Opinion: The Remarkable Congress Turnaround In Telangana

The resurgence of the Congress in Telangana is the real story of the state elections, irrespective of who wins. The Congress, which was fighting for its existence in the state a few months ago, is now putting up a tough fight against the well-oiled election machine of K Chandrasekhar Rao. The BJP, which was once seen to be emerging as the main rival to KCR's Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS), has melted to the third position. Now the battle in Telangana is precariously poised and the Congress can cause an upset, if it can hold its nerves until the end.

Before the division, Andhra Pradesh was the Congress fortress that played a significant part when the party formed government at the Centre in 2004 and 2009. The shock death of Congress veteran YS Rajasekhara Reddy, the strongman of undivided Andhra Pradesh, and subsequent short-sighted politics pursued by the party led to its annihilation.

After Andhra Pradesh's division, the Congress was weakened to almost a non-entity with no will to fight, in both Andhra and Telangana. It was assumed that as it has happened in many other states, the Congress would not regain its past glory and in Telangana, particularly, would be replaced by the BJP. The BJP eclipsed the Congress in the 2019 parliamentary elections when it won four Lok Sabha seats with 19.65% votes. Though the Congress did secure 29.79% votes, it won one seat less than the BJP. The BJP fought the Hyderabad municipal election with a vengeance and it was a clear sign that the BJP leadership had decided to storm another old bastion of the Congress. All the top guns were unleashed in the local body elections and that was enough hint that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah had designed a long-term strategy.

South India has been the BJP's Achilles heel since its birth. Except for Karnataka, south India has always been beyond its reach. Despite hits stupendous success in parliamentary elections since 2004, it could never form a government in the south on its own, even in Karnataka. Telangana was emerging as the BJP's big hope, but now it is hopelessly adrift and for this spectacular fall, the party has no one to blame but itself. The removal of Bandi Sanjay as the state BJP president on the eve of the assembly elections, and KCR's daughter K Kavitha not being arrested by the Enforcement Directorate created the perception that KCR had forged a sort of pact with the BJP leadership. Modi's statement that KCR had approached him seeking a spot in the NDA coalition, added fuel to the fire. The Congress was smart enough to seize the chance to spread the message that the BJP cannot fight the BRS as both are hand-in-glove. It projected itself as the alternative. With the aggressive campaigning led by young Revanth Reddy, the Congress succeeded in encashing the anger against the KCR government.

Two other factors also worked for the party. Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra was the initial breakthrough moment for the Congress. The Yatra unexpectedly drew huge crowds. Rahul Gandhi was seen as a new leader, unafraid of Modi and the BJP's politics of divide-and-rule. He spared none, be it Modi or KCR. He unhesitatingly attacked KCR on the issue of corruption. He also hinted at his alleged underhand dealings with the BJP. Muslims found some solace in Rahul Gandhi's anti-BJP and anti-RSS utterances. Asaduddin Owaisi, until then seen as the articulator of Muslims' anguish and pain, was also not spared by the Congress. It has always been the buzz in elections that Owaisi's politics helps the BJP by polarising Hindu voters. Owaisi has been accused of acting at the instance of the BJP. With doubts lingering in the minds of the Muslim community, Rahul Gandhi's Yatra came as a blessing in disguise. The Muslims realised that the Congress has an inclination to course correct and is the only party that can fight the BJP nationally despite the bravado of regional political outfits. In the Telangana election, Muslim support to the Congress is the biggest talking point, which has rattled both Owaisi and KCR. Muslims comprise 12.75% of the population.

The unprecedented victory of the Congress in Karnataka has also impacted Telangana voters. The margin of victory in Karnataka has given a psychological boost to the morale of voters and party cadre that the Congress has the potential to stall the KCR juggernaut. It is generally believed that if the Congress loses a state to a regional party, then it loses its will to stand on its feet. The resurgence of the Congress in Karnataka broke that electoral myth. People started believing that if the Congress can decimate a behemoth like the BJP in the neighbouring state, then a repeat in Telangana is in the realm of possibility. It is no coincidence that Rahul's Yatra was a huge attraction among the people in both the states.

The appointment of Revanth Reddy as the Congress chief in the state was another step in the right direction. He is not only young, but unlike the older Congress leadership in the state, is willing to catch the bull by the horns. His frontal attack on KCR on each and every issue brought the Congress to the centre of opposition politics. Owaisi's party was in alliance with the BRS and the BJP was seen as soft-pedalling. Earlier, Bandi Sanjay's offensive on the KCR government kept the BJP in the pole position in the opposition in Telangana, but it lost the initiative with rumours of a tacit understanding between the two.

Anger had been brewing in Telangana for some time. The KCR government has long been seen as an inaccessible government. KCR discontinued the tradition of open daily meetings with the common people. He was accused of running the government from his farmhouse. It was a matter of public knowledge that under his regime, his family's fortunes have allegedly grown monstrously. The leader, who had promised a Dalit chief minister before he took the job, was accused of consolidating power within his own family. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), which was a product of a movement, metamorphosed into a private limited company and arrogance became the defining creed. With arrogance grew his ambition. He changed the name of the party from TRS to BRS.

KCR never hid his ambition to become prime minister like HD Deve Gowda. There was a strong whisper in the power corridors that KCR helped Akhilesh Yadav and Arvind Kejriwal financially in their election battles. The idea to create a Third Front was his brainchild. He was seen as sabotaging the efforts to forge a united front nationally.

In my opinion, KCR's biggest mistake was renaming his party. TRS, over time, became synonymous with Telangana sub-nationalism, the symbol of Telangana pride. It was the crusader fighting for the regional aspirations of the local people. With the creation of the Telangana state in 2014, the TRS emerged as the symbol of Telangana honour. When it became the BRS, the party was seen to abandon Telangana to fulfil his larger ambition. With the BRS, KCR's party forfeited its claim to solely represent Telangana, or be the sole upholder of the great tradition and culture of Telangana. With the BRS, it cut its umbilical cord with the soul of Telangana. With BRS, it lost its identity it turned into any other party fighting for power.

No doubt, 10 years is a long time in politics for the anti-incumbency to set in against any government. There is no denying the fact, however, that its people welfare schemes were appreciated, especially initiatives like the Rythu Bandhu scheme for farmers. But, with the severing of that special bond with Telangana, metaphorically, the people are no longer willing to give the BRS the benefit of doubt. The disappointment has turned into despair and the clamour for change can be sensed on the streets of Telangana. What remains to be seen is if, despite the disenchantment, people want to experiment with the Congress. Whether it wins or not, Congress's resurgence in Telangana will mark a turning point, that is certain.

(Ashutosh is author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and Editor, satyahindi.com.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.