Ahead of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election rally in Telangana’s Munugode Assembly segment, Union Home Minister Amit Shah met with Tollywood hero Jr NTR, the grandson of matinee idol and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) founder NT Rama Rao, at a star hotel in Shamshabad on 20 August.
From his official Twitter handle, Shah even tweeted about his 15-minute interaction with Jr NTR and praised him as the “gem of Telugu cinema” for his lead role in the blockbuster movie RRR.
Shah seems to be aiming at helping his party woo Seemandhra settlers and people leaning towards TDP, by sending a message that the actor is in sync with the saffron party.
How BJP Had Opposed RRR
Paradoxically, the movie Ranam, Roudram, and Rudhiram or RRR, faced the ire of Shah’s party leaders ahead of its release in Telangana. In November 2020, the party’s state president Bandi Sanjay Kumar had even threatened to torch the theatres screening the movie if the director SS Rajamouli failed to change the portrayal of Jr NTR and claimed that “it hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus.”
In the film, Jr NTR essays a role modelled on the 20th century tribal leader Komaram Bheem who fought against the Nizam for the liberation of Hyderabad. However, in the film, he was shown dressed as a Muslim – wearing a skullcap and a kurta – as part of a disguise to escape attention from the police. This aspect was highlighted in the initial film teasers as well.
At that time Bandi Sanjay had questioned, "Somebody put a cap on Komaram Bheem who is revered as a demigod by tribals. Do the same people have the courage to put vermillion on the photos of Nizam and Owaisi?”
Strangely enough, the BJP recently sent Rajamouli’s father Vijayendra Prasad, also the script-writer for RRR, to the Rajya Sabha as a nominated member.
The same Bandi Sanjay Kumar now enthusiastically posed in front of cameras while receiving Jr NTR for the meeting with Amit Shah.
The Battle For Tollywood
The popular actor's one-to-one meeting with Shah comes at a time when the BJP is trying to make inroads into the south, especially the two Telugu-speaking states. It also represents a tussle for dominance over Tollywood by the political parties.
The Telugu film industry, after shifting from Madras in the 1990s, was under the control of NT Rama Rao, who was the Chief Minister of the then undivided Andhra Pradesh.
After the state's bifurcation, K Chandrasekhar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) began calling the shots as the film industry is now based in Hyderabad.
Later, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, YS Jaganmohan Reddy of the YSR Congress, attempted to bring the who’s who of the film industry to their knees by slashing ticket prices and introducing an online ticket booking system. Now, the BJP is setting its eyes on the Telugu film world.
Incidentally, Vijaya Shanti, known as Telangana’s Amitabh Bachchan, returned to the BJP fold in the run-up to Shah’s Munugode rally. Along with her, another star, Jaya Sudha, also joined the party in Shah's presence.
Munugode: A Test for All Parties
The shift of the Congress legislator from Munugode in Nalgonda district, Komatireddy Rajagopal Reddy, to the BJP has charged the political atmosphere a year ahead of the state elections. His resignation will necessitate a bypoll in Munugode.
The exit of Rajagopal Reddy, a traditional Congress leader who served as a Lok Sabha member and a member of the state's legislative council, has jolted the Congress at a time when it was trying to revive itself under the leadership of A Revanth Reddy.
For the TRS, winning the bypoll would help save face after its poor show in the bypolls in Dubbak and Huzurabad, and the elections to the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC). Winning Munugode would strengthen the TRS' bid to win a third term in power.
The BJP, which made some inroads in northern Telangana during the Lok Sabha elections, is also looking at the Munugode bypoll as a way to expand into the southern parts of the state.
Its ambitions in the state won't be realised unless it establishes itself in the southern districts which account for nearly half the seats in the 119-member state assembly.
Rajagopal Reddy formally joined the saffron party at a massive rally in his home constituency on 21 August in Shah's presence.
Bandi Sanjay Kumar claimed that more leaders from the Congress and TRS will be joining the BJP in the near future.
So far, the Congress has been stronger in Telangana's southern districts such as Nalgonda, Mahabubnagar, Rangareddy, Medak, and Khammam, with the BJP being a nominal player.
Khammam and Nalgonda were under the sway of the Left parties earlier. But the Congress has maintained a strong base in these parts.
Komatireddy brothers – Rajagopal Reddy and his elder brother Venkata Reddy, also a sitting Lok Sabha MP from Bhongir – are considered the strongmen of Nalgonda district.
Venkata Reddy has rebelled against the anointment of Revanth Reddy, a TDP “turncoat”, as the Pradesh Congress Committee president by overlooking party loyalists and seniors like himself. Therefore, the entry of Rajagopal Reddy is a shot in the arm for the party.
TRS chief K Chandrasekhar Rao encouraged massive defections from the Congress during his first stint to improve his party’s numbers in the lower house mainly in these two districts.
BJP's Mission Telangana
The BJP made inroads in north Telangana in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections by winning four Lok Sabha seats with a 20 percent vote share, and wresting Dubbak and Huzurabad assembly segments from the ruling TRS in the subsequent bypolls.
After its two-day high-profile national executive meet in Hyderabad this June, the BJP set its sights on south Telangana in its efforts to unseat K Chandrasekhar Rao or KCR, who has become a vocal challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The saffron party is attempting delicate social engineering by putting the numerically dominant OBCs at the forefront, apart from pushing an aggressive Hindutva agenda.
Besides, the party is also focusing on the resource-rich Reddy community which traditionally backed the Congress.
Soon after Andhra Pradesh’s bifurcation, former Congress minister DK Aruna, who comes from an influential Reddy family in Mahabubnagar district, was inducted into the BJP and subsequently made national vice-president of the party.
Recently, Konda Vishweshwar Reddy (also from the Mahabubnagar district), who runs a chain of educational institutes, switched to the saffron party. He had contested the Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket.
Former TRS minister Etela Rajendar, who rebelled against KCR and joined the BJP, has been tasked with admitting leaders from the TRS and the Congress in his capacity as the convener of the ‘Cherikala committee’, a panel constituted at the BJP national executive meeting exclusively to facilitate joining of leaders from other parties.
Buoyed by the victories in the Dubbak and Huzurabad bypolls, the BJP is tactically trying to force one by-election after the other in Telangana and showcase its growing strength in the run-up to the Assembly polls. The state BJP chief claims that a number of ruling party MLAs have been in `touch’ with him, hinting at more bypolls in the near future.
Litmus Test For Congress
The Munugode bypoll is crucial for the Congress as well. For a party claiming to have a pan-Telangana presence, it is essential to win the seat back, says Raka Sudhakar, a Hyderabad-based analyst.
But it is a moot question whether the Congress can succeed in retaining the seat, given its internal squabbles and low morale due to defections. The state Congress, under Revanth Reddy’s leadership, seems to have even mishandled the fallout of Rajagopal Reddy’s resignation. Alleging that he was slighted by Revanth, Venkata Reddy has tactically stayed away from the Congress’ process of finding a right candidate for the by-election. Speaking to The Quint, senior Congress legislator T Jeevan Reddy said that what happened in Huzurabad, where the Congress’ vote bank fell drastically, may not be repeated in Munugode.
Will Munugode Bypoll Shape KCR's Fate In 2023 Elections?
KCR’s party has already gone into the election mode by deputing senior minister G Jagadeeshwar Reddy to take charge of the bypoll.
“Congress is facing an existential crisis and is struggling hard to retain its status as the principal opposition. The BJP has no presence in Munugode. Therefore, our victory is a foregone conclusion,” claimed TRS senior leader V Prakash.
He even cited how his party has wrested the Huzurnagar assembly seat in the bypoll. The seat was earlier held by the then PCC President, N Uttamkumar Reddy. Huzurnagar, like Munugode, falls under the Nalgonda district.
So, will the Munugode bypoll decide the fate of KCR?
K Nageswar, who teaches at Osmania University in Hyderabad, ruled out such an assessment.
“After all, Munugode is till now held by the Congress. If either the Congress or the BJP wins, how can the people from a lone assembly segment reflect the mood of the people of the state as a whole and decide the fortunes of KCR in the coming state elections?” Nageswar asked.