Game on in Telangana: Four parties and one election
DECCAN CHRONICLE | Sriram Karri
Hyderabad: Clusters of key senior leaders in each of the four mainstream political parties of Telangana — about 150 days ahead of the next state Assembly elections — are looking like a huddle of a sports team before a major championship game.
Being less than perfectly prepared, full of nerves, exuding outward confidence and putting out standard moves may all be part of the standard procedure, yet the constant game of calculation, anticipation, and planning in their minds show up as awkward creases and lines on their brows.
All of them are facing some level of dissent within, a political derecho, and while each party knows that some or many of their leaders will jump ship as an inevitability, they are deeply worried about the timing and managing the impact.
The intensity of the competitiveness in setting narratives and playing mind games can be perfectly illustrated by juxtaposing the Congress and the BRS.
On a day when the Congress sought to demonstrate to the Telangana electorate that two senior and influential leaders of the ruling BRS, Ponguleti Srinivas Reddy and Jupally Krishna Rao, were joining it in New Delhi — accompanied by their entourage of key followers to meet Rahul Gandhi — Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao rode into Maharashtra with a jaw-dropping convoy of 600-plus cars.
The trundling brigade caused enough dust to raise curiosity, if not tempers, in Mumbai, with Sharad Pawar and MVA leaders castigating Rao for his "misadventure."
But the hidden fact was the BRS tried its best to lure big leaders from either the Congress or the BJP, but none of the negotiations could reach fruition by D-day; thus began the charge of the pink light brigade of 600; all key leaders following their leaders, their motto – ‘theirs is not to reason why’, totally intact.
The BRS continues to be confident of its victory, but the slide down of both narrative and fortune is undeniable. If it had counted on a near-vertical split of the anti-incumbency (and of that, there is troublingly plenty) between the Congress and the BJP, it no longer looks like it.
The BJP has disappointed all its followers and slipped dramatically in the reckoning and relevance in Telangana state, much like the bank balance of a middle-class family in the second week of a month. From being in pole position and rising — with black swan wins in Nizamabad and Karimnagar Lok Sabha polls to byelections in Dubbak and Huzurabad to the GHMC polls — the saffron party has fizzled out during the interregnum between Munugode and Karnataka.
The BJP fought internally, with never before seen displays of dissent — leaders were summoned to Delhi and rumours of change or promotion or demotion occupied media space — thereby, slipping into public reckoning.
Despite projections, optics and protestations to the contrary by both the BJP and BRS, the Congress could silently establish a public belief that the "BJP-BRS bhai, bhai" was real. "Else, why no action against MLC K. Kavitha in the Delhi liquor scam?", they ask, again and again.
The BRS is also facing a strange problem of plenty (of candidates). Winning Congress leaders who defected, as well as their original losing candidate, besides others, are duelling on social media and in public. Across the state, jostling for B-forms is becoming intense, nearing the limits of "manageability".
But the real problem is the public mood. There is an uncanny demographic divide; while the BRS has over 70 per cent approval among seniors (above the age of 58), it has a conversely low score among youth and middle-aged sections (below 25 and 35 per cent, respectively), as per median scores of several surveys conducted by parties and third-party agencies from May to mid-June.
The election’s fate depends on whether the Congress can win over the aged or if the BRS can lure the younger voters more effectively, and extensively. The manifesto and key promises will hold a good level of impact and set the tone in the coming weeks. The BRS, however, believes that Chandrashekar Rao will make history and score an unprecedented hat-trick in Telugu politics.
A resurgent Congress
The Congress, in clear ascendency, believes that with its Karnataka win, it has not only succeeded in flipping the BJP challenge and becoming the clear challenger, but is also closing in on the ruling BRS (approximately between 38 per cent overall vote share to 32), hoping to win over the aged voters from the pink party with its "five key promises" formula.
The Congress buoyancy on the ground is coming, however, not from leaders but change in support from Dalits, the Reddy community and Muslims, who have gravitated. It is yet to find a dominant voice in the OBC cluster, which makes its rise strong but not yet clinching scale.
Money, (alcohol and biryani), often overrated to the point of becoming a cliché, will not only ensure a high voter turnout, but will, in a strong mood election, or a tight contest, perhaps be a minimum factor, but not decisive. The idea of a corrupt-yet-conscientious voter is irrelevant when all three parties will spend, except in urban areas, where no money leads to moderate voting.
In the next few weeks, there might be a beeline of another set of leaders from the BJP to the Congress, unless the state BJP can convince the central leadership for disruptive fireworks. It will push the election into dead heat mode, and all key predictions can be defenestrated by the uber-dynamic change.
AIMIM, the kingmaker
A resurgent Congress, a dwindling and tottering BJP and a nervous BRS still don’t make the Telangana story complete. It is the mysterious AIMIM, led by the crafty lawyer and strategist Asaduddin Owaisi, which will prove to be the X-factor.
If the BJP comes any further closer to the BRS, he would find it difficult to remain "friendly" with the Kalvakuntlas, but as the crafty bowler has already hinted in various public speeches — with the same craft as a Shane Warne flipper or a Muralitharan ‘doosra’ — none should take the Muslim vote for granted. Leaving results aside, the number of seats ‘barrister saab’ decides to contest will itself send tremors across Telangana state. If he reads the changing public mood ahead of others and makes a shift, it could be the decisive push the Congress would pray for and dream of before polling day.
The final lap of five months has only one factor of certainty — all parties are hopeful yet nervous, and even for an effervescent time fractal, the voter is the king and queen.