HYDERABAD: The run-up to the Telangana Assembly elections is turning out to be a battle of perceptions, much before the actual battle is fought, which, however, may or may not be a contest. Congress’ biggest achievement in these elections has been getting a buzz generated about the Mahakutami, the grand alliance of Congress, Telugu Desam Party, CPI and TJAS, portraying it as a serious contender for power, even a possible winner. There is serious talk among Congress’ poll managers about the party winning 60-65 seats on its own, in an Assembly of 119—apparently, its surveys have thrown up these numbers—and about anti-incumbency seething among the public. Journalists insist to visiting media persons that the contest is 50:50; about how the Telangana Rashtra Samithi would fail to open its account in certain districts. There is talk on the ground too about Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao’s (KCR’s) inaccessibility and perpetuation of family rule, where his ministers and party-men are described as nothing more than ciphers; also about how the free double bedroom scheme has not taken off and water has been diverted only to the CM’s family constituencies. And just when the elections seem to have been handed over to the Mahakutami on a platter, up pops a “small” factor called confidence. If confidence alone could win elections, then the TRS has swept the state’s first ever Assembly elections scheduled for 7 December. KCR’s party comes across supremely confident of victory, even in off the record conversations. The talk in the TRS is about winning a minimum of 80 seats, which may seem a tall order, but the party believes it can achieve that target on the back of its populist schemes that number over 400. It must be added here that this correspondent found a degree of public appreciation for KCR and his schemes, even though the Opposition says that too few have benefited from these. The “conservative” observers, however, are pegging any possible victory in the range of 68 to 75 seats, with TRS numbers going down—even tantalisingly close to a hung situation—or even up, depending on the fight the Congress is able to put up.
THE NAIDU FACTOR
Much of Congress’, or at least the Congress high command’s electoral planning is hinging on Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu and the 20% “settler” voters—people with origins in Andhra Pradesh—whose “loyalties”, it is being assumed, are with the Telugu Desam Party chief. However, the Naidu factor is proving to be a double edged sword. According to some professionals helping the Congress with its campaign, Naidu has brought quite a few things to the table: resources to the tune of Rs 200-300 crore, or more; some semblance of organisation on the ground; “settler” or Seemandhra vote; support from industrialists unhappy with KCR’s “inaccessibility”, as well as the support of some media houses perceived to be close to the TDP. (To be fair, KCR too has pro-TRS media outlets espousing his cause.) According to these professionals, “Congress was in a shambles even three-four months ago and it was Naidu’s entry that energised the campaign and created the buzz”. But this has also given a sharp weapon in the hands of KCR to attack the Congress as being remote-controlled by Naidu, the man who opposed the formation of Telangana state, “the man who diverted Telangana’s water to Seemandhra”. If sources are to be believed, Congress’ local leaders had put up some opposition to the tie-up with Naidu, but in vain. Sources also say that the alliance with Naidu has not gone down well in the rural areas of the state, and may stop voters angry with TRS from automatically crossing over to the Mahakutami. Also, the transfer of the Seemandhra vote may not be as smooth as the Mahakutami is expecting it to be. If anecdotal evidence is of any value, this correspondent can confirm from her interaction with Seemandhra people in the interiors of the tribal constituency of Mulugu—over 200 km away from Hyderabad and not very far from Telangana’s border with Andhra Pradesh—that Naidu is not on their minds. “We want the TRS government to ensure that we get ownership rights of the forestland we have been cultivating for decades,” was their demand.
According to Syed Amin Jafri, an MLC with Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), the party that has a stranglehold on Hyderabad’s Old City, the TRS has been able to bring the “settler” population to its fold to a large extent. When the Telangana movement was going on, several T-JACs (Telangana Joint Action Committees) spearheading the movement were allegedly extorting money from the settlers, who were among the richest in the region. Once the state was formed and KCR became Chief Minister, he ensured the disbanding of all the T-JACs so that they did not become a parallel centre of power. “After that the settlers found this place to be safe. Their businesses flourished. They continued to own schools, colleges, hospitality businesses and infrastructure companies. They got infrastructure contracts worth Rs 1 lakh crore from the Telangana government, especially in projects such as Mission Kakatiya (which restores all minor irrigation tanks and lakes) and Mission Bhagiratha (for providing safe drinking water to every household). The situation is such that now even ‘settler’ government employees, who were allotted to Andhra Pradesh during the bifurcation of the state, are returning to Hyderabad after retirement. Settlers are feeling safe here.” According to Syed Amin Jafri, a reflection of this was seen in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) elections of February 2016, an area with 20% “settler” population. The GHMC area comprises 24 Assembly seats, which make up three full Lok Sabha seats and two part Lok Sabha seats. It was here that the TRS put up a stellar performance, by winning 99 of the 150 divisions that went to the polls. While Congress won 2 divisions, BJP won 5, TDP won 1, and the AIMIM won 44. This was remarkable considering TRS had won only a couple of seats in the 2014 Assembly elections in these urban/semi-urban areas, where around 40% of the state’s population lives.
Moreover, TDP’s organisation at the grassroots is believed to be coming to nought. In one of its strongholds, Khammam, the whole of TDP zilla parishad has defected to the TRS.
But then it is common knowledge that Naidu wants back his control on resource-rich Hyderabad, apart from wanting to revive his party in Telangana. Observers speculate that a Congress-led Hyderabad would be his safe haven in case Jagan Reddy comes to power in Andhra Pradesh with a possible alliance with powerful Kapu leader Pawan Kalyan. The animosity between Jagan and Naidu is such that the former is bound to take action against the latter if he comes to power. So the question that some are asking in Hyderabad is: who needs the Mahakutami more, Congress or Naidu?
THE KCR FACTOR
Four and a half years after the formation of the state, the TRS can no longer afford to ride the wave of the Telangana movement. Voters are demanding accountability now that they have got their state. Tales abound about KCR’s inaccessibility, about how even his ministers do not get to meet him for months; how power is concentrated in the hands of KCR’s family members; how members belonging to his Velama caste, which comprises less than 1% of the state’s population, are getting a disproportionate representation in the council of ministers. Certain castes are said to have turned against the TRS, particularly the Madigas (a Scheduled Caste) who comprise 12% of the population, and at least a section of the influential Reddys, who comprise 6% of the population. This writer saw for herself the anger among voters in Jangaon constituency, midway between Hyderabad and Warangal. A group of young men furiously claimed that the only work that had happened—particularly the distribution of double bedroom houses for free—was in the CM’s own constituency of Gajwel, apart from his son K.T. Rama Rao’s constituency, Sircilla, and nephew Harish Rao’s constituency, Siddipet. They complained how Harish Rao had merged three mandals belonging to Jangaon district into his Siddipet district, thus taking away 24 irrigation tanks and one temple, Komaravalli Devaswom. “Water was the reason why Telangana was formed, because our water was being taken away by Andhra. Why will the same happen even in Telangana?” They were also furious that their TRS MLA, Muthireddy Yadagiri Reddy was being repeated from the seat. In an altercation over land grab, the CM was seen to have sided with Yadagiri Reddy, by transferring the collector, A. Devasena, who had taken on the powerful MLA. At the same time, the young men, who were determined to teach TRS a lesson by voting for Congress’ 74-year-old Ponnala Lakshmaiah, were unanimous that had Yadagiri Reddy been dropped, they would have voted for TRS.
But then Yadagiri Reddy was not dropped.
In fact, KCR dropped only seven sitting MLAs and repeated 83 MLAs, including all those “turncoats” who had deserted other parties to join the TRS and swell its ranks to 90, from the 63 seats it had originally won in the 2014 elections. If sources are to be believed, TRS is facing severe anti incumbency in 15 of these 83 seats—seats the party could actually lose, bringing its tally to 68. But sources also say that KCR believes that he can make up for the “negativity” single-handedly. The Mahakutami sees in this a reflection of KCR’s “dictatorial nature”, but then, as professionals in the business of elections and data claim, “he believes it is he alone who matters, not his candidates”. They say that now that KCR has started campaigning, he has the ability to swing at least 3%-4% of votes in TRS’ favour, “just like Narendra Modi can single-handedly swing up to 7%-8% votes for the BJP”. And KCR has started campaigning, intensively, addressing five-six rallies a day. On Friday, he addressed a rally in angry Jangaon.
The TRS is confident that its mammoth basket of freebies and cash doles to weaker sections of society, from farmers to unmarried women, to mothers of newborns to pensioners and jobless youth, among others, will ensure its easy return to power. 12% reservation for minorities may not have been implemented for lack of permission from the Centre, but apparently over 400 residential schools have been built for minorities and BCs (Backward Classes). Free power has been ensured for the agriculture sector. As part of Missions Kakatiya and Bhagirath, barrages are being built and pipelines and canals being laid to supply water for irrigation and drinking. But as is the “normal” in most such cases, complaints exist about implementation. However, the power situation has improved considerably. Whenever this correspondent asked TRS voters why they would vote for the party, the answer was invariably “uninterrupted power supply which neither Congress nor TDP could ensure during their rules”. Add to this the Kalyana Lakshmi scheme for Hindu girls and Shaadi Mubarak for Muslim girls, where if a girl gets married after the age of 18 years, her mother is given a cheque of Rs 100,116. The idea is to prevent child marriage and from all accounts, the scheme has found resonance on the ground. Similarly, two farmers’ welfare schemes, Rythu Bandhu and Rythu Bima are expected to give a boost to TRS’ quest for power. Rythu Bandhu pays farmers Rs 4,000 per acre, twice a year, for the “purchase of inputs like seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, labour and other investments”. While Rythu Bima is a farmers’ group life insurance scheme, where the government pays the premium to Life Insurance Corporation, so that a farmer’s bereaved family gets Rs 5 lakh inside 10 days of his death. It is a different matter though that the Mahakutami complains that the Rythu Bandhu money is going to land-owners and not helping the tenant farmers who cultivate the land.
The most talked about and anticipated, but not yet delivered is the free “double bedroom” scheme for weaker sections of society. While the Mahakutami makes an issue out of the non-delivery, finishing touches are being given to several of these houses in the CM’s constituency of Gajwel, an Assembly seat where thousands of crores have been spent to make this rural corner of Telangana appear spectacular and in mint condition. KCR won this seat in 2014 by a margin of around 17,000 votes. This time, the CM’s men looking after the seat scoff that the Congress candidate, Pratap Reddy, “will be lucky to save his deposit”. As for the other seats, the MLAs this writer interacted with, said that double-bedroom was not an empty promise and were being readied for delivery soon after the elections. Even though at least one Congress supporter voiced his concern to this correspondent that the distribution would be restricted only to those close to TRS.
There is no doubt that there is some anti-incumbency, but analysts and observers say that Congress may lack the wherewithal to capitalise on it. “Just saying there is anti-incumbency and so we will win, does not get anyone victory. Congress has not done anything in these four and a half years to revive the party organisation,” said Dr Jafri. The party won 22 Assembly seats in 2014, lost two of these seats in byelections, and then lost six MLAs to TRS to defection. It had 14 MLAs when the Assembly was dissolved. This time Congress has fielded senior and trusted warhorses, and has bypassed youthful faces. In a bid to woo minority votes, it has fielded seven Muslim candidates, out of whom five have been fielded from Hyderabad’s Old City, where its candidates have been losing their deposits consistently in almost every election possible. And with Owaisi declaring support for TRS, chances are that the major chunk of minority votes will go the KCR’s way, as a result of which the Congress may have lost seven seats even before the elections have begun.
The Congress is trying to find comfort in history—that in nine out of 10 cases, where the government was dissolved early, the ruling party lost.
BJP ALSO RAN?
And then there is the BJP, which won five seats in the Assembly elections of 2014. This time, it is certain to win two seats, although the optimists among party ranks hope that the number would go up to 10 at least, or more, and it will play the kingmaker in case Telangana throws up a hung Assembly. The BJP has fielded candidates in all 119 seats, “just to divide the Opposition vote and help KCR” complains Congress. Sources say that the BJP is working really hard on the ground in 20 Assembly seats, but for the Lok Sabha elections. The party is focusing on the four Lok Sabha seats that these 20 Assembly seats comprise—Karimnagar, Mehboobnagar, Nizamabad and Secunderabad. BJP’s focus in Telangana seems to be on 2019.