Away from the scrutinising glare of most of the national media, which was riveted on the electoral verdict of Bihar, the results of a bypoll in Dubbaka Assembly constituency in Telangana unfolded like a last-over thriller of an IPL match.
The voters of the predominantly rural constituency, which lies between the VIP constituencies of Gajwel (represented by chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao) and Siddipet (represented by finance minister T. Harish Rao and nephew of CM Rao), and close to Sircilla, represented by IT and industries minister K.T. Rama Rao (son of CM Rao), opted for the BJP’s Madhavaneni Raghunandan Rao over TRS candidate Solipeta Sujatha, widow of Solipeta Ramalinga Reddy, whose death a few months ago necessitated the bypoll by a margin of 1,079 votes.
The 23 rounds of counting saw a see-saw battle, with the BJP leading in all but one of the first 12 rounds, the TRS pulling back the lead between rounds 13 and 19, and taking a slim lead, with the BJP bouncing back in the last four to bag 62,772 votes against the TRS, which bagged 61,302 votes. The Congress was a distant third with 21,819 votes.
Since its formation in 2001, the TRS has been a champion in winning byelections. It has built an enviable election machinery, not too unlike the BJP nationally, with a combination of perfect campaign strategy and messaging, phenomenal online media dominance, micro-management at booth level, an enthused cadre, a well-crafted narrative, peerless orators as star campaigners, backed by money power and misuse of official machinery, which adds up to its unbeatable track record, especially since it came to power in 2014.
It helps that while CM K. Chandrashekar Rao is the tallest leader in the state, there are no measurable rivals to take on him. The first setback the TRS suffered in a long time was in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, where it lost eight of the 17 seats it contested but blamed it on the Modi wave. After all, the pink party, which had successfully led a campaign for a separate statehood for Telangana, had swept the Assembly elections which they called for ahead of schedule in December 2018.
With the win in Dubbaka, BJP now has a second MLA in Raghunandan Rao, after Raja Singh, in the 119-member legislative Assembly, which reveals how powerfully the TRS is perched for the rest of its three years term in office.
Yet, the TRS is nervous, unusually and extremely nervous. Since N.T. Rama Rao made his political debut in the early 1980s founding the Telugu Desam, ending the Congress monopoly over power in the Telugu region, no party or leader has won a third consecutive term, which TRS would attempt in the next Assembly elections.
Surmounting history defying odds might not be too daunting for the TRS, which succeeded in the struggle for a separate Telangana where all others failed in the past, but the anti-incumbency is visibly taking a toll. In Nizamabad Lok Sabha constituency, K. Kavitha, CM Rao’s daughter and sitting MP lost to a debutant in 2014, a statement of personal anger of the voters against a single family with too many members in office.
Today, the TRS will rue that it precipitated the decline and uprooting of several parties in the state — YSRC, Telugu Desam, and finally the Congress, its last rival in the state. The 19-MLA Congress legislative party was split and two-thirds merged into the TRS, reducing it to a symbolic Opposition. TRS was elated it had achieved a no-Opposition polity but missed the looming danger ahead; nature abhors a vacuum and the BJP was willing to fill it, optimistic Telangana could be the second state in south after Karnataka where it could form a government.
Under a new aggressive party president, Bandi Sanjay Kumar, the Telangana BJP has been able to create a look of a potential challenger to TRS. They won Dubbaka under an excruciating set of challenges. There is a statewide shift of youth, a large number of them unemployed and angry, towards the saffron party. The twin narratives of development and Hindutva are fuelling a surcharged political atmosphere akin to the days of the struggle for statehood. With the pink party being pushed to the back-foot for the first time.
In coming months, anti-TRS forces — which had become despondent and dismayed — have an address to congregate — the BJP office. Political leaders, cadre and commoners are abuzz with excitement because the BJP is more than capable of responding to the usual arm-twisting tactics of the TRS, or even better them.
With the MIM being an ally of the TRS, the BJP has fodder aplenty to explain grievances nursed, real or imagined, and pin it on the doorstep of CM Chandrashekar Rao’s appeasement politics.
BJP has two MLAs now, but TRS knows its history — after all, with two MPs in Lok Sabha in 1984 — Dr A.K. Patel (Mehsana, Gujarat) and Chandupatla Janga Reddy (Hanamkonda, Telangana, the-then Andhra Pradesh) — could rise to win absolutely majority in Parliament within three decades. Three years might be sufficient for BJP to conquer a small state.