when the turnaround began — quietly. Anumula Revanth Reddy, MP from Malkajgiri, was appointed as Telangana Congress president in June 2021. An aggressive campaigner who crossed over from the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in 2018, he was known for his outspokenness and staunch opposition to the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (now Bharat Rashtra Samithi) and Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR). Strong backing from the high command helped him overcome initial internal difficulties and eventually infuse energy into a demoralised party unit.
Then came Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra in 2022, which galvanised the Congress cadre in the two weeks it spent in the state. Finally, the party’s emphatic victory in Karnataka gave it the moral and resource boost needed before the elections.
The BJP had the opposite trajectory. The party’s state chief Bandi Sanjay Kumar, a Backward Caste (BC) leader and vociferous critic of the BRS and KCR, was suddenly removed for no good reason. This, and the decision not to arrest KCR’s daughter K Kavitha in the Delhi excise case, gave a clear political signal that the national leadership had decided to go soft on the BRS and not come in the way of its impending victory, giving credence to speculations of a deal between the BJP and the BRS.
The BRS was sitting pretty, if not smug. There were no visible signs of anti-incumbency. The two-time incumbent had managed to sell its claims of development, with many showcase projects, to the voters through a publicity blitzkrieg. Moreover, it had put into place a series of cash transfer schemes for different sections of society such as Rythu Bandhu and Dalit Bandhu. Opinion polls contributed to this complacency. Early polls gave the BRS a big lead. Despite the later polls showing a Congress resurgence, the average forecast of the eight polls we tracked gave 57 seats to BRS and 49 to the Congress.
Where Telangana stands
Beneath the surface and beyond Hyderabad, however, all was not well. Telangana ranked 17 out of 30 states in the Human Development Index in 2021. The Hindu’s Data Point highlighted the stark difference in socio-economic indicators between districts around Hyderabad and those located far away from it. Data on eight social development indicators brings to light the fact that on four of these counts, Telangana was placed in the bottom half during 2019-21. It was placed at the 21st position out of 30 for the percentage of underweight children, 26th for the percentage of wasted children, 23rd for percentage of women aged 20-24 married before 18 years of age, and 30 (i.e., lowest rank) for percentage of female population aged 6+ who ever attended school. What’s more, on seven indicators, the state’s ranking slipped considerably between 2015-16 and 2019-21. Besides the four indicators mentioned above, these included infant mortality rate, percentage of stunted children, and households with any member covered under a health insurance scheme.
It is pointless to speculate on the exact number of seats in the absence of a latest and reliable survey, but it would be a surprise if this story of a dramatic turnaround does not end in a comfortable majority for the Congress, if not something bigger.
While the opinion polls showed BRS ahead in the race, a closer reading showed something else. In the CVoter survey, a massive 57 per cent said that they were “angry with the government and wanted to change it”. This level of dissatisfaction was higher than recorded by the same agency in the other four states. Anger against sitting MLAs was also the highest (53 per cent) in Telangana among the five election-bound states.
This latent disaffection came to the fore as elections were announced. The gap between the BRS and the Congress began shrinking by the week from around 6 percentage points a few months ago to just 2 points a month before the polls. A field visit to some of the BRS strongholds by one of the authors (Yogendra Yadav) with some colleagues from Bharat Jodo Abhiyan brought out the winds of change. To be sure, people on the streets were not angry with KCR himself and duly acknowledged his party’s contribution to quality roads, better “current” (as in electricity, nothing shocking here!), and the benefits of cash transfers. But there was a clear sense that it was time to move on and give Congress a chance.
Six factors stand out
One, what the state achieved under KCR was far short of what he promised and claimed. Two, the system of local patronage and repression instituted by KCR and his son, KT Rama Rao, hurts the people more than the allegations about KCR’s own legendry corruption. Many BRS MLAs are hated for their corruption and arrogance. Three, the situation on the employment front has been abysmal, triggering an avalanche of anger among the young voters. Four, the selective targeting of some of the cash transfer schemes has led to the perception of local cronyism. Five, among the Muslims, who had backed BRS in the past and did not hold any special grudge against it, the charges of BRS-BJP collusion have done the ruling party in. Finally, among the Christian minority, several times bigger than the official Census figures of 2 per cent, Manipur appears to have triggered a consolidation of all the denominations to vote for the national alternative to the BJP.
All these factors have come together to contribute to a steep fall for the ruling party. Just how steep is the only question. Congress needs nothing short of a wave to overcome the massive 14 percentage point deficit in the last election (BRS 47 per cent, Congress 28 per cent on its own and 33 per cent including allies) and overtake the BRS. In 2018, the BRS had made a near sweep of 10 of the 11 erstwhile districts (Khammam in the east being the only exception) in the state, winning 88 of the 119 seats to the Congress-TDP alliance’s tally of 21. The party needs an overall swing of around 10 per cent in its favour and a swing of a similar magnitude against the BRS.
This is tough but not impossible. Except for urban pockets in Greater Hyderabad, and some of the northern districts of the state where the BJP can spoil the Congress’ chances, there appears to be a wave against the BRS. Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), known to be friendly with the BRS in the state, might also encounter some challenges in its stronghold of Old City. The BJP’s performance could be a final hitch for the Congress. According to reports, the BJP, despite its weakened position, is in a position to divide anti-BRS votes in at least 40 seats. Its promise to the majority BC communities of a BC chief minister, and to the Madiga Dalits of a sub-categorisation of the SC quota may marginally dent the Congress. A vigorous final push by the BJP in these seats may offer some relief to the BRS. There are serious and genuine fears about a last-minute massive infusion of cash-for-vote to favour the ruling party.
However, the history of electoral waves tells us that once a wave is set in motion, these last-minute tricks are of little consequence. A domino effect is likely to swing the yet undecided voters, especially those from the minority, in favour of the Congress and could convert a hawa (wind) into an aandhi (storm). It is pointless to speculate on the exact number of seats in the absence of a latest and reliable survey, but it would be a surprise if this story of a dramatic turnaround does not end in a comfortable majority for the Congress, if not something bigger.