Battleground Telangana

The first assembly elections since the ‘Telugu Partition’

Fireworks break out in Hyderabad — celebrating the formation of Telangana (Photo: Indian Express)

June 2, 2014: KCR, Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao, was sworn in as the first Chief Minister of India’s newest state, Telangana. It was a day many ‘Telanganites’ rejoiced and many ‘Andhras’ wept. For some it was their beloved State being torn apart and for others it was a historical wrong, righted. Life is about to get exciting again, for the first election since Telangana’s formation is upon us sooner than we expected.

The confident incumbent

A supremely confident Chief Minister, KCR, has dissolved the assembly early and the state could be poll bound along with Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan by November 2018. A shrewd move, no doubt. There is little opposition to KCR and you even struggle to think of another local politician’s name who could be a challenger.

KCR has also shown (Kejriwal, are you listening) to the nation that moving from agitator and provocateur-in-chief to statesman is possible. One just has to shed their persecution complex.

Non-RSS politicians seem unable to crack the salute. KCR at his swearing in. (Photo: Indian Express)

KCR has delivered on some of his election promises. Vitally, he has kept his most visible promises — uninterrupted power to Hyderabad and a euphoric celebration of festivals such as Bonalu. These festivals set the state apart from the ‘Telugu festivals’ of their brethren across and within state borders. The Hyderabad metro has become the nation’s second largest network. Highly visible. Soon no one will remember the construction delays or the INR660bn price tag.

The exiled prodigy

The Andhra exodus to, well, Andhra hasn’t panned out entirely. Hyderabad, a city which Andhras believe they largely built with their capital and sweat, remains home to a large Andhra population. Within Telangana, the Greater Hyderabad region was Telugu Desam Party’s (TDP) most fertile winning ground in 2014 — they won 14 out of their 15 seats here. The Telugu Desam Party, seen traditionally as the party of the Andhras and the defender of their rights, had a shocker in 2004 (losing to the Congress) and never recovered. That is, until the carving out of Telangana left them with Andhra Pradesh — a state they duly won.

Nara Chandrababu Naidu, who curiously hasn’t been monikered NCN, which, you have to admit, has a nice ring to it. (Photo: The Week)

That Hyderabad calculus, though, has changed. 12 out of the 15 MLAs have defected to the TRS. About 20 lakh, largely Andhra, voters have also been removed from the electoral rolls as they have supposedly shifted their constituency to the neighbouring state.

It doesn’t look like the state is ready to look past the very regionalism which birthed the it. Think of it as the intractable Harayana-Punjab problem. It will take time, maybe a generation, for an ‘ethnically’ Andhra Chief Minister of Telangana.

The muddled muppet

The Congress in Telangana is a peculiar beast. Its state cadre, which ruled the undivided Andhra Pradesh for 10 years (from 2004–14, in line with the Congress led UPA in Delhi) steadfastly opposed the bifurcation of the state. Then its strongman leader, YSR, died in a helicopter crash shortly after winning the elections in 2009. YSR was the funnel through which Andhra exercised outsized muscle in Delhi. His clean sweep of state and Lok Sabha elections in 2004 installed a Congress government in Delhi. He delivered 34 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats(with allies).

Erstwhile Congress strongman, YSR, in whose name his son Jagan runs the YSR Congress Party. (Image: The Hindu)

With YSR out of the way, the Congress at the Center didn’t pay heed to local objections. It, instead, pushed through the formation of Telangana. This left the state cadre in tatters and set them up for monumental failure in 2014. In the years since, the YSR faction, led by his son, has formed the YSR Congress.

While the Congress birthed the new state, it got none of the credit, and most definitely none of the votes, in 2014

The Grand Coalition indispensible to democracy

Which brings us to the first political party born after Telangana’s formation — the Telangana Jana Samithi and the grand coalition, Mahakutami, hoping to thwart the TRS. TJS are seeking to field candidates in 36 seats (in a 119 seat assembly; 30%) in a grand coalition formed with the Congress, TDP and CPI. They would be lucky to get half that allocation.

TDP and the Congress have been steadfast opponents for decades — their common enemy, the TRS, seems to have made them unconformable bedfellows. Progress.

CPI is seeking to field candidates in over 10 seats — a demand the grand coalition is unlikely to accede to.

The CPI won 1 seat in 2014, and even that MLA defected to the TRS.

This is the supposed land of Naxals. No more.

The Congress will take up the lion’s share of the seat allocation but the lack of a Chief Ministerial personality may well be their undoing. They are supposed to have 31 Chief Ministerial candidates — one from each district! While a Mahakutami can keep TRS out of power, it will hardly be a stable ruling colation (cue Bihar’s Mahagathbandhan).

The relevant and not so relevant also rans

The three other relevant parties, BJP, AAP and AIMIM are expected to be non-entities on their own. While for AAP it will be their first sojourn South, the BJP might ultimately pledge support to the TRS. Some allegations might be hard to walk back later and often assume a life of their own decades later — so don’t expect rabid BJP attacks on Chief Minister KCR. AIMIM will sweep the Muslim vote, concentrated around the Old City in Hyderabad. While it wouldn’t be enough to make them the kingmakers ala the JDU in Karnataka (don’t expect Owaisi to be sworn in as the CM), they will play an important part in the elections.

Fascinating pre and post poll calculus will be hotly debated on national television. A brand new state will deliver the same old drama. Messy democracy. Stay tuned.

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