Decimated by the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (then Telangana Rashtra Samithi) in the 2018 Assembly elections, and subsequently weakened by defections and the Bharatiya Janata Party's growing presence, the Congress in Telangana – over the last five years or more – was slowly being pushed to third place, losing its principal opposition status in the nine-year-old state.
But taking a leaf out of its Karnataka playbook, the party dangled six guarantees before the voters at its massive 'Vijayabheri' rally in Hyderabad last week – focusing its efforts on women, farmers, youth, and senior citizens.
The mammoth crowd gathered at the rally notwithstanding, the Congress appeared to be in a position of strength – something the party hasn't been able to showcase for a while now.
Moreover, with scores of BRS leaders – from former MP Ponguleti Srinivas Reddy to senior leader Tummala Nageswara Rao – joining the Congress over the last few months, the grand old party appears poised to give a tough fight to the ruling party led by Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao.
Mood surveys, like the People Pulse report released in July, however, suggest that while there is an undeniable anti-incumbency in Telangana, the Congress is not in a position to upseat the BRS in the state Assembly.
So, what is the endgame? Let's unpack some of the equations.
Will the Anti-Incumbency Factor Work?
"The BRS has been in power since a separate Telangana state was formed in 2014 – and 10 years is a long enough time to develop a natural anti-incumbency," political analyst Amitabh Tiwari tells The Quint.
If there is anti-incumbency, the party that has the highest number of MLAs will suffer – and the BRS has 101 MLAs in the state Assembly of 119.
But a Karnataka scenario may not play out in Telangana, Tiwari points out. "There was a mahaul in Karnataka. Due to the anti-incumbency wave, the voters did not see any perceived difference between the government of the BJP and the Congress party. But that's not the case with KCR," he adds.
KCR has introduced several flagship schemes like the Rythu Bandhu, KCR Kits, Aasara Pensions, and Kalyana Lakshmi/Shaadi Mubarak, among others, for the voter group that the Congress is targeting.
Responding to Congress' six guarantees of Rythu Bharosa, Gruhajyoti, Indiramma Houses, Youth Development, and Cheyutha, state's Health Minister Harish Rao remarked that they were "unusual," "non-feasible," and a "duplication of existing schemes."
"A rupee being given has more value than a rupee being promised," Tiwari remarks. "Moreover, the Congress did not win Karnataka just by giving guarantees; that's only one factor. No government can come back without performing, and that's the major reason the ruling BJP was defeated."
Speaking to The Quint, anchor and political analyst Sumanth C Raman said that, unlike the Congress in Karnataka, the Congress in Telangana was never the ruling party in the state since its formation. "You cannot equate the two," he adds.
And as the BRS is credited with the formation of Telangana, it would be harder for any party to defeat it this time.
"In 2018 – at its peak – the BRS (then TRS) had only been in power for 4-5 years. Any party that is credited with getting Independence – or state formation, in this case – enjoys a certain leeway for a good number of years. That's what happened with the Indian National Congress from 1950 to 1989, it had a free run because it had got Independence for India," Tiwari explains.
Even so, there might be dissatisfaction with the party's MLAs at the grassroots level. And the MLAs themselves might be dissatisfied with the leadership – which is evident to an extent in the BRS' case.
"Most regional and family-controlled parties can go through a rough phase because of the transition of power within the family itself. There have been rumours that the KCR is setting the stage for his son KTR (KT Rama Rao). Though he has disputed these rumours in the past, this create tensions within the party's organisational structures as the old guard is always afraid of the new guard."Amitabh Tiwari
So, there will be some anti-incumbency votes – and the Congress' aim should be to consolidate them, experts opine.
Decoding the BRS-BJP Equation
Speaking to The Quint earlier, a senior Congress leader said that the party is catapulting itself to occupy the second spot. "Playing for silver still means targeting the gold," the leader had said.
Any split of the opposition vote would only favour the ruling party – and here, the opposition players are the BJP and the Congress. "Largely, if you see across states, we're moving towards a bipolar type of polls. The third party is largely getting squeezed out. It happened in Karnataka, with JD(S). It happened in West Bengal, with the Congress getting squeezed out," explains Tiwari.
But in Telangana, the BRS has time and again been accused of allying with the BJP on several matters in Parliament.
"KCR's ambivalent stance towards the BJP may direct the anti-BRS votes to the Congress rather than the BJP. And if the Congress is able to drive home the narrative that the BRS has a deal with the BJP, then the anticipated vote split may not happen," argues Raman.
Moreover, despite the BJP's rise in Telangana over the years, the party has been having leadership issues, argues Raman, in light of Karimnagar MP Bandi Sanjay Kumar being replaced as the state party chief by Union Minister Kishan Reddy.
"This has caused a dent in the BJP's image. So, when the BJP's image went down, the Congress' image naturally went up," he argues.
It's a Perception Battle
The fact that BRS and BJP leaders are joining the Congress ahead of the polls has taken the grand old party one step closer to winning the perception battle.
"By and large, when many leaders move from one party to another, they sense something on the ground. When its one or two, it could be because of ticket issues. But there's been a steady stream of people moving towards the Congress this time. That tells you that there's an upswing of support," contends Sumanth.
In June alone, at least 35 leaders from the BRS party – including ex-minister Jupally Krishna Rao – defected to the Congress.
Additionally, the national leaders' consistent focus on Telangana – from the Bharat Jodo Yatra to the Congress Working Committee meeting and the Vijayabheri rally – appears to be shifting the perception in favour of the party.
The crowds that have been gathering at Congress padayatras are rallies may be a testament to this. "Crowd management is something that parties undertake, some of the leaders would have been given targets to bring in a certain number of people to an event," explains Tiwari.
"But an election is a game of mahaul. At least, 12 to 15 percent of voters decide on the day of voting who they will vote for. Another 12 to 15 decide three days before the voting after the campaign ends, as per voter surveys. This means that nearly 25 percent of voters could be the kingmakers of an election. So, these spectacles are meant for them. These late deciders could be impacted by the mahaul," he adds.