For the better part of the last two decades, the state elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have been held about months before the general elections the following summer, allowing them to be seen as the semi-finals in the Indian Political League. Likewise, this November-December. With one change: Telangana gatecrashed the party after K Chandrasekhar Rao's decision to dissolve the assembly eight months ahead of schedule.
Over the past few weeks, the country has largely obsessed itself with the BJP vs Congress direct fight in the three cow-belt states. No surprise, given that these three states gave as many as 62 of a possible 65 Lok Sabha seats to the BJP the last time around.
But it is the battle for India's youngest state - Telangana- that could actually be a more accurate indicator of which way 2019 could skew.
It is a given that 2019 is not going to be a BJP vs Congress contest. Given the political muscle of the BJP, the entire opposition will have to come together, forming state-specific alliances if it wants to realistically challenge the ruling party's electoral machine and might.
Telangana is where opposition unity is being taken for a test drive with the Praja Kutami (People's Front) to see if the lure of power can hold disparate parties together.
And in Telangana, it is as disparate as you can get. The coming together of the Congress and Chandrababu Naidu's Telugu Desam Party - bitter political rivals since 1982 - is a pointer to the distance opposition parties will have to travel, abandoning past angst and difference in ideologies. The optics of Rahul Gandhi and Chandrababu Naidu sharing the stage is a signal that anti-Modism is the only "ism" that matters to the non-BJP parties.
But the task of forging opposition unity did not begin in Telangana. It started six months ago in Karnataka. The hung verdict in May 2018 meant that the Congress and HD Kumaraswamy's regional JD(S) were forced to do business together to keep out the BJP. It has not been a smooth ride so far but what the Congress has demonstrated through that alliance is that it is willing to play second fiddle to a smaller partner including by forgoing the post of Chief Minister, all in the interest of serving as the fulcrum of a united opposition ahead of the general election. In short, what the Congress is trying to prove: if you build it, they will come. Proven by the fact that Congress state leaders have been instructed by the High Command to shove their individual ambitions to the backburner for the sake of the party's image nationwide.
You could argue that fighting a regional chieftain like K Chandrasekhar Rao is different from fighting a national party like the BJP. Yes and No. The dynamics will be different - but the template is similar. What the opposition is attempting to do in Telangana is to defeat chemistry with math. In 2014, the combined charisma of Modi and KCR was unbearable. The opposition is counting on the sizzle having fatigued and of their combined votes making the difference. If this works in Hyderabad, the plan is to scale it up nationally using the same argument.
Which is why the narrative in Telangana is like a dress rehearsal for New Delhi. The Congress has attacked KCR, calling him a proxy of Modi, describing his style of governance as similar to that of the Prime Minister. "Modi and Chotta Modi" have a secret deal, the opposition pronounces at its rallies.
If the alliance comes to power in Telangana, it will thrust forward Naidu as the expected architect of an anti-BJP front. It will also mean many other parties who are uncomfortable working with Rahul Gandhi will be open to the idea. That despite the presence of a major Muslim leader like Asaduddin Owaisi, minorities are choosing the Congress.
Equally, if KCR returns, the opposition will be bludgeoned on unity, expectations and strategy, with reliance on the anti-incumbent vote standing exposed as an inadequate and negative approach. Already, a faction within the Congress is complaining that the 25 seats given to its allies - the TDP, the CPI and the Telangana Jana Samiti - is a blunder. Expect more of this if the results don't favour the Congress on December 11.
Also, Naidu will be pilloried as the man who cost the opposition the election. Already the visuals of his meetings in Hyderabad are causing consternation in the core Telangana districts of Karimnagar and Warangal, given his image as someone who tried to block the formation of Telangana with its carving out of the state of Andhra Pradesh in 2013-14.
So on December 11, do not look only at Bhopal, Jaipur and Raipur. The real story from a 2019 perspective may well be unfolding in Hyderabad.
(Uma Sudhir is Executive Editor, NDTV)
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