Telangana Chief Minister-Designate Anumula Revanth Reddy at Gandhi Bhavan in Hyderabad, December 3, 2023 (Photo: AFP)
WHEN YOU LOSE to someone you once refused to acknowledge, that kind of loss has knuckles. Elections in the peninsular states have traditionally revolved around local personalities, and in Telangana, K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR), a hero born in the fire of revolution, has been the only personality in question since the state was formed in 2014. Up until now. The two-time chief minister, who had moulded himself into almost a geological feature of the state, hard as a rock, has been unseated by a resurgent Congress led by Anumula Revanth Reddy, a former Telugu Desam Party (TDP) functionary whom Rao’s son and outgoing minister KT Rama Rao (KTR) once gratuitously refused to recognise. In 2015, Reddy, then TDP’s floor leader in the Telangana Assembly, had been caught bribing a nominated MLA to vote in favour of his party’s MLC candidate. Arrested by the Anti Corruption Bureau and jailed, Reddy returned to politics with a vengeance, joining Congress with the sole mission of wiping out KCR and his family from Telangana politics. By relentlessly targeting them and courting arrest and endless controversy, Reddy made sure they acknowledged him, and in the process, styled himself as the sole challenger to the throne. Now, as he prepares to take oath as Congress’ first chief minister of Telangana, KCR and KTR, who is the working president of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS), are reportedly in disbelief. “Even on the day of counting, despite ground reports otherwise, they believed they were winning 75 seats,” says a senior source in the party. BRS ended up with just 39 seats, most of them from the Hyderabad region and Rangareddy district, with a 37.35 per cent vote share, while Congress won 64, securing a comfortable majority in a House of 119 with a 39.4 per cent vote share.
To be sure, the election was much more than a showdown between a self-styled sovereign and a formidable crusader. In fact, in Kamareddy, which witnessed a direct face-off between Reddy and KCR, the BJP candidate K Venkata Ramana Reddy emerged as the winner, trumping the giants. While KCR won the Gajwel seat—Reddy won from Kodangal—this was his first time tasting defeat in three decades. The only other time KCR had lost an election in his career was in 1983 when he had contested as an independent from Siddipet. On results day, as KCR faced the fact that the people of Telangana had had a critical change of heart, he retreated to his farmhouse in Erravalli, Gajwel. “Having known him for 23 years, I can say with some certainty that he won’t attend the Assembly or involve himself in state politics any longer. He may contest the Lok Sabha elections and look for a bigger role in national politics, leaving KTR and T Harish Rao [his nephew and the outgoing finance minister] to rebuild the party,” says Veeramalla Prakash Rao, one of the founding members of the party, back when it was called the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS). He cites anti-incumbency against MLAs, including ministers and KCR, as the number one reason for the party’s defeat. “It was not a positive vote for Congress but a vote against us. In the 12 seats that we fielded new faces, nine were elected,” he says. “This is a good opportunity for KTR to emerge as a leader in his own right and build the organisational structure. Right now, there is no feedback loop and that is why the party failed.”
Arrested by the anti corruption bureau and jailed, Reddy returned to politics with a vengeance, joining Congress with the sole mission of wiping out KCR and his family from Telangana politics. By relentlessly targeting them and courting arrest and endless controversy, Reddy made sure they acknowledged him
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KCR’s indifference towards fellow politicians and the electorate has not only cost him the Assembly election, it has also dealt a blow to his national ambitions. “Both [BJP and Congress] are more than worse, they are about centralising powers. They are not doing what they should do. I am very clear in my mind, we will not align with anybody, we will align with the masses of India,” he had declared in his trademark cautionary tone. Now, even the masses of his state are not aligned with him, but it may be a while before he sees this ‘betrayal’ in a new light. The biting irony of this Assembly election is that a national party has displaced a sub-nationalist outfit that took shape in the molten eruption of the struggle for separate statehood. The sentiments have since cooled and BRS is no longer able to claim to be the sole custodian of Telangana’s identity. “No single factor can ensure electoral dividends forever. By the law of diminishing returns, the issue of regional identity was subsumed by other factors like voter fatigue and allegations of corruption and misgovernance,” says K Nageshwar, a political analyst. According to him, KCR’s move to go national was a strategic blunder that diluted the core ideology of the party. With its identity, authority and authenticity in question, BRS was left a rebel without a cause. Its loss comes at a time when regional parties in power, including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Trinamool Congress, and the Janata Dal (United), are aggressively asserting their subnationalist identities in a bid to stay relevant. Others, who have failed to clearly articulate their ideologies or succession plans, are shrinking against the onward march of BJP. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is staring at an existential crisis even as the Samajwadi Party (SP), the main opposition party in Uttar Pradesh, has failed spectacularly in its attempt to expand outside its home state.
If KCR distances himself from BRS’ day-to-day functioning in Telangana, local leaders may well jump the fence to join a national party ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. “In the Lok Sabha elections next year, the fight will be between Congress and BJP in Telangana. Of the 17 seats, Congress is confident of winning 14,” claims Jupally Krishna Rao, a former BRS minister who won from Kollapur on a Congress ticket. “KCR is unsuited to the texture of national politics. You cannot remain in an echo chamber, operating under the assumption that you will always win.” According to Rao, the broken promises of job creation and universal education, which were at the heart of the struggle for statehood, have come back to haunt KCR. “Congress will attempt to deliver justice to the state by implementing the six poll guarantees,” he says.
Instead of addressing aspirations, however, Congress has struck a devil’s bargain once again, hitching its horse to transactional welfarism to trump KCR. Six months after the party clinched a decisive win in Karnataka, the implementation of its five guarantees is still mired in teething troubles, with expenditure exceeding the expected outlay, patchy coverage of the Gruha Lakshmi scheme, and issues in procuring rice for Anna Bhagya. In Telangana, where the outgoing BRS government had nearly maxed out its eligibility to borrow under fiscal responsibility rules, Congress will be even more hard-pressed to fund its welfare outlay for the next year—expected to be about ₹1.4 lakh crore, out of a state budget of ₹1.9 lakh crore.
Finances aside, Congress will have to iron out internal tensions after giving a newcomer, who only joined the party six years ago, the top post. Telangana’s 54-year-old chief minister-elect, while he has won the grudging admiration of several BJP and BRS leaders, is a polarising figure, drawing the ire of Congress old-timers like Komatireddy Raj Gopal Reddy who felt they had been passed over for a brash, autocratic man. “A party crasher has become the guest of honour,” says a senior leader who was in the reckoning for the chief minister’s post. “Revanth has sobered slightly since he was made the PCC chief in 2021, but he needs to take everyone along if our government is to complete its term. If we cannot offer stability, it is only a matter of time before KTR starts to fish in troubled waters.” Senior Congress leaders and chief ministerial hopefuls, including Uttam Kumar Reddy, Mallu Bhatti Vikramarka, Madhu Goud Yaskhi, Raj Gopal Reddy, and V Hanumantha Rao, will be Revanth Reddy’s fiercest critics in the months to come, watching his every move, waiting for him to slip up. Besides, Congress, which has come to power by consolidating Muslim, Backward Class (BC), and Dalit votes, cannot afford to disregard caste calculations in the cabinet.
KCR’s indifference towards fellow politicians and the electorate has not only cost him the assembly election, it has also dealt a blow to his national ambitions. Now, even the masses of his state are not aligned with him
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When Open had met Revanth Reddy at his Jubilee Hills home in Hyderabad ahead of the 2018 polls, he had pitched himself as KCR’s chosen adversary and the “Virat Kohli” of the state Congress. “The time for Test matches and One-Day cricket is past. What we need is a Virat Kohli who can hit every ball to the boundary,” he had said. While Reddy indeed captained the victorious team this time round, it wasn’t a particularly challenging match to begin with. In a way, KCR’s two terms in office, and Reddy’s impending stint as chief minister are accidents of history. In a new state that mostly builds itself, politics is incidental to development but the political caretakers walk away with the credit. In a state that is ripe for change, the next-best alternative to the incumbents is automatically handed the reins of power. BJP, which beat Congress in three states where the two national parties fought elections head-on, failed to keep its momentum going in Telangana after a series of bypoll and local body election victories over the past two years. Etela Rajender, KCR’s friend-turned-foe and one of BJP’s BC faces, attributes his loss—in Gajwel to KCR and in Huzurabad to Kaushik Reddy Padi—to the misuse of power by BRS, a perceived closeness between BJP and BRS, and the split of anti-KCR votes between Congress and BJP. BJP, which had won just one seat in the 2018 Assembly polls, has made significant gains, winning eight seats and nearly doubling its vote share from 7 per cent to 13.88 per cent. “We lost many tri-cornered contests such as Huzurabad, but the party has emerged stronger than ever. Going forward, BRS leaders will be only too happy to desert KCR and join BJP—after all, it was he who pioneered the art of defections in Telangana,” Rajender says. BJP has won big in Adilabad—where it bagged Sirpur, Adilabad, Nirmal, and Mudhole—and Nizamabad districts—where it clinched Armur and Nizamabad (urban)—possibly due to the influence of sitting BJP MPs. It remains to be seen if it can go from strength to strength and emerge the biggest winner in Telangana in 2024.