‘A small step for Hyderabad. A giant leap for Telangana.’
This is how a veteran political observer summed up the BJP’s campaign blitzkrieg in the just-held elections to the Hyderabad municipal corporation.
From Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath to Tejaswi Surya, Prakash Javadekar and Devendra Fadnavis, several big guns of the saffron party addressed rallies, rolling out heavy artillery fire and invoking provocative slogans targeting the minorities. The high-decibel campaign attracted huge national attention, not for the immediate fight for the control of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) but for the larger goal that the BJP has set for itself to capture power in Telangana in the 2023 assembly elections.
A closer look at the campaign issues highlighted by the BJP reveals its game plan to achieve the larger objective of occupying the political vacuum created by the near-decimation of the Congress and eventually unseat the family-controlled ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in the state election, nearly three years away.
In a way, the election for the urban civic body provided a testing ground for its polarizing strategies, particularly in view of the significant chunk of Muslim population in India’s fourth largest city. The party got its national general secretary Bhupender Yadav, its match winner in Bihar, to camp in the city to oversee the election work.
From promising to rename the city as ‘Bhagyanagar’ and end the ‘Nizam-Nawab culture’ to targeting the Rohingya refugees and the alleged illegal foreign nationals, polarization was the name of the game.
The BJP leaders dubbed Asaduddin Owaisi, the president of All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and Hyderabad MP, as “modern-day Mohammad Ali Jinnah” and attacked the TRS for its secret pact with the AIMIM and ‘minority appeasement’.
“A vote for Owaisi is a vote against India and what the country stands for” was the oft-repeated slogan of the BJP leaders during the election rallies.
A constant effort was made to link Hyderabad and Owaisis to Razakars, a notorious private militia encouraged by the Nizam ruler to crush the masses and also to resist the integration of Hyderabad State into the Indian Union.
“Invoking the troubled past and rechristening the names of places to revive the past Hindu glory has been a time-tested strategy of the BJP. This was successfully implemented in Uttar Pradesh and it is being replicated here,” says political analyst Ramakrishna Sangem.
The BJP also wants to rename Hussain Sagar lake, which connects the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad, as ‘Vinayak Sagar’. This is where the Ganesha idols are immersed every year in a centralised procession, marking culmination of Vinayak Chaturthi festivities.
Both Tejasvi Surya and Adityanath spoke about rechristening the city as Bhagyanagar after a local deity. It is argued that the city, originally known as Bhagyanagar, was renamed as Hyderabad after Hadar, the son of Quli Qutb Shah, the fifth ruler of the Qutb Shahi dynasty.
State BJP president Bandi Sanjay, a fiery and provocative speaker, has threatened to conduct “surgical strikes to weed out anti-nationals” from the old city.
The BJP, which perceives Hyderabad as an assertion of Muslim identity and a citadel of Owaisi family, is looking for an opportunity to end the monopoly of AIMIM over the old city. Apart from representing Hyderabad in the Lok Sabha since 1980s, the AIMIM has seven MLAs in the 119-member Telangana assembly, all from the old city, and 44 wards in the 150-ward GHMC.
“The AIMIM has been expanding its footprint in other states. It recently won five seats in Bihar and is preparing to contest in West Bengal next. Our plan is to check its influence in its stronghold Hyderabad,” a senior BJP functionary told ‘The Federal’.
“To begin with, we have nothing much to lose in Hyderabad corporation since we have only four wards. But, if we can make inroads and win about 30 to 35 wards, it will have a cascading effect on the state politics and generate a momentum in our favour for the assembly polls,” he said.
The elections to GHMC, which covers 24 assembly segments and four Lok Sabha constituencies, provide an opportunity for BJP to break the ‘stranglehold of the two family-run parties (TRS and AIMIM) over the city’ and emerge as a formidable force.
“By scripting an aggressive Hindutva campaign in Hyderabad, the party wants to test the ‘North Indian model’ of polarisation as part of its mission to expand its footprint in the South,” a senior journalist and analyst Ramesh Kandula said.
The challenge from BJP and its constant focus on Muslim appeasement theme has forced the TRS, which had won 99 wards in the last elections, to announce that it has no alliance with the AIMIM for the GHMC polls.
Till a couple of months ago, the TRS and AIMIM would have fancied an unchallenged run at the ballot box. But, the BJP strategy has given this election bile and bite.
Dilli Boys versus Gully Boys
“Why are so many Dilli boys coming for Gully polls?” wonders the TRS working president and minister KT Rama Rao, referring to the hordes of national BJP leaders descending on the city.
“This is a fight between name-changers (BJP) and game changers (TRS government). All they (BJP) know is Hindu-Muslim, India-Pakistan. Why do they talk about Babar and Bin Laden here?” he says.
The BJP strategists, however, point out that if they are accused of playing the communal card, the TRS was playing the divisive insider vs outsider card in this local election.
In its eagerness to decimate the opposition Congress in the state, the TRS appears to have underestimated the BJP’s ability to emerge as a more formidable and fierce adversary, capable of mounting a strident electoral campaign.
While focusing on neutralising Congress, KCR, as the chief minister is popularly known, has apparently ignored the BJP threat, dismissing it as a one MLA party.
Since 2014, several Congress MLAs have switched over to the TRS camp. In fact, within a few weeks of the 2018 victory, 12 of the 19 Congress lawmakers jumped ship. As a result, the Congress is in a shambles now and is unlikely to increase its tally by much beyond the 2 seats it won in the 2016 GHMC polls.
It is this vacuum that the BJP has occupied effectively, emboldened by its recent win in the Dubbaka assembly by-election and the surprising gains it made in the 2019 LS polls by bagging four seats.
The saffron party’s vote share has almost doubled from 10.5 per cent in the 2014 elections to 19.4 per cent in 2019. This has emboldened the party to take on the TRS government more aggressively.