With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) invoking "Jinnah" and calling for "surgical strikes” on Hyderabad, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath calling for the city’s name to be changed, Union Home Minister Amit Shah calling for an end to “Nizam culture” and BJP president JP Nadda and top ministers being deployed in the campaign, it has become difficult to believe that it's just a civic election that's being fought in Hyderabad.
The question is – why has the BJP raised the stakes so high in an election to a civic body like the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC)?
There are two elements to this:
- BJP's battle for Hyderabad
- BJP's expansion in Telangana
Battle for Hyderabad
Capturing Hyderabad isn't just an electoral battle for the BJP, it's an ideological one.
For many in the Hindutva family, the very existence of Hyderabad is a matter of contestation. From ‘Hyderabad’, the BJP wants it renamed as Bhagyanagar – to its most iconic monument, the Charminar, is contested by Hindutva forces.
And in this worldview, there is a very clear adversary for Hindutva in Hyderabad – Asaduddin Owaisi's All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). Far from being a B-Team of the BJP, the AIMIM is a deeply reviled by Hindutva outfits and this is evident in the language used by BJP leaders against Owaisi during campaigns.
"A vote for Owaisi is a vote for Mohammad Ali Jinnah," BJP's 'youth face' Tejasvi Surya said at a public meeting in Hyderabad.
The party even linked AIMIM to Osama Bin Laden.
Now why is the AIMIM so reviled by Hindutva outfits?
Hindutva outfits see "Hyderabad" in terms of a civilisation – as an enclave of Muslim domination in the Deccan that survived the Maratha period as well as the British rule.
“It’s because people vote for Owaisi in Hyderabad that he is able to contest in Bihar. It’s important to defeat him here.”Tejasvi Surya, BJP MP
This domination was supposed to have been broken with the annexation of Hyderabad and that did happen for a few years. But it changed with the revival of the AIMIM in the late 1970s and its continued domination of the Old City's politics in the following four decades.
Now, with Majlis expanding into Maharashtra and Bihar, there is a drive in the Hindutva camp to crush it on its home turf.
Tejasvi Surya summed up this sentiment when he said, "It's because people vote for Owaisi in Hyderabad that he is able to contest in Bihar. It's important to defeat him here.”
Expansion in Telangana
The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) established its rule as the result of a social movement for a separate Telangana state. History has shown that its not easy to dislodge those who have captured power riding on social movements.
Trinamool Congress's capture of power in Bengal – riding on the Nandigram and Singur agitations – and the AAP's success in Delhi – following the Jan Lokpal movement – are two recent examples. However, the TRS embodies this even more directly as it has benefited from a bigger and older movement.
The BJP understands that the TRS can't be dislodged unless an ideological battle is waged against it, questioning the very idea of Telangana that it stands for.
The Idea of Telangana
Hindutva outfits see Telangana as the result of Hindus’ resistance to a Muslim ruler – the Nizam – and the need for revival of the “glory” of the “pre-Muslim” period.
But the TRS's idea of Telangana can be traced back to the 1952 protests against non-Mulkis, the 1969 agitation for a separate state and the formation of the Telangana Praja Samithi, and finally, the 2011 protests in which the TRS itself played a key role.
The TRS sees the history of Telangana not in Hindu vs Muslim terms, but as a product of Kakatiya, Qutbshahi and Asaf Jahi rule.
This is not surprising as the Velama caste that CM K Chandrashekar Rao belongs to were landed elites who held influence through most of these dynasties.
The TRS's narrative stands in opposition not just to the BJP's narrative but also that of the Left whose view of Telangana is shaped by the 1946 peasant uprising against the feudal elites during Nizam Rule.
The AIMIM's vision is linked to that of the TRS but with a strong thrust on protection of the interests of Muslims.
Throughout the campaign, the BJP has accused the TRS of being a proxy of the AIMIM, in effect labelling it as "pro-Muslim" and "anti-Hindu".
The idea is to win over the TRS's Telugu-speaking Hindu votes, while also restricting the Old City contests to a straight battle with the AIMIM.
Why GHMC Matters
Besides the symbolic importance of Hyderabad discussed above, the GHMC is critical to capture power in Telangana as well.
The GHMC includes as many as 24 Assembly constituencies, which is about one-fifth of the total number of constituencies in Telangana. The boundaries of the GHMC are spread across four Lok Sabha seats: seven Assembly segments (each from the Hyderabad and Secunderabad Lok Sabha seats), five segments from Malkajgiri, three from Chevella and one from Medak. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP led in seven out of 24 segments.
The BJP has traditionally been strong in the Secunderabad Lok Sabha constituency, having won it five times in the last three decades.
However, in the other seats, it had been historically dependent on its erstwhile ally, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP).
The decline of the TDP and the Congress in the GHMC area has opened up the space for the BJP.
To some extent, the TRS is to blame for this as well. Besides populist measures and KCR's popularity, the TRS has also maintained its power by destroying the Opposition. The TRS has gained from mass defections from the Congress.
Congress had won 19 seats in the 2018 Assembly polls, now only six MLAs remain. Some like A Revanth Reddy and Uttam Kumar Reddy were elected to Parliament but most of the others defected to the TRS.
The Opposition has been rendered so irrelevant that even the leader of Opposition in the Telangana Assembly is Akbaruddin Owaisi from TRS's informal ally AIMIM.
KCR is also paying the price for not taking on the BJP at the Centre. The party has helped the BJP pass several key legislations either by voting in favour or abstaining.
It may have been an error for KCR to assume that this neutrality on national matters may insulate him from the BJP's expansion. Clearly, that didn't happen. And now, the BJP has arrived at his doorstep.
The party won four seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, including the seat held by KCR's daughter, and now it threatens TRS's hold over the GHMC. The BJP’s rise is evident in its victory in the recent by-poll in Dubbak, where it was non-existent until a few years ago.
It is clear that the BJP would stop at nothing in its mission to expand, even if it means communalising a municipal campaign or deploying its topmost leaders in a local battle. The question is – whether the TRS would change its approach and become more combative towards the BJP.