YSR Congress’ only MP in Telangana, Ponguleti Srinivas Reddy, along with the party’s lone MLA, Payam Venkateswarlu, defected to ruling TRS, decimating the party’s presence in the Lok Sabha and the Assembly from Telangana this week. In retaliation, YSR Congress president Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy has decided to back the Congress candidate in Palair Assembly byelection slated to be held on 16 May.

Srinivas Reddy, who also heads the Telangana unit of YSR Congress, has announced the merger of the party unit with TRS in the presence of its president and Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) at a meeting held here on Tuesday. He was the only MP who won on a YSR Congress ticket from Khammam Lok Sabha seat by a margin of around 4 lakh votes in 2014. With this, TRS will have 12 MPs in the Lok Sabha.

YSR Congress then won three MLAs in Khammam district. But, already two of them—Thati Venkateswarlu (Aswaraopeta-ST) and Banoth Madan Lal (Wyra-ST)—have defected to TRS. Now that Payam Venkateswarlu (Pinapaka-ST), too, joined TRS, Jagan’s party has disappeared from Telangana Assembly. KCR welcomed them into his party and termed the development as a consolidation of political forces in Telangana. On Friday evening, Telangana Assembly Speaker S. Madhusudhana Chary issued a bulletin announcing the merger of YSR Congress into TRS in the Assembly. Since inception, TRS has been weak in Khammam district. In 2014 elections, out of 10 Assembly seats in Khammam district that borders Andhra, TRS won just one, followed by Congress  4, YSR Congress 3  and TDP and CPM one each. In the past few months, two Congress MLAs and three YSR Congress MLAs joined TRS.

TRS has tightened its grip on Khammam district in view of the upcoming bypoll to Palair Assembly seat, which fell vacant following the death of senior Congress MLA Ramireddy Venkata Reddy three months ago. KCR has fielded his minister Thummala Nageswara Rao (who is currently an MLC) from his party, disregarding the Congress appeal to leave the seat to Venkata Reddy’s widow Sucharita for the bypoll. Congress has given ticket to Sucharita and urged all opposition parties to back her as a mark of sympathy to late Venkata Reddy who participated in the Telangana movement. TDP has expressed its support to Congress and BJP stayed away from the contest and left the choice to its cadre. CPM fielded its candidate from Palair, making it a triangular contest. Initially Jagan was in two minds about backing Congress till the last minute, but after his MP and MLA were poached by KCR, he decided to support Sucharita and asked voters to vote against the ruling TRS which has been encouraging defections in Telangana. Jagan even constituted a new state committee and demanded the resignation of his MP and MLAs who shifted to TRS.

KCR has appointed his son and IT minister K.T. Rama Rao (KTR) as the election-in-charge for the Palair by-election and entrusted him with the responsibility of ensuring Nageswara Rao’s win. KTR has worked hard to woo leaders from opposition parties. He succeeded as MP Srinivas Reddy, a leading contractor and businessman, is considered to be a prized catch forTRS. The late Venkata Reddy won Palair by around 21,000 votes, but now Congress faces an uphill task to retain the seat as the ruling party has marshalled its entire force here. As many as six ministers and 20 MLAs have been campaigning for Nageswara Rao who hasn’t resigned his minister post, while anti-establishment vote appears divided between Congress and the Left.

Talking to this newspaper, TRS MLC Palla Rajeswara Reddy, campaign manager of Nageswara Rao, said the ruling party would win hands down in Palair. “We are not bribing anyone; leaders from other parties are voluntarily joining us,” he said. However, Congress MLA and Telangana unit working president Mallu Bhatti Vikramarka predicted a “silent wave” in favour of Congress in Palair.

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