BJP Eyes Telangana in Fighting Hyderabad Municipal Polls Hard
Why is TRS nervous before an election it should most likely win?
It just might be the last ever elections to the Greater Hyderabad Municipal elections (GHMC), in which voters from the over 77 lakh residents will elect corporators to 150 wards. Afterwards, an electoral college of 150 corporators and 52 ex-officio members will elect a mayor for Hyderabad, reserved this time for a woman candidate; though a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is seeking the removal of ex-officio voting.
I said last elections to GHMC, because while the greater municipal corporation will remain, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders have almost religiously avoided using the name Hyderabad for the city, instead calling it by a name they would like to replace it with – Bhagyanagar.
The name change is an obvious euphemism, with the BJP-MIM face-off in the campaign reducing it a Hindus against Muslims narrative.
Bhagya (fortune, luck) is indeed backing the BJP, as they recognised a rare opportunity of using municipal elections in India’s fifth largest city as a portal to winning a second state in the hitherto largely elusive southern part of the country.
The saffron party set the narrative for the GHMC elections in a near-perfect conjunction with the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM). The ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), which has everything at stake, has seldom before seemed as vacuous. But the BJP has not really been strong in Telangana.
TRS Dominant State
In December 2018, the TRS, a party created by Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao (KCR), in 2001, with the sole purpose of getting Andhra Pradesh bifurcated and a separate state of Telangana created, retained power by winning 88 out of 119 seats. He had called for elections ahead of schedule.
The Congress, which fought the election in partnership with the Telugu Desam, emerged as the principal opposition with 19 seats, while the BJP reduced to a single MLA. The MIM, a friendly party to the ruling pink party, won seven seats.
Sudden Relevance of BJP
But Chief Minister KCR, delaying forming a government and swearing in a cabinet for over two months, spent all his energies in having Congress MLAs defected to treasury benches. Several Congress MLAs shifted, but within a few months, angry people of Telangana used the Lok Sabha elections of April 2019 to punish the TRS for making a mockery of the democracy.
Far from winning all 17 Lok Sabha seats from the state as he hoped, KCR lost eight. Worse, in a statement of personal resentment, voters defeated his daughter K. Kavitha in Nizamabad.
With four Parliamentary seats, a reduced to naught BJP felt like a force, replacing Congress as the principal opposition.
After wresting a recent by-election in Dubbaka from the TRS, a crucial constituency abutting CM KCR’s Gajwel and his nephew and finance minister T Harish Rao’s Siddipet, the BJP succeeded in creating a perception that it was the only challenger to TRS. KCR, ever a disruptive thinker, who likes to set the agenda, called for a snap poll on December 1 for the GHMC, barely giving enough time for rivals to decide on candidates.
But surprisingly, the BJP was more than a match. It is not fighting the GHMC elections with the confidence of a potential winner, but also using this campaign to set a template for the next Assembly elections.
With the Congress reduced to the fourth position, the TRS has lost its biggest strength of having anti-incumbency votes split between the BJP and the Congress.
The BJP lined up a stellar campaign, studded with Home Minister Amit Shah, party national president J.P. Nadda, Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath, Union Ministers Smriti Irani and Prakash Javdekar, former Maharashtra CM Devender Fadnavis, BJYM President Tejesvi Surya and spokeperson Sambit Patra, participating in the campaign.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in town for a few hours, but it was not related to the campaign – part of 3-city COVID vaccine review tour.
The TRS, clearly nervous and, on a rare occasion, on the backfoot, unleashed its biggest star KCR, who held a public meeting and had a few other interactions, in a departure from past practice, where the GHMC polls were left to be led by his son, TRS party’s working president and apparent heir, KT Rama Rao (KTR).
The TRS had a head start, too. Declaring Rs 10,000 relief to poor families affected by the recent floods, instead of using direct transfers, had cash handouts, clearly eyeing the GHMC polls ahead. It backfired, with allegations that some party leaders gave partial amounts or nothing to most people.
Unlike the Congress, the BJP was a match to most other Machiavellian tactics of Chief Minister KCR and TRS. The dominating and arm-twisting media, setting a shrill emotive monopoly over narrative, mobilising funds or cadre, shrewd tactics to play out a brilliant strategy, standing up to the misuse of official machinery, line up of great orators in campaigns and intimidating opponents, are no longer unique to TRS – the BJP outmatched the Kalvakuntlas.
Describing the election as a fight against the Jinnah-ideology of the Owaisi brothers, the BJP promised to rename Hyderabad as Bhagyanagar and conduct “surgical strikes” on the Old City to flush out Rohingya and Pakistani illegal immigrants. It accused the TRS of appeasing Muslims interests and denying Hindus their rights.
The debate on development ceded space in headlines and on prime time, gamed by all parties on social media, into a cacophony stirring hatred, suspicion and deep communal divide. KCR was forced to defend that he is a true Hindu.
Minister KTR, conducting several road shows and townhalls, hoping he can repeat his record-setting performance of 2016 GHMC polls, where the TRS won 99 out of 150 seats, was forced to digress from his development script to respond to the BJP.
KTR exudes confidence, but several political observers, especially after the KCR public meeting speech, only see nervousness. Most surveys also say there will be a strong BJP show. The BJP state leader, including state president Bandi Sanjay and Nizamabad MP D Arvind, say they will have a majority.
The GHMC Impact
After Hyderabad votes on December 1 and results to the paper ballot elections are announced on December 4, the TRS is most likely to become its mayor.
But the larger political battle has unnerved the pink party, which has never been under such an onslaught. Long used to putting opponents on back-foot, controlling the Telangana sentiment, they are finding it hard to stand against the shrill BJP template – on one hand of the Hindutva nationalism and on the other, exposing TRS for corruption, nepotism, family rule and failed promises.
The next couple of years could witness TRS winding down a bit like the UPA-2, marked with several by-elections forced on it by the BJP, which is already working to have ruling party legislators defect and resign.
The TRS, of course, has an option on course correction, but given that no Telugu leader has ever won three elections in a row, it is a steep climb against odds, against history, against the law of diminishing marginal utility and the toughest opponent it has ever faced.
KCR has done what he does when pushed to the corner – go on a counter-attack. He has vowed to revitalise the Federal Front against the Narendra Modi government’s anti-people policies. The battle lines are drawn and the war will be long. But who draws the first blood will be important. As everyone watches intensely across India, December 4 will give some answers.
Sriram Karri is the author of the bestselling novel, Autobiography of a Mad Nation, long-listed for the MAN Asian Literary prize, and The Spiritual Supermarket. He is the resident editor of Deccan Chronicle, based in Hyderabad. He tweets at t/oratorgreat
(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.