The unexpected defeat of the ruling TRS in the hands of the BJP in the Dubbaka Assembly by-election has come as a shocker to Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR). The victory, on the other hand, has boosted the morale of the saffron brigade which is eyeing the prospect of emerging as a political alternative to TRS, pushing Congress to the third spot.

The BJP leadership gave much importance to the Dubbaka electoral victory. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tweeted his greeting to the people and the party workers for the surprise results, followed by Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP national president J.P. Nadda calling up both the winner M Raghunandan Rao and Telangana party unit president and MP Bandi Sanjay just after the results.

The Dubbaka bypoll was necessitated by the untimely demise of sitting TRS MLA S. Ramalinga Reddy, 57. He won from here for three terms and was a popular leader. This seat is considered to be a stronghold of the TRS and is adjacent to CM KCR’s Gajwel Assembly constituency and Finance Minister T. Harish Rao’s Siddipet. This entire rural area from the old Medak district is TRS belt.

Raghunandan Rao, 55, a journalist-turned lawyer, unsuccessfully contested Dubbaka in 2018 December Assembly elections and also 2019 Lok Sabha polls from Medak (of which Dubbaka is a part). Rao, in fact, was earlier in TRS and worked as its Medak district president. He fell apart from KCR and joined BJP in 2014.

KCR offered TRS ticket to Ramalinga Reddy’s wife Sujatha, a housewife, and Congress fielded Cheruku Srinivas Reddy, son of another late former MLA from this seat Muthyam Reddy. Harish Rao, KCR’s nephew, has been entrusted with the responsibility of getting Sujatha elected, while Congress united all groups in the party and focused its energies on winning the bypolls.

In a keenly contested election, BJP snatched a victory by a narrow margin of 1,048 votes as Rao got 63,352 votes (38.47%), Sujatha 62,273 votes (37.81) while Srinivas Reddy finished poor third with 22,196 votes (13.47%), thus losing this deposit. In the 2018 elections, Ramalinga Reddy won by a margin of 61,000 votes, so we can imagine the slide in TRS vote share in Dubbaka.

CM KCR didn’t campaign in Dubbaka, but he closely monitored the polls from his camp office in Hyderabad as well as his farmhouse in Gajwel, a few villages away from Dubbaka. The CM even addressed two big official events where people turned up–first to launch the Dharani portal, to record all land transactions, and another to launch Rythu Vedikalu, farmers’ forums, before the polling.

BJP leaders objected to these two meetings terming them as “surrogate campaigning through using official machinery”, precisely a few days before closing of the campaign. TRS hoped that these two launchings and the immense development works done in both Gajwel and Siddipet would boost its prospects in Dubbaka.

However, it didn’t work that way. Raghunandan Rao could evoke anger among the Dubbaka public over neglect of their constituency, while neighbouring Gajwel and Siddipet (this too was long held by KCR in the last three decades) were super developed. Similarly, technical glitches in the Dharani portal had pulled down the image of the government and dented the prospects of TRS.

Moreover, Raghunandan’s solidarity with the farmers of Vemulaghat village who sat on a protest for around 500 days against the Mallannasagar lift irrigation scheme, too, earned him some goodwill in the nearby villages.

TRS leaders tried their best to stop Raghunandan from winning. They tipped off the police and ensured raids on the houses of the BJP candidate relatives where some cash was seized. BJP’s Sanjay was arrested when he tried to protest the raids. This has sparked a wave of anger among BJP supporters and hit the image of TRS.

The significance of BJP is less to do with the defeat of the ruling TRS and more to do with the meltdown of Congress, which till now, appeared to be a force bigger than the saffron brigade. In the 2019 elections, the BJP won four MPs, while Congress got three, while TRS secured nine and AIMIM bagged one MPs. Now that the BJP won this Dubbaka assembly by-poll, the party cemented its main opposition status.

However, the BJP needs to do more to emerge as the viable alternative to the ruling TRS. The upcoming elections to 150 divisions of GHMC (Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation) sometime in January, 2021 are crucial to the party. In 2016, BJP got just four divisions while TRS won 99 and its ally AIMIM 30. Congress managed to get just two divisions.

Buoyed by the Dubbaka bypoll victory, the BJP leadership has set a target of winning at least 75 divisions in the GHMC and capture the mayor post. That looks tough, but not impossible.

After the Dubbaka results, Union Minister of State for Home G. Kishan Reddy said: “Why can’t we win GHMC elections, when people are ready to endorse PM Modi’s image across the country?”

The TRS leadership is in an introspection mode. On 10 November, party working president and Municipal Administration Minister K.T. Rama Rao said: “We won’t be depressed with the Dubbaka results, just as we haven’t become overconfident after our umpteen victories.” On the record, TRS top brass says that Dubbaka is just an aberration in its winning track, but inside they know the BJP is fast catching up.