The latest setback in the Huzurabad bypolls may compel Telangana Rastra Samithi (TRS) chief and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao to take a fresh look at his party’s stand on the BJP.
KCR’s party lost the Huzurabad seat to rebel health minister Etela Rajendar in the October 30th by-election, leaving the ruling camp distressed. The BJP had also wrested the seat from the TRS in the Dubbak bypolls held in November 2020. That apart, within a month, the saffron party made considerable inroads into the state by winning 48 of the 150 divisions in the elections for Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC), a TRS stronghold.
The BJP’s win in Dubbak and Huzurabad has emboldened the party to push for more bypolls, a la ‘KCR-style’, in the run up to the state assembly elections in 2023. By forcing more bypolls, the BJP not only plans to pay KCR back in the same coin, but also prepare its own cadres for the Assembly elections.
‘Forced bypolls’: A taste of KCR’s own medicine
It is to be noted that during the Telangana statehood movement, KCR had forced by-polls multiple times by asking his party’s legislators to quit their posts in a bid to keep the embers of Telangana burning. In 1999, peeved on being denied a ministerial berth in the Chandrababu Naidu cabinet, KCR, who got elected from the Siddhipet constituency in undivided Andhra Pradesh the same year, had quit his post. He had forced a by-election in his native constituency in September 2001, the year he floated his party on the matter of a separate statehood.
In 2006, the TRS chief had again forced by-polls in 26 assembly and five Lok Sabha seats by asking his party’s members to resign from their elected posts in a bid to exert pressure on the UPA-I government to fulfil its election promise to carve out a separate state of Telangana. The same year, Rao, who was then the Union Minister for Labour in the Manmohan Singh government, pulled out of the UPA, resenting the alleged laxity by the government in meeting his demand and quit his Karimnagar Parliament seat along with the other members of his party. Rao had aligned with the Congress in the 2004 elections on the condition that the Congress-led government at the Centre would accord statehood to Telangana.
The TRS chief had registered a landslide victory with a margin of 1.72 lakh on the strength of regional sentiment in the by-elections for his Karimnagar Lok Sabha seat in 2006.
However, KCR’s party later allied with the Chandrababu Naidu-led Grand Alliance and suffered a setback in 2009 elections. The party in that election could secure only 10 out of 50 assembly seats and two Parliament seats. The TRS then has the onus of testing the validity of the statehood demand in the people’s court since it asked its MLAs and MPs to quit their posts en masse leading to another round of by-elections in 2010.
More bypolls in the offing?
Political analyst Raka Sudhakar told The Federal that least two more Assembly segments –Vemulavada, held by Chennamaneni Ramesh of the TRS and Munugod, represented by Komatireddy Rajagopal Reddy of the Congress – may go to by-polls in the near future.
The Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) revoked Indian citizenship for Ramesh on the grounds that he held citizenship of Germany and didn’t fulfil the norms while obtaining Indian citizenship. A bypoll is imminent if the court during the hearing of the case upholds the order of the home ministry. On the other hand, Reddy, a Congress MLA, who also runs an agency involved in the construction of roads and irrigation dams, on multiple occasions expressed his wish to switch to the BJP last year. Sources in the BJP say his admission in the party will be cleared once he is ready to quit his post and contest in the bypolls. Analysts say Munugod may also go the Huzurabad way once Reddy announces the shift.
Buoyed by Etela’s win in Huzurabad, the BJP is expected to build perception management through a series of by-polls surrounding the omissions and commissions of the KCR regime in the last seven years.
The saffron party reportedly plans to build an anti-government mood among the public and sustain the heat till the state elections, the same way KCR kept the embers of the statehood movement burning. To achieve the same, troll armies with purported affiliation to the BJP have been demanding TRS MLA Guvvala Bala Raju of Achampet SC reserved constituency to resign from his post and pave the way for by-polls in the seat. In the run up to the Huzurabad bypolls, Bala Raju had vowed to quit as MLA if his party failed to win the seat.
Though the BJP is at his doorstep, waiting to storm into his home turf since the Parliament elections, the TRS chief still seems to be soft on the rise of right wing politics. His critics accuse him of unwittingly helping the saffron party emerge as a principal challenger to his authority with his hawkish postures to finish the Congress on the one side and being soft to the BJP on the other.
Rao’s attempts to wipe out the Grand Old Party by engineering defections have inadvertently made the BJP gain the Opposition’s space.
Experiences may hopefully teach the TRS the bitter lessons that it is not so easy to handle the BJP under Modi-Shah leadership as is the case with the Congress, faced with leadership crisis at the top and group rivalries eating into its vitals down the line.
Blowing hot and cold
Rao is now seen adopting the dual policy with respect to the BJP. His party is allegedly seen as a friend in need for the BJP-led NDA government in the Parliament during the passage of crucial bills. As the BJP suffers a number crunch in the upper house, the TRS with seven members in its basket has backed the bills relating to the amendment of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, GST, demonetization during NDA-I.
That apart, KCR’s party, allegedly compromising on the federal spirit, has even supported the RTI Amendment Bill and Inter-State River Water (Disputes) Bills.
At the same time, his party is seen adopting tough postures with the BJP’s state leadership. A senior TRS leader requesting anonymity said it is unlikely that KCR will recalibrate his strategy with respect to the BJP.
“Our leader still considers the Congress as the main enemy as it has got the potential to be a challenger for the KCR regime by virtue of its pan-Telangana presence with cadre and votes. But the rise of BJP is limited to only certain pockets and it is temporary in nature. This is how KCR views the BJP’s growth,” the leader said.
Sources say KCR has been consistently avoiding confrontation with the NDA government as part of the endeavour to rebuild the residuary state with the Centre’s cooperation.
“We have received ₹42,000 crore from the Centre in the last seven years of our rule and we should get more funds from the Centre and confrontation with the Centre would only lead us nowhere. Besides, the state is also due to receive ₹450 crore under Backward regions Grants Fund Programme,” Rao said at a press conference on November 7.
On the other hand, to protect his home turf, KCR’s party is engaged in a street fights with the BJP, earning the reputation from the Congress— ‘Delhi lo dosthi, galli lo kusthi’ – roughly translated as friends in Delhi, competitors in state.
Even though Rao avoided meeting the peasant leaders leading protests against farm laws in Delhi, his party in Telangana led protests against the NDA government for allowing the “draconian” farm bills to become a statute and backed the opposition-sponsored bandh.
“KCR’s episodal fights with absolute lack of credibility only benefits the BJP,” K Nageswar, professor in Mass Communication and Journalism, Osmania University, told The Federal.
Is BJP a solid contender?
Regardless of KCR’s efforts to belittle the electoral gains of the BJP, the saffron party leaders contend that the party has got the full potential to be a credible opposition to challenge him in the next election.
Nannuri Venugopal Reddy, BJP spokesman, asserted that the BJP alone has got the mettle to defeat the TRS right from the last Parliament elections to the latest being Huzurabad unlike the Congress. It’s a direct reference to the Congress’ loss of its Narayankhed, Huzurnagar and Palair seats. The Grand Old Party’s decline began in the 2014 elections even though it delivered the statehood to Telangana and continued to cede its opposition space to the BJP.
Amid criticism that that the BJP’s strategy to use central leaders to woo voters in the absence of strong local leadership is not working, the saffron party is now trying to groom home-grown leaders with mass appeal to counter KCR.
After the Modi-Shah duo took over the reins of the saffron party, they experimented with the Young Turks. Consequently, Bandi Sanjay Kumar, BJP’s Lok Sabha member from Karimnagar, was elevated as the party’s state president and G Kishan Reddy, Secunderabad MP, was given a cabinet berth with full independent charge in the NDA government at present. Kishan Reddy got the ministerial elevation after A Revanth Reddy became the president of the Telgangana Congress as part of the BJP’s plans to woo Reddys, a dominant caste in Telangana, away from the Congress fold.
Etela Rajendar rebelling against the TRS patriarch and joining the BJP fulfilled the saffron party’s plans to have a popular leader with the flavour of Telangana statehood movement as head of the state party unit.
“Popularity-wise and stature-wise, Etela stands only next to KCR in the state. As a leader from OBCs who comprise more than 50 per cent of the state’s population, Rajendar with his down-to-earth approach has all the potential to beat KCR and surpass his son KT Rama Rao in terms of mass appeal and leadership qualities in the long term beyond 2023. The scion of the Kalvakuntla family KTR, sooner or later, has to invariably take over the mantle from his aging father KCR, now aged 67. Etela, thus, will fill the bill with a mission to take on the TRS”, a senior BJP leader told The Federal.
KCR, on his part, appears to have been emulating the Naidu’s model of politics regarding the BJP which he adopted while in power in Andhra Pradesh. Naidu has succeeded in his mission to stunt the BJP’s growth in his state by embracing its national leadership. That such a policy has failed to work in Telangana is evident from the recent bypolls, Raka said.
Sailing with the tide
Chandrasekhar Rao, like any regional satrap, is known for fluidity in terms of ideologies which one may define as “pragmatism”. When the statehood movement under his stewardship was at its peak, KCR shared power with the UPA-I as a Union minister. He even promised to merge his party with the Congress on the condition of delivering statehood to Telangana. But he took a U-turn later and fought the Congress and rode to power in the first election Telangana faced in 2014 after becoming a separate state.
He has earned the reputation as an ally from outside the NDA after change of power at the Centre. Expecting a fractured verdict in national politics in the 2019 general elections, KCR raised the bogey of the rights of the states, forging the Third Front as an alternative to the ruling NDA and the Congress. When his calculations on the results went awry with the Modi-led BJP registering a landslide victory, KCR put his Federal Front on the back burner and began to cosy up with the NDA.
During the GHMC elections too, Rao said he would convene a conclave of opposition parties against farm laws enacted by the NDA government. After the elections he remained mum on the so-called conclave.
This vacillating approach dented his credibility and has even blunted his party to check the tide of the BJP in his home turf, Raka Sudhakar summed up.